Center Car Seat Installation With LATCH

Baby car seat
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One of the most frequent questions parents have is how to properly place their baby in a car seat to ensure their safety. Improperly fitted car seats, incorrectly positioning of the car seat, and failure to securely restrain the car seat (and the child in it) are hazards parents can avoid by learning about car seat safety.

Almost all vehicles manufactured after September 1, 2002, are required to have the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) restraint system installed.

With the LATCH system present in most cars, parents often assume they can install a car seat in the center using the lower anchors of the LATCH system—but this isn't always the case. While there will always be a tether anchor for the center seat in the LATCH system, there may not be lower anchors for the center seat.

Here's how to find out if the LATCH system will work in your car—and what to do if it won't.

Choosing a Car Seat Placement

By building the lower anchors for car seats into the vehicle, the goal of LATCH restraints is to make positioning a child safely in a car seat easier for parents.

However, the system can be a little confusing, as parents are often told that the center of the back seat is the safest place to position a car seat, but the LATCH straps can be placed in the side seats.

The safest car seat position will depend on your specific vehicle, the car seat you're using, and your family's needs.

You might want to install your child's car seat in the center if:

  1. A rear-facing seat in the center usually allows both front seats to be moved back sufficiently, while a rear-facing car seat on the side can push the front seat up more than an adult driver or passenger might prefer.
  2. You need one child and two adults to fit in the back seat, in which case it is best to have the child in the center. Sitting on the sides gives the adults more room rather than trying to squeeze them into a narrow center.

In terms of safety, research indicates that the center position can be slightly safer than the side in certain situations. For example, in the event of a collision, being in the center reduces the likelihood of experiencing a direct impact.

The safety difference is very small: riding in the center lowers the risk of injury to a child in a car seat from about 2% to about 1.5%.

You might want to position your child's car seat on the side if:

  1. You have a car seat with a load leg. This feature often won't work in many center seats because the floor is too elevated to accommodate the load leg. However, the safety benefit of the load leg far outweighs the small added risk of riding on the side.
  2. You have a car seat with rigid LATCH. This feature confers both ease of installation and safety benefits. Car seats with rigid LATCH typically require installation on one of the side seats.
  3. Your car seat doesn't install securely in the center seat (this is fairly common, as many centers are too narrow to accommodate a car seat).
  4. You have two kids who fight and need to be separated.

How to Find LATCH in Your Vehicle

When you're looking for the LATCH system in your car, your first stop should be the vehicle owner's manual. If you can't find the physical copy, don't worry—you almost always find it online for free.

Next, take a look at the back seat of your vehicle. Bring the owner's manual with you and use it as a guide. The document doesn't just make your search easier—it will also help you avoid making incorrect assumptions.

The lower anchors are usually marked by little circles or tags with a LATCH symbol. If you only see two pairs of circles (generally found on the two outside seats), keep looking. If there are three sets of LATCH markings, that means there's a set of lower anchors specifically for the center seat.

If you can't find the LATCH markings, or there are only markings on the outer seats, take another look in the vehicle owner's manual. In some cars, the lower anchors are well-hidden under a flap or deep in the vehicle seat.

Check the Owner's Manual (Again)

Always check out the vehicle owners manual for further information on how to use the LATCH system in any seating position.

There should be a specific section about LATCH, usually under the subheading "Car Seats" or "Child Safety Seats." If you can't find those sections in your manual, try reading through the seat belts and occupant protection sections.

You'll usually find a handy diagram showing the appropriate locations for a LATCH installation. The manual may also specifically discuss using the outboard LATCH positions for a center car seat installation.

Do NOT install a car seat in the center seat using the lower anchors of the LATCH system unless your vehicle manual specifically states that a car seat can be installed in the center using the lower anchors.

Car Seat Spacing

The federally mandated standard spacing between lower anchors in the LATCH system is 11 inches.

If your vehicle owner's manual forbids using lower anchors in the center, it's likely because the spacing is correct only for the outer seating positions. If you try to use the two inner anchors when it's not a designated LATCH position, the spacing will be different.

If there's nothing in your vehicle owner's manual about using LATCH in the center, it means that there are no lower anchors for the center seat. The car seat may not be adequately installed if there's an anchor spacing issue in that position.

Always attach the top tether when your child is riding forward-facing. Whether you install with the lower anchors or the seat belt, using the top tether is critical for every forward-facing car seat.

The Vehicle Manufacturer Forbids Center Installation with LATCH

LATCH installations aren't necessarily safer. The LATCH system was created as a universal, simple method for car seat installation.

It's still just as safe to install the baby's car seat with a seatbelt, as long as you can do so properly. You can find seat belt installation information in your vehicle owner's manual (usually in a section right next to the LATCH info).

If the LATCH system is easier for you and gives you the best shot at getting car seat installation right, it's fine to use LATCH in one of the outer seating positions.

Center is safer by a small margin; however, keep in mind that if there are LATCH anchors in the outer seating positions, the manufacturer intended for them to be used for car seats. If the outer positions work best for you, use them.

A properly installed car seat on the passenger or driver side is safer than an incorrectly installed center seat.

The Vehicle Manufacturer Allows Center Installation with LATCH

If the lower anchors are at the standard spacing (11 inches), any car seat can theoretically be installed using the lower anchors.

In reality, it may not be possible to get a secure installation with a specific car seat in that specific center seat—even if there are lower anchors for the center seat.

When the lower anchors are wider than the standard spacing, you need to check the car seat's manual to see if they allow installation with lower anchors that are wider spaced than usual.

If they do, you'll also need to check whether the manufacturer permits the spacing found in your vehicle.

Getting Help From a Professional

It's OK to admit that you're stumped about car seats. The information isn't always easy to find in your vehicle or car seat manual. Even when it is, you might not be sure that you're reading it right.

If you are unsure whether it is safe to use LATCH in the center position in your car, or you're not sure if you have that car seat installed correctly, get help from a trained and certified child passenger safety technician.

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Article Sources
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  6. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. LATCH: Frequently Asked Questions.

  7. The 2019 LATCH Manual. LATCH Manual Updates • 2019-2020 (PDF). Safe Ride News Publications; Vehicle Owner's Manuals. Updated September 2019.

  8. American Academy of Pediatricians, healthychildren.org. Car seat installation information: Seat belts & LATCH. Updated February 24, 2020.

  9. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Simple Facts About LATCH. Updated March 2011.

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