Winter is coming whether we like it or not. Even though COVID-19 may be reducing our travel, it’s still important to know how to safely dress your child when they are riding in the car. While you want to keep them warm, wearing a winter coat in the car might be dangerous.

Test to ensure a snug harness

In a car crash, a heavy winter coat or snowsuit can flatten out or compress, causing the car seat harness to be too loose to protect your child properly. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, everyone should avoid wearing a puffy or bulky coat in the car, as this adds space between our body and the seat belt.

Here’s a four-step test to see if your child can wear their coat safely in the car seat:

  1. Place your child in the car seat with their coat on. Snug up the harness and perform the pinch test. Using your thumb and forefinger, you should not be able to pinch any of the harness webbing at the child’s shoulders.
  2. Remove your 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 harness webbing? If yes, then the coat is not safe to wear in the car seat because a collision could cause the coat to compress and leave a similarly loose harness fit.

How to keep your child safe and warm

Dress your child in thin layers: Start with tights or leggings and a long-sleeved bodysuit or “onesie.” Long underwear is also an option, but you don’t want your 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 four-step test to make certain. A hat, mittens, socks or booties will also help keep your child warm.

Place a coat or blanket over the snug harness: If you are using an infant (rear-facing-only) car seat, store it in the house so it’s warm to start with. Once you have snugly harnessed your child, cover them with a blanket. A car seat cover is a relatively inexpensive addition to help with the trip to the car, but make sure to keep your child’s face uncovered in the car to avoid trapped air and re-breathing.

Put older children in their coats to get to the car, then take coats off when securing everyone in their car seat or booster seat. Cover them with a blanket or put their coat on backwards – with their arms in the sleeves and the coat itself covering them.

Be prepared: With dropping temperatures and spotty cell service in our region, it’s a good idea to pack an emergency kit in your car this season. Keep extra layers like blankets, clothes, hats and gloves, and snacks in your car to be safe.

For more information, see the American Academy of Pediatrics Winter Car Seat Safety Tips. 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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