Winter and Car Seats: Tips to Keep Your Baby Safe and Warm

Winter Driving

In the United States, car crashes are one of the leading causes of child fatalities. Many of these could have been prevented with proper use of a child restraint. Though most are simply not installed or buckled correctly, one contributing (and surprising) factor could be the clothes your child wears in winter.

If you live in a cold climate or experience very cold winters, of course you’ll want to keep your baby warm. Most parents don’t think twice about buckling the car seat straps over their kids’ thick winter coats and snowsuits. The straps may feel nice and snug against your child’s coat, but in reality, they may not be tight enough or be in the proper positions on your child’s body.

How can you tell if your child’s coat is too bulky for the car seat?

Every time your baby rides in a car seat, you should check for proper strap fit with the pinch test. When you attempt to pinch the surface of the car seat straps between your thumb and forefinger, you should not be able to grab hold of any of the strap fabric. If you do, it’s too loose.

But, in winter, looks can be deceiving. That bulky winter coat could add enough thickness to “pass” the pinch test, but in reality, it may not allow the straps to fit properly against your child’s body. Here’s how you can determine whether those winter coats are too thick for car seat travel:

  1. With his or her coat on, strap your baby in the car seat, fastening the harness as usual. Tighten the straps until they pass the pinch test.
  2. Now remove your child from the car seat without loosening the harness. Remove his or her coat, then return your child to the car seat. Buckle up the harness without adjusting it.
  3. Try the pinch test again. If you can get hold of any material, that means the coat is too thick to be worn while in the car seat.

Watch this video to see how the pinch test is done with a winter coat:

Why are winter coats a problem if the harness fits snug over it?

The harness is meant to fit snugly against your child’s body, not a thick layer of synthetic, air-filled padding. In a crash, these coats and snowsuits can compress too much, leaving the straps too loose so they don’t help your baby come to a gentle stop. Children can even be ejected from the seat and coat in some instances. Many winter coats have slick material inside and out, which makes slippage even worse.

To see what can happen to a child wearing a winter coat during a crash, watch this crash test video from The Today Show.

Won’t your child be too cold without a winter coat?

No. You don’t have to sacrifice warmth for safety in winter travel. There are alternative methods to keep your child warm going to and from the car and while riding in the car seat.

  • Think layers. How many times have you been bundled up for the cold then start sweating as soon as you go indoors? Layering helps maintain consistent body temperatures, which is crucial for small babies. Blankets provide a simple layer to wrap around your baby on the way to the car, and it’s easy to remove once you get there. If it’s still cold in the car, cover or swaddle her with the blanket (over the car seat harness) until the car’s warm. Then remove it if she gets too warm to prevent overheating.
  • Try fleece. If it’s freezing outside and toasty warm inside your car, your baby could overheat in a thick coat. Fleece jackets are a good alternative to bulky coats and won’t add too much padding under the harness straps. They’ll fit even better if you leave them unzipped and the side panels folded back so you can tighten the straps right against your child’s body.
  • Accessorize. A warm pair of gloves, a winter hat and boots can do a lot to keep your child warm without the need for a thick coat. They won’t interfere with the car seat straps either.
  • Warm up the car. If possible, start the car and turn on the heater to let the interior warm up for your baby. If it’s only a short walk to the car, you won’t have to worry about her getting too cold on your trip. If it’s a bit of a trek, put her in a fleece jacket and cover her with a blanket to and from the car.
    Special note: To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, never keep the engine running in a closed garage.
  • Use the coat as a blanket or shawl. Wrap your child’s winter coat around them as you head to the car, then once she’s safely strapped in, cover her with the coat like a blanket. Once you get to your destination, unbuckle her, put the coat on her if needed, and off you go.

Does this apply to an older child in a booster seat?

Absolutely. A bulky winter coat could keep the booster harness or car seat belt from fitting in the right places on your child’s body. For a car seat belt, the booster seat should position your child so the seat belt fits across their firmest bones. The lap belt should be across the lower pelvis. Shoulder belts should cross over the chest, between the neck and shoulder.

If your child is wearing a winter coat, the lap belt could ride up onto your child’s abdomen, which increases the risk of severe internal injuries during a crash. If the shoulder belt is not in place, there’s a greater risk of neck and head injuries.

What about adults?

Thick winter coats could hinder your seat belt’s operation as well. Dress in a few light layers so you can remove your coat when you get in the car. Then store it on the back floorboard or use it as a warm blanket for your child if needed.