RachaelRachael Rachael, a mom of two daughters, is a freelance editor and writer who enjoys gardening and dreams of keeping chickens in her suburban St. Louis backyard. In her spare time, she helps to edit her husband’s science fiction books. Read more of Rachael's work at www.rachaelsjohnston.com or contact her by emailing rachael@mumblingmommy.com.

All parents want to keep their children safe. However, it can be hard to know what to do in a world where baby and children’s products are always evolving and safety standards are constantly changing. I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable about  children’s products and safety issues, but I still find myself flummoxed from time to time, especially with car seat safety.

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What is coat compression?

One safety issue I didn’t know much about until last year involves car seats and winter coats. It’s actually not safe to buckle children  wearing heavy, bulky winter coats into car seats that use 5-point harnesses. Until last winter, I always buckled my daughters into their car seats with their big coats, and I adjusted the harness straps to accommodate their puffy coats. It was cold outside. Why wouldn’t I put their coats on?

Photo via familygonehealthy.com.

The problem is something called coat compression. There are a lot of experts on car seat safety out there who can explain it much better, but here’s the gist: Car seat straps cannot be adequately tight if children are wearing big coats. You have to loosen the straps to buckle up children with winter coats, and while you may pull the straps as tight as possible over a coat, they will not be tight enough in an accident. In an accident, a lot of force is exerted against the car seat straps, and all the puffy material inside the coat compresses and flattens, allowing a child to slip through the straps and be partially or fully ejected from the seat. Major car seat manufacturers advise against children wearing bulky clothing for this reason. If you want to see just how this works, buckle up your child with her winter coat on and adjust the car seat straps, pulling them as tight as possible over the coat. Then, unbuckle your child, remove her coat, and buckle her in again. You’ll likely see an unsafe amount of slack in the car seat straps.

What should I do to ensure car safety?

When I learned about coat compression last year, I had two questions. 1.) Why does no ever talk about this? 2.) What am I going to do to keep my kids safe and warm in the car?

Some parents are aware of the car safety issue but don’t know what to do. I discussed it with a friend last year who has several young children. “I buckle them in with their coats and it’ll just have to do,” she said, explaining how all of the safe alternatives can be a lot of work for parents with multiple young children.

Photo via thegreengrandma.blogspot.com.

What are the alternatives? The first solution is to have the kids wear their coats while going out to the car, take them off in the car, and then put them back on before exiting the car. It’s a lot of work, especially if you have several little ones who can’t put coats on and off by themselves. There’s also the question of how to keep kids warm in a cold car. One option is to have kids put their coats on backwards after they are buckled in. You can also keep blankets in the car to cover up with. This prevents your kids from getting overheated after the car warms up because they can easily push off the blankets or coats.

Another option is to use a shower-cap type of cover for infant car seats or use a car seat poncho for toddlers. Older children can wear a car seat poncho to and from the car and stay warm, and the poncho drapes over the car seat in a way that doesn’t interfere with the straps.

The safe backwards coat trick.
Photo via inspiredby2boyz.blogspot.com.

One last option is to dress your children in fleece or other light jackets that don’t require you to loosen car seat straps. They’ll still be pretty warm, and if you’re just making a quick dash from the house to the car and from the car across the parking lot into the store, your children shouldn’t get too cold.

It should be noted that the issue of coat compression disappears once children graduate from a five-point harness to a booster seat. Seat belts in cars are designed to tighten the slack in an accident, even if you’re wearing a big coat.

What not to do for car safety

Some parents ask if it’s okay to leave a bulky coat on a child if it’s unzipped and pushed aside so the car seat straps are snug against the front of the child’s shirt. While it’s slightly better, experts say it’s not completely safe because the back of the coat is still adding bulk. Also, with infant car seats, be wary of products like buntings that may interfere with proper buckling and keep straps too loose.

What our family does

My youngest riding in her fleece jacket.

In my family last year I began having my older, preschool-aged daughter wear her coat out to the car. She took it off in the car and I tucked a heavy fleece blanket around her, which she loved snuggling with in the car. It was easy for her to slip her coat back on when we arrived at our destination. My other daughter was 1 year old, and it was more of a hassle to put coats on and off in the car. I considered buying or making a fleece car seat poncho for her. I ended up just putting a light fleece coat on her. For most of the winter as long as we were only going to be outside between the car and a building for a minute or two, I dressed her in her fleece coat and often wrapped a blanket around her shoulders while I carried her. In the car, I also draped the blanket over her after I buckled her in. She never complained, and we got many compliments on her coat. No one seemed to realize it was not a true winter coat. We saved her heavy winter coat for playing in the snow.

We’ll do things the same way again this winter. Coat compression in car seats is something every parent needs to be aware of to ensure car safety. It may make life less convenient. Your kids might be cold for a few minutes. But in the end, a little cold is preferable to a life-changing, potentially fatal car accident.

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