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

More than half of all car seats are used incorrectly in some way, according to Safe Kids USA. That means you're likely to be making a car seat mistake somewhere in the buckle-up process. Since many parents don't read the instructions or look at labels, child passenger safety experts say the real numbers could be upwards of 90 percent of all car seats used incorrectly. These illustrated tips will help you make sure you're buckling your toddler up safely in a forward-facing car seat.​

A forward-facing car seat could be a convertible style used in the forward-facing position. It could be a combination car seat used with the harness. It could also be an all-in-one seat used in forward-facing harness mode.

All of these car seats have a forward-facing harness to be used at the appropriate age, height, and weight for your baby, but the features may look a little different from seat to seat. The parts and pieces on your toddler's car seat will probably look different from the ones pictured here. It's a good idea to read through your car seat's instruction manual before you use it, so you can familiarize yourself with the seat's features and requirements.

Before you buckle your toddler up in that forward-facing car seat, double-check to see if he or she could still be riding safely rear-facing.

The current best practice is to keep your baby rear-facing for as long as possible. Toddlers should remain rear-facing until age two at a minimum.

Beyond that, it's still safer to keep your little one rear-facing to the limits of their car seat. With today's high-weight, tall shell seats, that could easily be to age three or four.​

Once a forward-facing car seat is appropriate, it's also safest to keep your toddler in the 5-point harness as long as possible. That means you'll be using these buckling up skills for quite a while.​


Make Sure the Car Seat Fits Your Toddler

Father buckling son in car seat

Roberto Westbrook / Getty Images

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

When you make the switch to forward-facing, make sure your toddler meets the minimum weight, height, or age requirements of the car seat. Many forward-facing car seats specify that a child must weigh a minimum of 22 pounds before use. Other car seats require the child to be at least 2 years old before using a forward-facing harness mode. There may be other requirements stated by the manufacturer in the instructions and on the side labels.

There are also maximum height and weight limits for forward-facing harness car seats. These vary by manufacturer and by car seat model. Toddlers often outgrow their forward-facing car seat by height before weight.

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


Set up the Harness Straps

Forward-facing car seats have more than one harness height position. The most common way to adjust the harness height is by removing the shoulder strap portions of the harness from the splitter plate on the back of the car seat, then re-threading the straps to a different harness slot.

The harness straps should be at or above the toddler's shoulders when riding forward-facing. Sit the child in the car seat and check to see which harness slots work best. Choose the slots that are closest to the child's shoulders without being below the shoulders.

It can be confusing to take the harness apart from the splitter plate to change the harness height. One way to be sure you replace the harness 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 harness systems are incredibly popular now on car seats from several manufacturers. The no-rethread harness makes the height adjustment so much easier. Check your instruction manual to see how the harness is adjusted. Lots of newer harnesses can be adjusted simply by pulling them up or down, or by sliding the headrest to a new position. Others have a knob or lever that moves the harness. The goal on harness height is still the same with a no-rethread harness—you want it as close to your child's shoulders as possible or slightly above.


Buckle Positioning

Many forward-facing car seats have just one crotch strap and buckle position. This is the part of the harness webbing that comes up between the baby's legs. The buckle itself is on the end of the webbing strap.

Some forward-facing car seats have more than one buckle position. The buckle positions let you move the buckle out as your child grows and needs more space.

The car seat pictured has two buckle positions. To move the buckle, the metal piece under the car seat has to be turned so that it slides through the slot. Then you reverse directions and feed the metal piece back through the slot in the desired position.

Some car seats may have a button or slider to adjust the buckle position. The instruction manual will give you details on how to adjust the buckle position. There are also guidelines for when you should move it to the next position out.


Loosen up Those Harness Straps

The first step in getting your toddler 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.

The most common harness release is a lever or button between the baby's feet at the front of the car seat. There may be a fabric flap covering the harness release mechanism, or it may be recessed inside a slit in the car seat cover.

On the car seat pictured here, you loosen the harness by pushing the orange button above the black webbing tail on the lower left while pulling out on the harness straps. If you're not sure how to loosen the harness on your child's car seat, check the instruction manual for details.


Sit Your Toddler 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 toddler 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. His or her 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.


Time to Buckle Up

Pull the harness straps around to the front, around your toddler's shoulders. 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 toddler 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.


Don't Forget the Chest Clip

The chest clip, which is actually called a harness retainer clip, seems like a simple piece of plastic, but it's pretty important to proper car seat function. Chest clips buckle together in many different ways depending on the car seat model, so check the instructions to make sure you're clipping together correctly.

After you fasten the harness retainer clip, slide it to your toddler's armpit level. You may need to re-adjust the height of the chest clip any time you tighten or loosen the harness. You should adjust it every time you put your child in the seat, too. It will move around as your child gets in and out of the seat.

Proper placement of the chest clip is important because it keeps the harness straps over your child's shoulders correctly in order to work best in a crash.


Pull the Harness Tight

Just buckling the harness isn't quite enough to keep your little one safe in a crash. The harness must also be tight to work properly. Most car seat harnesses are tightened using a little webbing tail that comes out between your child's feet. You can just see it in the photo on the lower left, by the child's foot. With the webbing tail, it's easiest to give several short, gentle pulls to get a snug fit. Some car seats have knobs or other tightening mechanisms, but the webbing tail is most common.

The harness is tight when you can't pinch any excess webbing vertically on the harness straps, testing at the front near the chest clip. There shouldn't be any gaps or loose sections of harness webbing. The child pictured is properly secured with a tight harness.

Once your child is properly secured in the car seat, it's time to ride. Be aware of other common car seat errors and make sure you read up on safety issues with winter coats and car seats.

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  1. Safe Kids Worldwide. Car Seat Safety Tips.