Baby's First Car Ride! (Updated 2021)

You’ve carried your baby for nine months, gone through labor, given birth, and now it is time to start your life as a new family.  For many people, that means taking your baby home from the hospital in a car.

After our son was born, I was hyper-aware of the potential for danger everywhere.  For the first time in my life, the world seemed like a really risky, scary place.  Leaving the hospital professionals behind to go it alone as a first-time parent was nerve-wracking enough, but exposing our little guy to possibly drunk, distracted, or just plain bad drivers felt huge. My husband, who was driving us home, is a really good driver.  (No, that is not a Rain Man reference. Haha.)  His skill gave me confidence.  But so did some other tips I’ll share with you.

1.  Do the research.  Yes, there is a lot to research. But it is worth the peace of mind and certainly worth the time in the event of an accident.  

Best Practices.    The expert consensus is that babies and toddlers are safest when they are rear-facing (looking out the back window) and in a car seat with a five point harness.  In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states that a child less than one year old should only be in a rear-facing car seat.  It goes on to state that children between the ages of 1 and 3 should remain rear-facing until he or she reaches the top height or weight limits identified by the car seat's manufacturer.  Generally the age of 2 is considered the absolute minimum age a child should ride forward-facing.

Why is rear-facing better?  All car seats are crash tested for a forward impact as this is the most common type of crash. In a forward impact the child’s head, neck and back are supported by the child restraint during the first and most intense phase of the crash.  This is important because a child's neck bones don't even start to be strong enough to resist the massive amounts of force experienced in a car crash until the age of two.  

Applicable Law.  Best practices recommended by the experts do not always align with state law.  State car seat laws are the result of compromises between the best practices recommended by safety experts and what legislators feel are practical, enforceable, and will be tolerated by the general public and their voters.  To find the laws in your states or states you are visiting, click here

Car Seat Selection.  Research and buy the safest car seat you can find and afford.  That starts with safest general type of car seat for infants and children by age.  For infants, that is a rear-facing car seat with a five-point harness.   But with  so many on the market, how can you determine which in your price range is best for you?  Well, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Car Seat Finder identifies car seats that meet Federal Safety Standards and strict crash performance standards, then rates them based on ease-of-use.  You can also check safety ratings with Consumer Reports.  Additionally, there are many online articles and blogs that can help provide you with information, such as Whattoexpect.comBabylist and SafeWise

Also, keep in mind that not all car seats fit well in every vehicle.   In fact, studies indicate that child car seats and vehicle seats don't align properly more than 40 percent of the time.  Consequently, be sure to determine whether a car seat you are considering will fit and function optimally in your particular vehicle.   

2.  Install your car seat correctly before you give birth.   Do not wait until you are packing your kiddo out of the hospital to try to install the car seat.  Have it all ready to go before you have that beautiful baby in your arms.  First, when doing it for the first time, it is not always as easy as it looks.  It can take time to understand the way each mechanism works and to ensure you have done it correctly. 

When installing, always make sure the seat is installed at the angle the manufacturer identifies.  The car seat was designed and tested at that angle to determine best safety performance.  If the angle is too upright, it can cut off a newborn’s air passages.  Newborns cannot self-correct because they cannot lift their heads yet.  Also, if possible, put the car seat in the middle seat, not right near the doors.  This provides greater protection against side impact. 

For an explanation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the different car seat parts and car seat installation tips, click here.  The NHTSA also provides video tutorials.  

Second, after you have conquered the initial installation, get your work inspected by experts to ensure it is done properly.  Afterall, if a car seat is not installed correctly, it will not protect your baby.   Most Fire Departments will perform car seat installation safety checks, but there are also other organizations that will do so.  Check to find car seat safety check events in your area. 

3.  Register the car seat.  Register your car seat with the manufacturer to receive recalls and safety notices so your child can remain safe.  Also, you can sign up with NHTSA to receive e-mail alerts about car seat and booster seat recalls.

4.  Make sure you know how to properly secure your child in the car seat.  Place your child's back flat against the car seat back.  Make sure the straps are straight and untwisted and placed through the proper slots.  A common mistake is to leave the harness straps too loose.  Adjust the harness against the baby’s body.  The straps should be tight so that you are unable to pinch them vertically.  The chest clip should be positioned so that it is aligned with the top of the child’s armpits. 

Note also that blankets and bulky clothing (including coats or sleep sacks) should never be placed between the baby and the harness.  If your baby was born during the cold months, you will be concerned about making sure he or she is warm enough.  However, bulky clothing, coats and blankets placed under the harness can leave the harness too loose to be effective in a crash.  A better practice is to put your kid in a few thin, warm, well-fitting layers, with no extra bunching anywhere. Adjust the harness as described above, then place the coat or blankets on top of the harnessed baby to keep your little one warm and safe.

5.  Prep the baby for the ride.  Feed and change your baby before the ride to maximize baby’s comfort.  On baby's first few rides, consider sitting in the back with him or her if possible.  If you cannot, talk or sing in a calm voice so he or she knows you are present.

6.  Prep the car. Before the big event, fill up the tank and clean out the car so there is room for luggage, flowers, gifts, baby and you.   Park close to the discharge area and have parking paid so you are good to go as soon as you are all seated and safely buckled up.

Safe travels!

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