It's the time of year when everyone puts on a cozy winter coat to go outside. So when you see a child without a heavy jacket during the cold winter months, it may strike you as odd or unsafe. However, there’s actually testing behind why parents aren't adding extra layers on their little ones before buckling them in the car—not wearing that jacket could save a kid's life.
While car seats, vehicles, and even coats have advanced over the years, car seats are still not built to account for extra padding between the child and the straps. “Large winter coats can cause the harness to sit too loose, and in the off chance an accident occurs, this can cause the harness to work improperly and possibly eject the child from the car seat,” says Jared Staver, personal injury and car accident attorney, and founder of Staver Accident Attorney Lawyers, P.C. With car accidents being the leading cause of death for children ages two to 14, a car seat that’s fitted correctly can be vital to their safety.
Most parents of young children already know the safety hazards of puffy coats in car seats, but it can be challenging to avoid the skeptical looks—and sometimes verbal concerns—from onlookers. Minneapolis mom of two, Emily Spiteri, has received a few looks when her young boys don't wear coats in their car. “If it’s someone I know, I explain the reasoning to them, but if it’s a stranger, I just let it go," she says. "I've done the research and I know what I’m doing is best for my kids."
Car seat safety is top of mind for most parents who have painstakingly researched and compared hundreds of options. Michaun Parayano, an Omaha mother of three between the ages of two and five, says it's important a jacket is not standing in the way her a child’s safety. “I’ve been in a near accident before and the feeling of thankfulness knowing that my girls were secure in their car seats was overwhelming,” she says. "When we leave the house in the winter, we bundle up with a coat, hat, boots, and mittens. As soon as the girls get in the van, they take off their coats and hop in their seats, waiting for me to buckle them in. It's routine at this point."
Car seat harness straps are intended to be snug—tight enough that you cannot pinch the webbing, or as some people call it, the two-finger test. This test ensures the straps don't have any slack. “When a child has on a thick coat, often it feels like the straps are snug, but during a crash, all the fluff in the coat compresses and the straps may be too loose,” says Amie Durocher, creative director and media relations at Safe Ride 4 Kids. The extra layer of a big winter coat means that the straps might be tight to the coat but not to the child.
Unlike traditional seat belts, car seat harnesses won't lock up in the event of an accident. Ensuring the straps are consistently snug while a child is secured in the car seat is essential to the child's safety.
If you’re concerned about the cold temperatures, there are plenty of ways to keep kids cozy in their car seats. Placing a blanket over the child or putting their coat on backward with their arms in the sleeves once they’re strapped in are two super easy solutions. Additionally, a lot of new coats aren't as thick. "I look for winter car coats that are about as thick as a thin fleece jacket," Spiteri says. "They keep my boys just as warm, actually probably warmer, as the big puffy snowsuits I wore in the '80s." We recommend this full-zip hoodie from North Face ($35, Amazon) as a lightweight but warm option that would work great with a car seat.
One strategy to battling the coat-and-car-seat dilemma that Sarah Hamilton uses is keeping coats in the car. “I’m frequently asked why there are so many coats in my car,” she says. When confronted with questions about why her three young children aren't wearing coats in the car in frigid North Dakota temps, she sticks to the facts. “I am a big fan of facts and data,” Hamilton says. “So when someone challenges what I do, I just make sure to keep the car seat data handy.”
Car seats are built to keep little ones safe, and a big winter coat can actually inhibit it from doing just that. So next time you see a kid being placed in a car seat without their coat, know that there's a safety reason for it.