Whether you’re planning on meeting family over the holidays or staying put, it’s still important to ensure you and your baby are as safe as possible if you’re travelling by car.
Follow our tips to avoid any winter car seat mishaps during the festive period.
1. Check the car seat still fits your baby
With the UK dipping in and out of lockdown for most of 2020, you may not have used your car as much as expected.
This could also mean you haven’t noticed that your child has outgrown their car seat.
While it’s better and safer to keep your child in the lowest group seat for as long as possible, rather than moving up groups too early, do keep an eye on your baby or child’s weight and height.
Your baby has outgrown their infant seat when they hit the maximum weight or height limit for their seat, and you can often tell by checking if the top of their head is level with the top of the seat.
2. Do you have the correct car seat for your car?
Not all car seats fit all cars. Labels on child car seats that say ‘universal’ or ‘semi-universal’ might give the impression that some car seats will fit any car, but that’s not the case.
The restraints should fit securely on the back seat of the car, without feeling rickety or loose. Car seats with an Isofix base and support leg should not be placed in cars with underfloor storage in the passenger footwell.
Look out for sloping seats, sloping backrests and the length of the vehicle seatbelt (if that’s how you’re installing the car seat) as other factors to consider.
Where possible (and we appreciate this isn’t always easy in this Covid-19 era) get a trained fitter to install your car seat.
3. Pack a back-up bag
Nothing ruins the festive spirit on a long car journey than a carsick child or an explosive ‘poonami’.
Make sure you’ve got a back-up bag that’s easily accessible with a change of clothes and plenty of wipes. This will also mean you can wipe off the worst of the mess from the car seat if needed.
Remember, Which? car seat testing always checks how easy it is to remove a car seat cover and whether it can be machine-washed – a godsend in cases such as this – so be sure to check our car seat reviews.
4. Follow the ‘strap, then wrap’ rule
Do not strap your child into their car seat while they’re wearing a bulky or puffy snowsuit or jacket.
This is an extremely common problem as parents worry that their child will get cold while travelling. However, puffy clothing can stop you getting a tight enough fit on the harness.
Our advice is to dress your baby or toddler in multiple layers (don’t forget a hat), which can be removed or added if needed.
Strap them into the seat – the harness should be tight enough so you’re just able to fit two fingers between the shoulder straps and your child’s body – and then lay a blanket over them to wrap them up warmly.
For very young newborns, we’d recommend you strap them into the infant carrier while you’re still indoors, start the car to warm it up for five minutes, and then take them outside and click or strap the car seat into the back seat.
5. Check for common car seat issues
While these are issues that you should check every time you travel with your baby or child, the stress of getting everyone and everything packed into the car may mean you could forget to check for common car seat issues.
These can include twisted or loosely fitting harnesses or seat belts (as seen in the image above), buckle crunch (when the seat belt buckle is touching the plastic shell of the car and could put pressure on it) and a loose harness.
Note that the child in the picture above is also wearing a puffy coat while strapped in.
Is your car seat fitted incorrectly? Read our guide for 10 essential car seat checks.
6. Be careful of car seat accessories
You might be tempted to invest in some additional car seat accessories to make any long car journeys more comfortable or less fraught.
However, we’d suggest you approach these with care. Car seats are crash-tested in the way they are designed to be used and adding accessories that aren’t approved by the manufacturer could compromise the seat’s safety and/or void the warranty.
Our car seat testing experts have assessed a range of car seat accessories and given their thoughts on whether they’re safe or not – read our guide to car seat accessories for more information.
7. Know the car seat laws
UK law states that children need to sit in a car seat up to the age of 12 or until they reach 135cm tall (whichever comes first). Failure to do this could lead to a fine and points on your license.
However, this law also extends to all children you or anyone else is transporting in the car.
This means grandparents need to strap your child in properly, as does your childminder – it is the responsibility of the driver to ensure the child or children they’re transporting is correctly strapped in.
Brush up on child car seat laws in the UK and abroad
8. Taking a car seat in a taxi
If you’re jumping in a cab for your Christmas meet-up, the rules are slightly different.
Children under three can travel without a child car seat or seatbelt, but only on a rear seat. Children aged three or older can travel in a rear seat without a child car seat if they wear an adult seatbelt.
We’d recommend wherever possible to use a car seat or request a taxi that comes with a car seat.
9. Allow more time than you think
Christmas roads can be hectic and in addition you have to contend with potentially wintry driving conditions.
Plan out your route and allow enough time for that, plus extra for traffic jams and breaks.
The last thing you need at Christmas is to be entering into negotiations with your toddler on whether they really can hold on until you get to the next services.
10. Take regular breaks
Taking a break from your journey when you’ve got young children is a necessity. Not only does it give you a rest and older children the chance to have a loo stop, it’s also vital for babies in car seats.
Experts recommend that babies spend no longer that two hours at a time in a car seat before having a break (and much less than that for babies under six months – about 20-30 minutes).
This is because an infant carrier will hold your baby at an angle, rather than flat. This provides good support for their head and neck in a crash, but it could affect their breathing if they’re positioned like that for too long.
The other option for very young babies is a lie-flat car seat, although there aren’t many to choose from – we’ve tested the Maxi Cosi Jade.