Temperatures are falling and it’s time to start dressing for colder weather. You might be getting your child’s winter jacket from storage or purchasing something to keep a new baby warm. However, winter coats and snowsuits may be dangerous for children to wear in a car seat.

Why could a winter coat be dangerous?

In a car crash, a winter coat or snowsuit can flatten out or compress, causing the harness to be too loose to properly protect your child. Even adults should avoid wearing a puffy coat in the car, as this adds space between our body and the seat belt. But it is a good idea to keep winter coats and blankets in the vehicle, in case of a breakdown or emergency.

Here’s a test to see if your child can wear their jacket safely in the car seat:

  1. Place the child in the car seat with their jacket on. Snug up the harness and perform the pinch test. You should not be able to pinch any of the harness material at the child’s shoulder.
  2. Remove the child from the seat without loosening the harness.
  3. Take the child’s coat off and put the child back in the car seat without adjusting the tightness, then buckle up the harness straps.
  4. Can you pinch any material between your thumb and forefinger? If yes, then the coat is not safe to wear in the car seat.

How Do I Keep My Child Safe and Warm?

Dress the child in thin layers.

Start with tights or leggings and a long-sleeved bodysuit or “onesie.” (Long underwear is also okay, but you don’t want the child to get too hot once the car warms up.) Then add pants and a warmer top, like a sweater or thermal-knit shirt. Your child can wear a thin, well-fitting fleece jacket (that stops at the waist) over the other layers. A very thin down coat may also be okay, but be sure to do the 4 step check to make certain. A hat, mittens, and socks or booties, also helps keep the child warm.

Place a coat or blanket over the snug harness.

Once you have snugly harnessed your child, you can cover them with a blanket. An older child can put their coat on backwards – with their arms in the sleeves and the coat itself covering them.

Consider products that can help with warmth.

For an infant (rear-facing-only) car seat, a car seat cover is a relatively inexpensive option. Make sure to keep the child’s face uncovered to avoid trapped air and re-breathing. There are a few coats, ponchos, and wraps that are designed and tested for use in car seats. These tend to be more pricey and may only fit for a single season on a fast growing child, however. Remember that no accessories, other than what comes from your car seat’s manufacturer, should ever go underneath your child’s body or between their body and the harness straps.

Where Can I Learn More?

For more information, see the American Academy of Pediatrics Winter Car Seat Safety Tips and the Safe Kids article Ask the Expert: Winter Coats and Car Seats. To learn more about child passenger safety, visit the UVM Medical Center’s Child Car Seat Safety website.

Maureen Johnson, CSP, CPST-I, is a Child Passenger Safety Specialist at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

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