In 2014, the University of Birmingham (United Kingdom) studied how germ types and levels in cars compared to those in people’s homes. While they found plenty of germs in people’s vehicles, it was in car seats that the results really stood out. Researchers found that, on average, every square centimeter of a car seat contained at least 100 bacteria and fungi—twice as many as on a toilet seat.
Naturally, this report was widely circulated in the media that year, and people were understandably grossed out. It is certainly a reminder for CPSTs to stock their tool kit with hand sanitizer and use it routinely while working in cars.
However, while the researchers concluded that parents should be urged to clean their CRs more often, CPSTs also know that the cleaning process can have unintended consequences. Too often, a CR that has been thoroughly cleaned is also one with problems, like misrouted harnesses, twisted straps, shrunken fabrics, and missing or misplaced parts.
Here is some advice that CPSTs can give caregivers to help them avoid some of the unsafe pitfalls while ensuring a clean vehicle environment for their children.
Car Seat Cleaning Basics
First (always first), read instructions
Every CR owner’s manual has cleaning instructions, usually broken out by part and usually on one of the last pages of the manual. If the need to clean is of a sudden, urgent nature, it may be hard to stop and find instructions. So, during education, CPSTs should guide caregivers to these instructions and stress their importance so that caregivers are inclined to refer to them and can do so quickly when mess emergencies inevitably come up.
Smart phones and digital photography make it easy for caregivers to document the way a car seat looks before disassembling the parts for cleaning (or making required adjustments). Reassembly should be done while consulting the instructions, but having additional photos of the assembled CR will help.
Keep it simple
Routinely vacuuming the padding and spot cleaning spills is often enough and is far less likely to cause a problem than taking the entire seat apart.
Keep it gentle
When thorough cleaning is necessary, use only mild detergent and water, and avoid any strong chemicals.
Wash as directed
Most padding nowadays can be put in the washing machine, but confirm this in the instructions. Assume that fabrics should air dry, unless instructions clearly state that machine drying is okay. The UV rays of the sun can damage the fibers of webbing, so, for those, avoid drying in direct sunlight. Also, never iron webbing, since high heat can also damage the fibers.
Don’t forget the buckle
The buckle should be examined for debris and cleaned if items have collected inside that affect its function. In general, never oil buckles or use soaps. Remove the buckle strap from the CR (if possible) so the buckle can be submerged in warm, plain water. While submerged, agitate it gently; after a minute or so, press the buckle button several times. Remove the buckle from the water, shake any water out, and allow it to air dry. (Graco has posted a helpful buckle-cleaning video on You Tube.)
Plan for down time
Do not reassemble a car seat until all parts (fabric, foam, webbing, buckle, shell) are thoroughly dry. Anticipate that this may take several hours, so a planned cleaning should be done when the CR won’t be needed for a sufficient period of time. Because events requiring cleaning sometimes happen unexpectedly, families may want to order a spare set of padding from the manufacturer to have on hand as a replacement during cleaning time. Even better, they may want to have a back-up CR.
Know how to reinstall
Besides reassembling the CR (following instructions), a car seat that has been cleaned will need to be reinstalled properly. Explain to caregivers at car seat checks that this is one reason they must be educated to do the installation themselves—all CRs eventually have to be reinstalled.