How to Buckle Your Child in a Forward-Facing Car Seat

Did you know you're likely to be making a car seat mistake somewhere in the buckle-up process? Research has found that at least 90% of all car seats are not used properly—and half of all seats had at least five usage errors. 

A forward-facing car seat is one where the child uses a five-point harness as their restraint. There are several types of seats that can be forward-facing car seats. Convertible seats start out as rear-facing and later get turned around to become forward-facing.

Another type of seat is the harness-to-booster seats that start out as forward-facing car seats and can be turned into booster seats (where the child uses the vehicle's seat belt across them as their restraint) later on.

There are also 3-in-1, 4-in-1, and all-in-one seats that are forward-facing car seats that become high back boosters. Some rear-facing seats can turn into backless boosters for the oldest kids.

Whether you are using a convertible, a harness-to-booster, or any of the other types, all that matters is the way you are using it right now—as a forward-facing car seat where your child is using a five-point harness.

The features of each car seat will differ. It's essential to read through your child's car seat's instruction manual to familiarize yourself with the seat's features and requirements before you use it.

Should Your Child Ride Forward-Facing?

Most children are turned forward-facing much too soon. Before you buckle your child up in a forward-facing car seat, check to see if they could still be riding safely rear-facing.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends children ride rear-facing for as long as possible (until they reach the rear-facing height or weight limit for their convertible seat). For most kids, this will happen between the ages of 3 and 5.

Parents sometimes rush kids out of their forward-facing car seat (where the child uses a 5-point harness as their restraint) and into a booster seat (where they use the vehicle's seat belt as their restraint).

You can tell when your child is ready to switch from a car seat to a booster seat because they will be all three of these criteria:

  • Is at least 5 years old and
  • Weighs at least 40 pounds and
  • Is mature enough to sit properly in a booster seat (no slouching, leaning over, or messing with the vehicle seat belt)
1

Make Sure the Car Seat Fits Your Child

Forward facing 5-point harness car seat

 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Image Library

It's easy to assume that you can grab any car seat with a harness off the shelf and it will work for your child. However, not every child will fit perfectly in every harnessed car seat. You can find the height and weight requirements for any car seat you're considering on the required labels on the product's side.

When you make the switch to forward-facing, make sure that your child meets the minimum weight, height, and age requirements of the car seat you've chosen.

Some forward-facing car seats specify that a child must weigh a minimum of 25 pounds before use. Others require a child to be at least two years old before using the seat forward-facing. You might see other requirements stated by the manufacturer in the instructions and on the side labels.

One-third of all states now require children to ride rear-facing until at least age two.

There are also maximum height and weight limits for the five-point harness when used forward-facing. These vary by manufacturer and by car seat model. Kids usually outgrow their forward-facing car seats by height before they do weight.

When the shoulder straps are in their highest setting and the child's shoulders reach the strap slot, the child is too tall for the five-point harness on that forward-facing car seat.

You must check to make sure your child fits into the height and weight requirements of the car seat in order for it to function correctly in a crash.

2

Adjust the Height of the Shoulder Straps

Forward-facing car seats have more than one harness height position. The shoulder straps should be at your child's shoulders, or slightly above them (not coming up and over the shoulders like a backpack, which is the rule for rear-facing kids).

There are two types of harnesses: Those you have to rethread in order to move the shoulder straps up or down, and those where you move a piece (usually a headrest) up and down to move the shoulder straps. If it looks like there is only one slot for the shoulder straps, you most likely have a car seat with a no-rethread harness.

Rethread Harnesses

Car seats with a rethread harness use a metal splitter plate to connect the shoulder straps to the tail of the strap used to tighten the child. When rethreading the straps, be extra careful not to introduce a twist.

One way to be sure you rethread the straps correctly is to take a picture of the car seat from the front and back before you take anything apart. That way you can refer back to the pictures if you're not sure what it should look like after adjusting. You could also just remove one harness strap at a time from the splitter plate. Once the first strap is replaced correctly, you can undo the second one and re-route it.

No-Rethread Harnesses

For car seats with a no-rethread harness, typically there is a lever or button to squeeze that allows you to raise or lower the headrest, which will raise or lower the shoulder straps with it. Check your instruction manual to see how the straps can be adjusted.

3

Position the Crotch Buckle

Most car seats have at least two positions for the crotch buckle, one closer to the child's body and one farther away. On seats that can also be used rear-facing, some of the crotch buckle positions may only be allowed for rear-facing, and others may only be allowed for forward-facing.

Read the instruction manual to your child's car seat to learn if the crotch buckle is adjustable and if so, when and how to adjust it.

On most forward-facing car seats, the crotch buckle needs to come from in front of the child's body (the child should not be sitting on any part of the strap that the buckle is attached to).

A common mistake parents make is moving the crotch buckle to a forward hole in the fabric cover, but forgetting to also move it to a forward hole or position in the plastic shell underneath the fabric cover. This mistake actually makes the crotch buckle even shorter and tighter on the child. If the crotch buckle seems too low and tight on your child, double-check that you've adjusted the crotch buckle properly.

4

Loosen the Harness Straps

The first step in getting your child into the car seat is loosening the harness straps. If it's a new car seat, the straps will probably be tightened down pretty far at first. When you loosen the straps each time before you put your child in the seat, you have room to fit the harness around the child without too much tugging or bending their arms in strange positions.

To loosen the straps, find the tail that you pull to tighten the straps. Just above the tail, often hidden under a fabric flap (to make it less likely the child will loosen their own straps while you are driving!), there will be a tab or button. This is the harness release mechanism. Depending on your particular seat, you'll either lift up or push down on this mechanism while simultaneously pulling the shoulder straps away from the car seat.

If you're not sure how to loosen the harness on your child's car seat, check the instruction manual for details.

5

Sit Your Child in the Car Seat

Move the harness straps to the side so you don't have to fish them out from behind your child later on. Some car seats even have harness buckle pockets, plastic tabs, Velcro spots, or magnets to hold the harness straps out of the way for you while you get your child situated. You should also pull the buckle forward before your child gets into the car seat. Even a small child feels pretty heavy when they're sitting on a buckle you need to use.

Make sure your child's back is against the car seat shell. Their bottom also should be back against the seat with no slouching or scooching forward.

You don't want any extra space between your child and the car seat because that interferes with tightening the harness properly and could result in injury in a crash.

6

Buckle Up

Pull the harness straps around to the front, around your child's shoulders like you are putting on a vest. Their arms go through the holes, and the straps go over the shoulders, down the chest, and over the hips and then buckle between the legs.

Make sure the harness webbing is flat and doesn't have any twists in it. Smooth out those straps every time your child gets in the car because twisted, rope-like straps are not as effective for protecting your child if there's a crash.

The metal pieces that go into the buckle are called the buckle tongues. Place those into the buckle until they click. Some car seats have what's called a puzzle buckle, where the buckle tongues have to be fitted together in a certain way before they'll click into the buckle. As always, the instruction manual is the best place to find information on the specifics of your child's car seat buckle.

7

Pull the Harness Snug

Buckling the harness isn't enough to keep your little one safe in a crash. To work properly, it must also be snug. Most car seat harnesses are tightened using a webbing tail that comes out between your child's feet. You need to pull on it hard, several times, to get a snug fit. Some car seats have knobs or other tightening mechanisms, but the webbing tail is most common. Make sure you know the steps of the tightening process.

With the chest clip low around the belly, hold the chest straps, and pull firmly upwards. If done properly, you'll notice that the straps around the child's legs get snug, and lots of slack gathers near the shoulders. Let go of the chest straps, and pull hard on the webbing tail to remove the slack.

Next, repeat: slide the chest clip down, pull the chest straps up, pull the webbing tail. Repeat until there is no slack and you cannot pinch any webbing at the collarbone when you pull up on the shoulder straps.

You should not be able to fit two fingers sticking out from the body at the collarbone.

The chest clip is the very last step in harnessing the child. After the straps are snug, move the chest clip up until the top of the clip is at the top of the armpits.

8

Adjust the Chest Clip

The chest clip (which is actually called a harness retainer clip) helps keep the straps on the shoulders (not falling off to the sides of the arms). After you fasten the harness retainer clip, slide it down as far as it goes, near your child's belly button. You'll slide it up later, after tightening the harness.

Always readjust the chest clip and harness every time you take your child in and out of the seat. If you try to buckle them into straps that are properly snug, your child is not going to like it. It is much easier for you and more pleasant for your child to be buckled into straps that are loose (and then tightened after buckling). The same goes for coming out of the seat; loosen the straps to make it easier to get the arms out.

Once your child is properly secured in the car seat, it's time to ride. Make sure you read up on safety issues with winter coats and car seats.

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Article Sources
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  1. Hoffman BD, Gallardo AR, Carlson KF. Unsafe from the start: Serious misuse of car safety seats at newborn discharge. J Pediatr. 2016;171:48-54. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2015.11.047

  2. The Car Seat Lady. When Should Your Child Turn Forward-Facing?. Updated April 22, 2014.

  3. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety-Highway Loss Data Institute. Seat belt and child seat laws by state. Updated July 2020.