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Experts say bulky coats negate car safety seats

The wrong way: This baby's bulky clothing could create added danger in the event of a crash because the extra layers could compress, leaving the car seat's straps loose and ineffective.

Fargo - Stacy Warg sometimes has to bite her tongue in parking lots.

She doesn't want to be perceived as a pushy, know-it-all mom, but too often she sees parents try to stuff their children into car seats while wearing puffy coats.

The Enderlin, N.D., mom had tried to do the same thing when her daughter, Chloe, was four or five months old. Warg had trouble buckling the infant carrier straps over the fluffy coat she'd dressed her daughter in, so she sent a photo to a friend.

That's when her friend told Warg about coat compression - the fact that when children are wearing too many layers of clothing in their car seat, the fabric would compress in a crash, leaving the straps too loose to protect the child.

"I know I can't know everything, but it completely shocked me that I had never heard of coat compression or the dangers of wearing too many layers in a car seat," Warg says. "If not for my friend, I would have just continued using the pram, potentially putting my daughter at risk if we were to get into an accident."

'Strap before you wrap'

Safety experts say they commonly see parents making this mistake in the winter.

"The biggest concern would be the big, thick coats and snowsuits," says Bobbi Paper, injury prevention coordinator with Sanford Children's and Safe Kids Fargo/Moorhead. "People want to keep their babies warm."

Some blankets and full-body suits feature a slit so it can be placed underneath the baby in the car seat. Parents often buy a newborn's snowsuit in a bigger size, so it will fit them the entire season. All this extra fabric will compress in a crash and the harness becomes loose.

"They're not as tight as you think they are," Paper says.

This is more of a concern with babies and toddlers than older kids, Paper says. Kids in booster seats wear a seat belt, which will tighten as much as needed in a crash. But when a harness is loose, there's more room for the baby's head, neck and spine to be jerked forward. When the strap is tight enough, you shouldn't be able to pinch the harness material.

Paper's advice is simple: "Strap before you wrap," she says. This can include adding blankets or car seat covers. Paper says fleece garments provide warmth without being too bulky.

When Chloe was a year old, Warg used blankets to carry her to and from the car when it was cold out. She uses automatic starter to keep the car warm. "I've also read about parents ... who buckle their child into the seat, then put the coat on sort of backwards to keep them warm from the front," she says.

Heather Darby, child passenger safety and occupant protection coordinator with the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety, advises dressing children under a year warmly - in pants, a sweater, shoes and hat - and then adding blankets over the buckled straps. She also advises bringing along a jacket.

"Car seats are made to be used with the harness as close to baby, so they don't slip out," Darby says.

Looking backwards

Darby says the other major concern she has regarding car seat use is parents turning their children forward-facing too soon. Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics revised its recommendations, saying children should stay rear-facing until age 2.

Darby says some parents worry that in this position, a toddler's legs, crammed against the seat back, would break in a crash. She says this has not been documented in Minnesota, and adds that a broken leg is a far better scenario than an injured spine.

The other concern Darby has is parents putting their children in a seat belt only too soon.

According to a recent news release from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, of the 30 children ages 0-7 killed and 4,021 injured in Minnesota crashes from 2006 to 2010, 47 percent were not properly secured.

The new rear-facing recommendation was another issue Warg faced. She had turned her daughter front-facing when she met the minimum requirement of 1 year and 20 pounds. When she heard the new recommendation, she did some research.

"What I found scared me," Warg says. "The phrase 'internal decapitation' will never leave my mind."

She turned her daughter's seat back around, and Chloe, now 2½, is still rear-facing.

"She could care less about facing backwards. It is a minor inconvenience to try and get her in the seat now that she's getting so tall, but she meets all the requirements in the owner's manual for her seat so we will continue to rear face her for as long as possible," Warg says.


Safer seat suggestions

- To secure the car seat into the vehicle, use a seat belt or the vehicle's LATCH system, not both.

- Read the owner's manual for both your car seat and your vehicle.

- Regularly check if your seat has been recalled. One website to visit is

- Keep your child rear-facing until at least age 2, or the upper weight limits of the seat.

- Though booster seats are often rated for 30-pound children, safety recommendations suggest waiting until the child is at minimum 4 years old and 40 pounds before using a booster and belt.

- Children should not use a seat belt alone until they are at least 4 feet 9 inches tall. They should always ride in the rear seat until age 13.

Sources: Bobbi Paper and Heather Darby