What to Know About Under-CR Mats and Towels

This article originated in the November/December 2023 issue of Safe Ride News.

Clek under-CR mat.

A caregiver recently emailed SRN the following question:

Now that our kiddo can walk, I am thinking about buying one of those seat mats for our car to protect the upholstery from muddy shoes. I’ve seen friends use them, but are they safe?

There are many factors to consider when answering this sort of question, and CPSTs must take each scenario’s specific details into account when providing education.

SRN surveyed members of the Manufacturers Alliance for CPS (MACPS) regarding policies related to CR mats and towels (which, for this article, are collectively called “vehicle seat protectors”) and found the issue to be far from black and white.

This article draws from that feedback and the instructions found in certain manuals. Although SRN has provided details for a few companies, it remains imperative to check each CR manual. Remember: Policies are subject to change and may be model-specific.

Follow CR manufacturer instructions

Start gathering information about vehicle seat protectors by looking in the CR owner’s manual. When the topic of seat protectors is present in a manual, it is often located toward the front or back of the booklet. (Contact the CR company if further clarification is needed.)

In this case, the CR was a Graco 4Ever, so it is helpful that Graco addresses the topic of seat protection clearly and consistently in its owner’s manuals. Under the heading Vehicle Seat Protection in the manual’s section of important warnings, the 4Ever manual reads:

“Protect vehicle seat. Use a car seat mat, towel, or thin blanket under and behind car seat.”

Grco 4Ever

SRN checked an array of Graco manuals and found this statement in Graco manuals going back at least a decade. Dorel and Evenflo manuals include a statement that specifies placing a towel (not a mat) under and behind a CR. The Dorel instructions clarify it should be a single-layer towel.

Still other brands prohibit using a towel under a CR, typically allowing the use of a specified mat or mats instead. Of these brands, most specify only the use of a company-branded mat. (Clek, Diono, and Simple Parenting are among the brands that offer mats; Evenflo, whose manuals permit using a towel, also allows use of its company-branded mat.) All Simple Parenting’s Doona CRs now come with a company-branded vehicle seat protector mat in the box.

UPPAbaby takes a different approach. Its website lists specified third-party mats that the company has tested and approved for use with each CR model.

Take a situational approach

Clearly, there is no industry-wide consensus on the mat-or-no-mat (or towel-or-no-towel) issue, so it’s important to consistently check the specific CR manual. While some CPSTs may think the easiest approach is to always discourage the use of a seat protector mat or towel, it’s not that simple. The instructions vary so widely that it is inappropriate to universally apply one stance for all situations.

Considerations for seat protector selection

While some CR manufacturers permit placing a towel and/or mat under a CR, the instructions often lack details about how to do this. So this is an area in which CPSTs can be of great service to families.

Even when the CR manufacturer allows for a seat protector—whether in the form of a towel, a third-party mat, or a company-branded mat—it must be properly used. A stiff or bulky mat or towel can prevent a tight installation, proper CR placement on the vehicle seat, and/or routing of the seat belt or LA strap. Even when these problems don’t exist, many mats can mask a loose installation. And to be clear, the CR manufacturers that allow mats are never referring to full-seat automotive covers; those require approval from the vehicle manufacturer.

The MACPS members who answered SRN’s survey agreed with the following proper-use statements for the vehicle seat protection method(s) they allow.

When allowed, a seat protector placed under and/or behind a CR:

  • Must not be thick or stiff. It must allow the seat belt/LATCH strap to fully tighten for a secure installation, just as the belt/strap would without something under/behind the CR.
  • Must not prevent the CR from being positioned on the vehicle seat as intended by the manufacturer.
  • Must not interfere with installation using a seat belt or lower anchors. The webbing must run straight and flat from the anchorage points through the belt path, just as it would without a mat or towel present.

Simply put, when using a mat is allowed (though a mat is not supplied by the manufacturer), warn caregivers to avoid selecting one that is bulky or stiff. And when manufacturers allow using a towel for seat protection (not CR positioning), they intend it to be a single layer of average thickness.

Employ engaged listening

The question posed to SRN made clear that the caregiver’s main concern was keeping the seatback clean. With children riding rear facing into the toddler stage, this concern is likely shared by many caregivers. But it is only one possible motivation a caregiver may have for using a vehicle seat protector.

Many people are primarily interested in preventing damage caused by the CR (though this risk is lower today than in the past, thanks to CRs having smoother points of contact). Others are worried about containing crumbs or absorbing spills. Still others may not care about seat protection but want the storage pockets these products often provide.

So, as CPSTs are taught during the certification course, be sure to engage the caregiver. Don’t assume all caregivers have the same reasons for using a mat or towel. By learning the specific motivations, a CPST can give each person appropriate advice. The various mats and towel solutions available each have different strengths and weaknesses. So, when a mat is allowed, a CPST can help direct a caregiver to options that address the caregiver’s needs while not interfering with proper CR use. The conversation may also help some caregivers realize that they don’t want to use a mat after all.

For instance, listen carefully to detect the common misunderstanding that a mat that grips is needed to install a CR tightly. Clarify that, while mats are sometimes allowed for seat protection or other conveniences, they are typically not tools to improve CR installation—and some can detract.

Educate with empathy

Respecting the caregiver’s wants and needs is also important. For instance, what if the caregiver who was worried about muddy shoes had owned a CR brand that doesn’t allow mats or towels under the CR? Explaining what instructions prohibit is important, but the caregiver still faces a problem to solve. In this case, a CPST might suggest securing a towel to cover just the seatback ahead of their rear-facing toddler and/or devising a plan to remove and safely stow shoes when getting in the car. An empathetic approach bolsters the overall learning experience and, in this case, is likely to keep the child rear facing longer.

Also check vehicle instructions

Kick mats that protect the back of a vehicle’s front seat (as shown on the prior page) must be approved (or, at least, not expressly prohibited) by the vehicle manufacturer. Because many kick mats hang from the front seat head restraint and/or include storage pockets, the vehicle manufacturer should determine whether, in a crash, the mat could interfere with the head restraint function and/or the advanced air bag sensors. The risk is greater when the pockets are filled with heavy items, like beverage bottles or electronics. If the vehicle manual states a weight limit for items in the seatback pocket, that limit should extend to a kick mat’s storage pockets. If there’s any doubt, contact the vehicle manufacturer’s customer service.

Objects in storage pockets should also be assessed for their potential to become dangerous projectiles in a crash. Typically, these pockets are not made to withstand crash forces!