Winter coat season is here and we’re all bundling up against the cold. While snowsuits and heavy jackets are a must to keep children warm, a child in a car seat should not wear them.

Winter Coats: Why They Are Dangerous

A coat can add a lot of slack in the car seat harness – perhaps as much as 4 inches! That’s plenty of room for a child to slip through the straps and be thrown from the seat. In fact, wearing a puffy coat yourself is not a best practice as it adds space between your body and the seat belt.

Well-fitting fleece is usually a good option. It’s thin enough to work well with car seat harnesses, yet warm enough to keep the child comfortable. Some really thin down may also be okay. In any case, be sure the jacket is the correct size for the child and stops at his/her waist. Coats that are too big or too long can add too much bulk behind the harness. They can also bunch up around the hip straps and crotch buckle and create potentially dangerous slack.

The following are steps to check if your child can wear their jacket in the car seat:

  1. Place your child in the car seat with their jacket on. Tighten the harness and perform the pinch test. Your thumb and forefinger should not be able to pinch any of the harness material when it is nice and tight.
  2. Remove your child from the seat without loosening the harness.
  3. Take their coat off and put the child back in the child 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 too bulky to be worn under the harness.

So how do you keep children both warm and safe? Here are some ideas from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP):

Dress the child in thin layers.

Start with tights or leggings and a long-sleeved bodysuit or “onesie.” In very cold weather, long underwear is also a warm and safe layering option. Then add pants and a warmer top, like a sweater or thermal-knit shirt. Your child can wear a thin fleece jacket over the top.

Don’t forget hats, mittens, and socks or booties.

These help keep kids warm without interfering with car seat straps.

Use a coat or blanket over the straps.

You can add a blanket over the top of the harness straps. Or, put your child’s winter coat on backwards (over the buckled harness straps) after he or she is buckled up. Nothing should ever go underneath your child’s body or between the body and the harness straps.

Do not use products that did not come with the car seat.

If the item did not come with the car seat, it is not crash tested and may interfere with the protection provided in a crash. Never use sleeping bags, inserts, or other stroller accessories in the car seat.

For more information, see all of AAP’s Winter Car Seat Safety Tips and the Safe Kids blog Winter Driving with the Little Ones. To learn more about child passenger safety, visit the UVM Medical Center’s Child Car Seat Safety website.

If you are looking for more car seat safety tips, read our article Top Ten Car Seat Safety and Installation Errors.

Maureen Johnson is the Child Passenger Safety Specialist at The University of Vermont Medical Center.

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