Car seat safety is tricky to begin with, but throw in a Minnesota winter? Now parents are really struggling. How do you keep your baby warm without compromising their safety?

No Puffy Coats in Car Seats

General advice is to never put a kid in a car seat with a big winter coat on. Maybe you’ve read that and thought, “Well, sure, but it’s really cold here, that doesn’t seem wise.” Or maybe, “I don’t have a garage, so that doesn’t work for my family.” Or even, “Yeah, but I pull the straps really tight, so it’s the same as wearing clothes.”

I’ve been there. I have made those exact arguments, and made those mistakes with my first child before I learned more about the reason behind the rule. It would be easier to just ignore this one.

Loose straps after buckling around a snowsuit - bad for car seat safety!

Look at how loose those straps are!

But would you buckle your child into a car seat like this? The photo on the left is the result of buckling in my daughter wearing her snowsuit, and then taking off the snowsuit and re-buckling without adjusting the straps. A dangerous amount of slack is created in the meantime.

That is the equivalent of what you’re doing when your child is wearing a winter coat in the car seat. Coats and snowsuits use air as part of their insulation, which is why they end up so puffy. That extra air can add up to 4 inches of additional space, according to the Car Seat Lady (an excellent resource for car seat safety!). No matter how hard you pull the straps, it is physically impossible for you to compress the coat in the same way it would be in a crash (remember, crashes create forces strong enough to crumple steel! I’ve been working on my biceps, but I’m not quite there yet).

This video is a great illustration of this principle in action, and especially of how a child could then slip out of the loose harness in a crash.

What about Babies?

The same principle applies to your newborn. It may be tempting to swaddle them up or tuck them into that adorable snowsuit, but they need their straps tight, just like the big kids. Avoid any sort of bunting that goes behind your child (between the baby and the car seat), since it introduces the same problems. Shower-cap-style car seat covers are a great way to maintain warmth while not interfering with infant car seat safety. You’ve already made smart choices to keep your newborn safe during portrait sessions – keep them safe on the ride home, too!

Better Ideas

There are a variety of strategies out there aimed at keeping young ones warm and safe in the winter. Many parents choose to dress their children in a light fleece and an outer coat, then remove the outer coat before climbing into the car. The coat can then be worn backwards to stay warm in the car, or you may have a “car blanket” for this purpose. Some choose car seat ponchos, or products like the OneKid Road Coat, specially made to address this issue. The Car Seat Lady does a great rundown of these options here.

Trading Car Seat Safety for Convenience

Some of those strategies may be more annoying than just wearing the coat. Some of them may require your child to be cold for a few seconds before being covered again. Neither of those arguments seem like a good enough reason to risk my child’s life, no matter how many times I come back to them. So I grit my teeth, roll my eyes at the toddler meltdown, and take the coat back off.

Car Seat Safety - No winter coats!

Thanks to Aurora for demonstrating how a snowsuit can make car seat straps too loose. If there’s anything toddlers love more than wrestling on snowsuits, it’s being repeatedly buckled into car seats!


P.S. – Haven’t purchased a car seat yet? The great Babies ‘R Us Trade-in Event is happening! Get 25% off a new item when you bring an old one in to recycle (even if – especially if – the old one is expired or unsafe). It used to be just old car seats, but this year they have expanded the eligible list to include almost anything you use for a baby!