Yes, even you can learn how to clean child car seats (without saying things your kids shouldn’t repeat).

How to clean baby car seats

Messes are inevitable if you have kids. From diaper blowouts to spit-up and those “uh-oh” spills from juice boxes, your child’s car seat will not stay clean for long.

Luckily most car seat covers are washable nowadays, but there are a lot of other parts to a car seat that can collect icky gunk. Straps, buckles, cupholders, underpadding…you get the picture.

When the inevitable happens, it’s best to be prepared to tackle it before going into battle. Otherwise, you’re looking at stains, lingering odors, bacteria, mold, and other nasties that will funk up your car so much, no pine-smelling hangy thing can touch it.

Here are some simple, practical steps you can whip out when the next mess happens.

General tips for cleaning a car seat

Get on it ASAP.

The longer the mess sits, the more difficult it will be to clean. It will soak into the padding, straps, and buckles, maybe so much that you can never get it all out. Sure, if your child is sick or whatever, don’t just toss her out and clean the car seat.

Take care of your kid, get them comfortable, then get back out there and tackle that mess before it takes up residence in all the nooks and crannies.

But set aside a few hours for a good cleaning.

When you have a few hours at night or on a weekend, that’s when you’ll want to do the most thorough cleaning. It’ll give you plenty of time for washing, drying, and airing out.

Air and sunshine is your friend.

Air and sunshine is your friend

If your child spit up or had a diaper blowout in the car seat, it’s going to stink. If you can leave your car windows down with plenty of fresh air circulating, that will help carry odors out before they settle in the upholstery.

Once the car seat is clean, setting it out in the fresh air and sun will help eliminate lingering smells.

Use safe soaps & detergents.

Using a soap that is safe for babies is essential. Some babies are especially sensitive to harsh chemicals and fragrances. There are many natural or sensitive skin cleaners available now in pretty much every department store and online.

Obey the owner’s manual.

If you haven’t already, stick a brightly colored post-it in the cleaning section of your car seat manual for quick reference. Then do what it says!

If your seat cover is machine washable, but line dry only, then do that. Otherwise, you might wind up with a torn cover. If your harness cannot be removed, then DON’T remove it! It would void the warranty and make your car seat unsafe. Don’t assume you know it all – there’s an owner’s manual for a reason. Use it.

Steps for Cleaning a Car Seat

Dirty baby car seat

First things first.

  1. Remove as much excess nastiness as you can with baby wipes or paper towels. This will keep it from soaking in even more and will keep it from getting on your vehicle seats or carpet. If you can’t do a thorough cleaning right away, this will get you by until you can do a better job.
  2. Depending on how bad the mess is, you may want to go ahead and remove the whole car seat. If you’ve had a major diaper blowout or other mess that’s soaked into both padding and harness, it’ll save your back in the long run just to remove it from the car and set it up on a table or other flat surface for disassembly.
Helpful tip: Take pictures of the car seat before you disassemble to help you correctly reassemble it.

Start with the cover and harness.

How to Clean Car Seats
  1. Remove the car seat cover and harness (only if they can be removed – refer to your owner’s manual). If your car seat cover can be machine washed, toss it in the wash. You can pretreat any noticeable spots or stains.
  2. If hand wash only, rinse off any loose mess before washing with cool water and gentle soap.
  3. Either hang or machine dry depending on what your manual says.
  4. Turn the seat upside down and bang on the bottom to remove any trapped crumbs or other loose debris.
  5. Wipe down the harness. Use a soft cloth and warm water (plus gentle soap if needed). Rinse and air dry. NEVER put a harness in the washing machine. It can harm the tensile strength of the fabric webbing, which would make the harness unsafe in a crash.

Clean the buckles and base.

  1. Invert the crotch buckle (the part with the hole) in a cup of water and swish it around to dislodge anything trapped in the mechanism. You may have to repeat this process.
  2. Shake excess water out, then hang the buckle as best you can upside down so all the water drains out.
  3. Test to make sure the buckle tongues click into the buckle smoothly. If not, repeat the water rinse.
  4. If your seat has a plastic base, clean it with a warm, damp cloth and mild detergent. Wipe with a disinfectant wipe and let the base air dry.

Reassemble the car seat.

  1. When everything is totally dry and aired out, put the car seat cover (and harness if you removed it) back on. Make sure all the snaps, loops, etc. are attached on the cover. Make sure no straps are twisted.
  2. Reinstall the car seat if you removed the whole thing. Refer to the car seat manual to make sure you’re doing it right.
Reinstall the car seat

If you just cannot get it clean…

Try repeating the process. If you cannot get the smell out no matter how many times you’ve tried, call the car seat manufacturer or the retailer you purchased it from. Most car seat manufacturers have replacement covers and even harnesses if they are the type you can remove and replace.

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