CPSTs: Gear Up to Explain Why Coats and CRs Don’t Mix

Adapted from a SRN article published in Fall 2020

As CPSTs know, the transition to winter wear presents an annual challenge to properly using CR harnesses.

CPSTs regularly advise caregivers to remove a child’s coat, jacket, or heavy sweater before putting on a CR harness. However, if the rationale behind this guidance isn’t explained, many people are likely to pay it no heed. Following this advice may feel like too much of an inconvenience or, in especially cold areas, a hardship. Some CPSTs may even get direct pushback from caregivers. So, it is important to be able to explain why this guidance is essential to follow.

The main reason children shouldn’t wear bulky clothes when riding in a CR harness is that these layers of fabric prevent the harness from being snugged up properly. (Of course, “snug” is a subjective term. See the box below for a description of what snugness means for proper harness use.) Puffy, quilted, or oversized garments keep the wearer warm by trapping air inside. When snugging up a CR harness, it’s not possible to remove all of this air, yet under crash forces, a child’s body will press it out. With all of that air eliminated, the harness is much looser on the child’s body—at the very moment it needs to fit properly to provide effective protection.

A related but different concern is that bulky and/or puffy clothing hampers the shoulder straps’ ability to contact a child’s shoulders in a crash. From the very first ride onward, a caregiver’s goal should be to ensure those snug straps run across the child’s shoulders, making solid contact; they should cross the collar bone and run between the neck and the ball of the shoulder bones. This contact is important when rear facing because, as the back of the CR shell absorbs crash force, the harness prevents the child from ramping up—and potentially out of—the CR. When forward facing, the straps absorb crash force, prevent ejection, and help limit head excursion. But a harness cannot work effectively in either scenario if it fails to contact the child’s shoulders in a crash. The air and fabric of bulky clothing prevents a harness’s webbing from making full precrash contact with the shoulders, and that situation introduces the possibility that the shoulders will slip between the straps during a crash.

The discomfort of overheating is yet another reason that wearing heavy clothing when riding in a CR is undesirable. With padded sides that wrap around a child’s body, a CR is a relatively warm environment compared to other seats in a car. So, it’s possible for caregivers to overshoot the mark in their efforts to keep kids warm. Even when an adult passenger needs a coat to be comfortable, a child who rides in a CR in the same vehicle may not necessarily need the same amount of outerwear. In fact, children who wear heavy clothing under a harness may become overheated.

What’s a Parent to Do When Buckling Kids Up During Wintertime?

Best practice is to make a habit of always removing outerwear prior to buckling a child up in a harness.
After the harness has been fitted snugly, the coat can be laid over the child or even put on backward, with the arms going through the sleeves. (This latter technique can have the added benefit of making it less likely the child will fidget with the harness clip position or otherwise alter harness fit. Those sleeves may keep hands out of trouble!)

Blankets made of polar fleece feel warm even when kept in a cold car, so having these available to toss on over a harness can also make the rider feel comfortable right away. Also helpful: These layers over the harness can be easily shed as the child warms up along with the vehicle.

This advice works well in most climates, but caregivers in areas where winter temperatures routinely fall below zero may still balk, especially if they must use a car parked outdoors. So, here are a few techniques that caregivers can consider when it feels truly risky for a child to be in a cold vehicle without a coat, even for the few moments it takes to secure the harness.

  • For infants who ride in a RF-only CR, an easy solution is to routinely take the CR indoors whenever the car is parked, so baby can be buckled up—and then covered up—before ever going back outside. (Be sure that any covering is tucked in around the body and not up near the face, where it can interfere with breathing.)
  • Identify a relatively thin but warm coat that’s CR friendly. In 2018, Safe Kids Worldwide posted advice on the SKW website to illustrate for caregivers what a snug harness looks like, with and without a coat. Outerwear varies in thickness, so to see if a particular coat negatively affects harness fit, the post suggested this technique: First adjust the harness properly on the child (passing the “pinch test”) without her coat on (for instance, at a time when it is not too cold or when the CR can be brought indoors). Then, without changing the harness length, take the child out of the CR, dress her in her coat, and try buckling her up again. Due to the extra clothing layer, the harness will be a bit snugger. But, as the post explained, this technique ensures that if the presnugged harness can be buckled around a coat-wearing child, the coat is not causing the harness to be loose. However, other aspects of proper fit must not be sacrificed; the harness must still go over the shoulders, and the webbing must remain flat and untwisted. For many types of outerwear, therefore, this technique serves to demonstrate why these garments ought to be removed.
  • Some child jackets are made specifically for use with CRs. Designs vary, but generally these open at the front to allow the CR harness to go against the child’s chest, are less puffy across the back, and feature a flap of fabric that closes over the child for added warmth after the harness has been properly fitted. Although it’s better to remove a jacket, these special jackets may be a solution for caregivers who are unwilling to take a child’s jacket off in the car. Find such products by searching online for “car seat coat.” However, beware: Several coats marketed online for “road trips” are decidedly not safe for CR use. Therefore, warn caregivers to vet these products carefully, including by looking for evidence that they’ve been crash-tested. (Note: SRN has not independently assessed any jacket and does not endorse particular products, in general. In addition, though crash testing is a reasonable way for inventors to confirm and demonstrate new product effectiveness, it must be noted that there is no standardized testing criteria established for coats used with CRs.)
  • Booster fit warrants extra attention in winter, too! If a coat must be worn with a booster, children and caregivers should be advised to open the coat enough to allow the shoulder belt to cross the shoulder properly and to ensure that a hood doesn’t interfere. Additionally, the lower portion of the coat should be pulled upward so it doesn’t lie underneath the snug lap portion of the belt.

Harness Snugness Basics

FMVSS 213 requires CR owner’s manuals to describe proper harness snugness as follows:

“A snug strap should not allow any slack. It lies in a relatively straight line without sagging. It does not press on the child’s flesh or push the child’s body into an unnatural position.”

A harness adjusted this way allows a child to be both safe and comfortable. However, if the child is wearing puffy outerwear, the harness could meet this description while not actually being shortened enough. To demonstrate, secure a child in a harness while wearing a coat. Then, without changing the harness length, take off the coat and secure the child in the harness again. The amount of slack caused by the outerwear will be apparent.

CR owner’s manuals also describe conducting the “pinch test” at the child’s shoulders to check for harness snugness. CPSTs should explain to caregivers that the webbing must be equally snug across all areas of the body, not just at the shoulders.

On a typical CR, pulling the harness adjustment strap will make the harness tighten at the shoulders, but much of the slack below the harness clip will remain. That’s because webbing slack slides easily through a CR’s front adjuster only when it’s unencumbered by friction at the latchplates and harness clip. Therefore, to properly snug a harness, any slack in the lower webbing segments (below the latchplates and between the latchplates and the harness clip) must be manually shifted upward so that it lies above the harness clip when the adjuster strap is pulled.

Most CR directions give too little attention to removing slack from these lower segments. Since these steps are easier to show than describe, CPSTs can play an essential role in teaching caregivers these important aspects of proper harness use.