Is your child a car seat harness escape artist?

How do you manage a child who keeps getting out of their child car seat harness?

I often get phone calls from frustrated parents whose children have become experts in escaping from their child car seat. This is a very concerning thing to be happening in a moving vehicle. It creates a dangerous situation – as a driver you become distracted, which then increases your risk of being involved in a crash or even needing to stop suddenly. If you find yourself in this situation, having an unrestrained child in the vehicle is far from ideal.

Using the car seat harness properly

The first thing to do to prevent children escaping from their car seat harness is to make sure the harness is being used correctly. Some parents say they are hesitant about having the harness straps too tight against their child’s body. This is understandable as they are concerned about the child’s comfort. Certainly, the car seat harness shouldn’t be so tight that the child is uncomfortable, but they also shouldn’t be so loose that the child can free themselves from the restraint.

So where is the middle ground? The general rule is to have the harness firmly fitted, whilst also being able to fit two fingers between the child and the straps. It is important to get this right because a correctly fitted harness will reduce the risk of injury to your child in a crash or during heavy braking by spreading crash forces onto the stronger parts of their body.

What to look for when checking the car seat harness

It’s a good idea to regularly check if the harness straps are coming out of the correct slot from the back of the child car seat. For forward facing restraints, the slot should be changed when the child’s shoulders are more than 2 ½ centimetres higher than the slot. If this isn’t done properly, it will make it easier for kids to slip the harness off their shoulders. Most child car seats with an inbuilt harness have about 3 or 4 slots, check this about once a month, and change the slot as your child grows.

Often in winter, parents rug their children up with an extra layer of clothes or baggy jackets to keep them warm. But keep in mind that this can make it very difficult to get the car seat harness to fit properly. Baggy clothes create padding between the child and the harness, making it almost impossible to tighten the straps properly and easier for the child to slip the harness off their shoulders.

Behavioural techniques so the car seat harness is used properly

While the tips above are things that can be done to fix an existing problem, there is an old saying, “prevention is better than a cure”. Children learn a lot from our own behaviour, which is why parental role modelling is very important. This has been the focus of a recent TAC campaign  which highlighted our children’s tendency to copy our on road behaviour. Behaving in a positive way when on the road is always recommended, but you should be particularly mindful of this when your children are in the car. Talking to your children and educating them about appropriate road safety behaviours can go a long way to help prevent issues later down the track.

Teach children about the safety of using a seatbelt

In terms of seatbelt use, when you are putting your child into their car seat explain to them what you are doing and why. Emphasise that buckling them up will keep them safe, and that it is important to keep the harness on for the entire trip. When you get into the car yourself, talk about what you are doing and explain you have just put your seatbelt on and that you will keep it on while you’re driving. This will help teach your child what is expected during each trip.

However, many kids get a thrill from showing us how clever they are, even if it involves misbehaving. For some children figuring out how to wriggle free of the harness straps is such a big achievement they want to show us over and over. If this sounds like your child, there certainly are some behavioural solutions you can try.

What can I do to keep my child’s car seat harness on?

When you notice your child freeing themselves from the car seat, you need to stop the car as soon as it is safe and refit the harness. Explain to your child why you have to do this.

This can be frustrating and time consuming, but remember, failing to do so creates a very dangerous and illegal situation. Also remember, it is much more desirable correcting behaviour in a positive way, so try and stay calm during this challenging process.

Distraction is another good way to stop children behaving in difficult ways in many different situations, and the car is no different. While it is important to reduce distractions to ourselves as drivers – having activities in the car to avoid your child becoming too bored can be an effective way to keep them busy and stop them even thinking about taking the harness straps off.

You can also think about setting up a reward system for those times when they do keep the straps on for the entire journey. If they keep the car seat harness in place, then they get rewarded. This can often encourage the right behaviour.

While these techniques may sound good in theory, nothing is fool proof. It will also be unlikely to see a change in behaviour overnight. Changing behaviour is something you need to be persistent with. So if you’re really having trouble as a last resort you could try using a chest clip to keep the harness on.

The last resort – Chest clips for the car seat harness

A chest clip is a device you can buy separately from the restraint. It attaches to the harness straps to make it difficult for a child to slip the straps off their shoulders. RACV recently did some crash testing with a chest clip and a forward facing restraint which showed some small safety benefits if involved in a side impact crash. However, in a frontal crash there appeared to be a small increased chance of some contact between the chest clip and the child’s face, in and around the mouth area, as well as an increased chance of head injury.

The issue with these contrasting findings is that crashes are rare and happen very quickly, so you can’t choose whether the impact is going to be frontal or side. This is why persisting with the behavioural techniques discussed above is recommended, and that you should only consider using a chest clip as a last resort. If you do choose to use a chest clip, I’d also recommend removing it once the problem behaviour stops.

In summary, if your child keeps getting their arms out of the child car seat harness, try the following:

  1. Make sure the harness is being used correctly and that straps are firm
  2. Try using behavioural techniques (role modelling, distraction and rewards) to stop your child removing their arms from the harness
  3. If all else fails, consider using a chest clip – but stop using it once the problem behaviour stops.
Written by Tim Davern
October 17, 2016