Car Seat Harness Tension – Too Tight?

Car seat harness tension is especially a big issue during the spring and fall when temperatures vary so much throughout the day.  Take today for example.  When I dropped my kids off this morning it was cold enough that they had to have coats, hats and mittens, but when I picked them up from school the temperature had swung by over 10 degrees and they didn’t want to wear their coats home.  The difference between coat and no coat is drastic.  All you have to do is try this simple test.  Put your infant or child in their snowsuit and put them in their car seat and adjust the harness.  Now take them out of their snowsuit and put them in the seat.  The results will be shocking … very loose straps … often you can just lift them out of the seat without even undoing the harness!

So, I guess that begs the question what can we do to help with this problem?

For starters, train yourself to always adjust your child’s harness, even when they get older.  When you take the child out of the seat, loosen the harness before taking them out.  This will cause you to do a 3 step system to get them back in.  You will have to do up the chest clip, do up the crotch buckle, and then tighten the harness. 

Another tip is as your child gets older, talk to them about the importance of car seat safety.  Teach them where their chest clip should be and how tight their harness should be.  My oldest can now put himself in his car seat and one day we were in a hurry so I sent him out to get in the car and get buckled up.  When I got in the truck, I just looked back, saw that his harness was done up and started the truck.  He yelled “Stop Dad, Stop!”  I looked back and asked what was wrong and he told me that his harness was not tight enough!  Kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for and having them understand and work with you some day might save a life!

A common question I get is how tight is too tight?  Usually the answer is … that is not tight enough and I reach down and tighten the child’s straps.  The parent then tells me that their child does not like to have their straps that tight.  The best approach to solve this problem is to start them young.  From the day you bring your child home from the hospital, make sure their straps are always tight enough!  Yes, they may not like it and may cry all the way home.  They may cry for the first half dozen car trips, but after a while they get used to it.  And when they do, they are safer!

To reinforce these habits, it is important to understand why harness tension is important.  Simply put, space = force.  Try a little experiment.  Put the palm of your hand half an inch from the wall.  Now slam you hand into the wall.  Now put your hand 1.5 inches from the wall and slam your hand into the wall.  Do you see the difference in how hard your hand hit the wall?  Space = Force.  In a car seat, the space between a child and the straps works the same way.  The greater the space, the more distance the child travels before they hit the strap, meaning they hit that strap with more force!  And don’t be fooled, fluffy jackets equal space even if the straps look tight!

Another common question I receive is “How do I know if the strap is tight enough?”  A lot of people tell you that you should only be able to put 2 finger between a child’s body and the harness strap.  Well, this does work, but everyone has different sized fingers and which way do you put them, flat, up?  The test that I like to use is to pinch the strap.  On the outside of the strap with your fingers pinching vertically you try to pinch the strap.  If the strap is loose you will be able to pinch it.  If the strap is tight you will not.

Too loose ff you can do this!

Some other helpful hints for getting your child’s harness tight:

  • Always make sure they are sitting back in the seat, not slouched forward
  • Always pull the straps above the crotch buckle to tighten at the hips.  You will be surprised how loose this can stay when you tighten by just pulling the strap.
  • If you live in colder climates, try to buy a good quality snow suit.  Better quality snow suits have better insulation and are not as thick.  You can also use items like the Car Seat Poncho to reduce the layers between the straps and your child.
  • Never wear snow pants in a car seat, they just add too much bulk.

Part two of this blog will be coming soon and will address the question, “I can’t tighten my car seat straps.  Is there something wrong with my car seat?”  I get this question weekly and my next blog will give you some trouble shooting steps to help with this problem.

 Till next time … Snuggle Dad

About Snuggle Dad

Ben is a father of 2 girls and 1 boy and owns Snuggle Bugz with his wife, Tanya. He's an expert on all things car seat and can (rarely) be found tweeting @snuggle_dad
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  • Vero

    Great blog! Everyone always comments on how I must ‘strangle’ my daughter and ‘she’s never going to get out of that seat’ when I tighten her straps. She, like your son, will notice if her straps are not snug against her hips and chest – since the day we brought her home, I have made it a point to tighten the harness each and every time she gets into her seat!

  • Jamie Bussian

    It is a great blog and some really good information. We always check the straps every time we put our children in their seats and we never bucket them in wearing their winter coats. Here is a link that helps demonstrate what the difference between wearing a coat and not wearing a coat in the car seat.

  • A Muddled Mama

    I wholeheartedly agree – awesome blog!

    I too hear that I have the straps too tight (as I yank it down to make sure it’s tight enough). I’ve started the “pinch test” to show that it did actually need to be tightened.

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  • Kelly

    I feel like you did not answer the question…How Tight is Too Tight? I for sure make the straps tight enough…the nurse at the hospital told me I was the first parent that she saw make the straps tight enough on the first try, but I am just curious if there is such thing as too tight with a car seat. I am assuming that it is ok, because my daughter is not bellowing out in pain when I strap her in 😉
    Thanks a bunch!

    • admin

      Kelly – yes it is possible to get straps too tight, although this almost never happens. You definitely want to make sure that the straps are not compressing the child!

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