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Toddler in winter clothes

Winter weather advisory: Why car seats and bulky coats are an unsafe mix

It’s one of the most iconic scenes in one of the most iconic holiday movies. In “A Christmas Story,” Ralphie’s mom is bundling up his little brother, Randy, to go to school on a freezing, winter day. Though Randy is already wearing multiple layers, his mom is using all her strength to cram him into an enormous red wool snow suit. Once buttoned up, she tops it off with two hats and a scarf that leaves only a tiny crack for his eyes.

“I can’t put my arms down,” Randy screams while Ralphie comments that he looks like a tick about to pop.

I must have seen that movie a hundred times and I still laugh every time I see that scene. However, while it is hilarious, it raises an important safety issue when it comes to kids and winter clothing.

Winter coats affect how your child is secured in their car seat

When those winter winds blow, it’s a natural parental instinct to bundle your kids up before heading out. And while that’s fine if you’re going for a walk or sledding, if you’re driving anywhere it’s important to keep in mind that puffy winter coats affect how your child is secured in their car seat.

The extra padding of a bulky coat makes it impossible to get the harness properly snug. Even though it might feel like the harness is snug, in a crash the extra material will compress, making the harness too loose to be effective. Loose harness straps on a car seat drastically increase the chance that your child could be injured in the event of a collision.

What are parents supposed to do?

So, you’re probably thinking, what am I supposed to do? It’s winter in Wisconsin. The temperatures are hovering around the single digits and I don’t want my kid to freeze.

  • When getting ready to use a car seat in the winter, dress your child in thin, warm layers such as fleece or Thinsulate.
  • For rear-facing babies in an infant seat, once the child is secure in the seat, put a warm blanket over them (it’s best to keep this blanket in the house when not in use so it’s not sitting in a freezing car all day or night).
  • For older, rear-facing toddlers or for forward-facing children, once the child is snug in the harness you can put their coat on backward over their arms and shoulders to keep them warm until the car’s heater kicks in.

I understand the thought of having to go through this each time you get in and out of the car is daunting, especially as you’re trying to keep yourself warm as well. But it really is important, even if you’re just going for a quick jaunt around the neighborhood. Studies have shown that most crashes occur within 20 minutes or less from home and at relatively slow speeds. Motor vehicle crashes, wherever they occur, are the leading cause of death in children older than 1.

Car seat safety guidelines

Before you drive away, make sure to follow these car seat safety guidelines:

  • The chest clip should always be at armpit level.
  • The harness should fit snugly against the child without any twist. You shouldn’t be able to pinch any slack in the harness at the shoulder.
  • For rear-facing seats, the harness height should be at or below the top of the child’s shoulder.
  • For forward-facing seats, the harness height should be at or above the top of the child’s shoulder.

If you have any concerns about your car or booster seat installation, call (414) 607-5280 to schedule a free appointment at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Booster and Car Seat Clinic or review these additional safety resources.