Installing car seats is no one’s idea of a good time.
Most of us parents want to, ideally, do it once and then never think about it again.
But it’s not always that easy.
- it’s your first time putting the seat in
- you’re moving it to a new car
- you’re installing a rental car seat
- you’re adjusting a seat that’s come loose
- you’re turning the seat around for your toddler
- or you’re putting in a brand new car seat
SO many people run into this problem: They can’t get the car seat tight enough!
This is an infuriating problem, and frankly a dangerous one. I don’t need to go into detail about why “living with” a loose car seat is a bad idea.
You need to get this fixed, even though it can be a major headache. And here are my top 9 ways to solve or avoid this problem altogether:
- Plan ahead whenever possible
- Sit in the seat to push it down tight
- Pull from the proper angle
- Try switching from LATCH to seatbelt install
- Double check the strap path
- Read the instructions!
- Use car seat installation aids
- Swing by the fire department
- Just get a different car seat
1. Plan ahead whenever possible
I’ve been there.
There is NOTHING more frustrating than trying to install a car seat (safely and properly!) while under the gun, with the rest of the family waiting for you to finish, baby crying, the hot sun beating down on you, and finding you juuuuust can’t quite get it tight enough.
This is a bad situation to be in. Not only because it’s stressful, but because you’ll be tempted to get it “good enough,” and move on.
It’s not always feasible to install the car seat ahead of time and before you need it, but I’d urge you to become familiar and well-practiced with taking the car seat in and out on your own.
(Especially if you had a friend, neighbor, or professional help you put it in. Make sure you learn how to do it because one day you might have to!)
2. Sit in the seat!
If pulling endlessly on the strap isn’t enough to get it tight, it could be a problem with the seating position.
In order to get the strap as tight as possible, you need as little extra space between the actual car seat itself and the child car seat as possible.
Put all of your weight down on the seat as you pull the strap to tighten it. This presses it deep into the cushioning of the car seat itself and gives you more slack to pull out.
It can be a little awkward to put your weight down on the seat AND pull on the strap simultaneously. It helps to have an extra set of hands if you’re not pretty nimble.
How I do it: Climb into the car and put a knee (or both, if you’re petite) into the seat, with your stomach facing the back of the seat and car. (That’s for forward-facing seats. Rear-facing seats are going to be a tad more awkward). Grab the strap from the side and pull from and toward your body.
There’s no getting around the fact that this process is a little clumsy and uncomfortable. But any time I’ve ever installed a car seat, I’ve had to throw my weight into the seat to push it down and get it tight enough.
3. Pull from the right angle.
If you’re pulling and pulling and the strap just won’t tighten, but there seems to be slack, it can be pretty confusing.
The angle of force could be your problem in this case.
It often works best to pull up and toward the center of the car seat, rather than away from the seat (ie when you’re standing outside the car).
This is counterintuitive, for sure, but the way most of these straps are designed, the only way they’ll tighten at all is if you pull from the right angle.
(As an exercise to understand this, take the car seat out of the car completely and practice tightening the strap… Notice if the slack pulls through the mechanism easier from one angle vs another.)
4. Try the seatbelt
It’s a common misconception that installing with LATCH is safer.
In reality, when installed correctly, LATCH and seatbelt are both equally safe. LATCH, in theory, is supposed to be easier and simpler.
If it’s not, and you’re having trouble getting the LATCH strap tight enough, you can always try your luck installing with the seatbelt.
The standard doesn’t change. See below for the exact way to tell if the car seat is tight enough, but basically, whether you’re installing with LATCH or a seatbelt, the seat shouldn’t wiggly hardly at all if you’ve done everything right.
The seatbelt is just a good option to have in your back pocket when you’re too frustrated with LATCH to give it another try.
5. Check the full strap path for twists, tangles, and obstacles
See if there’s anything physically impeding the strap from pulling tight.
Often, you’ll find it’s twisted up and that’s what’s giving you all kinds of trouble.
The strap could also be pinched under the seat somewhere or otherwise impeded.
Turn the car seat upside down and get a good look at what’s going on with the mechanisms underneath. See if you can freely slide the strap back and forth when it’s not buckled in, and make sure it’s free of tangles and twists.
6. Read the instructions
Ugh, I know this is annoying, but trust me on this.
Lots of car seats have small little nuances and techniques that need to be performed properly to get a proper install.
You might know generally how to put a car seat in, but you should always double check that you’ve followed the instructions. Especially if you’re having trouble getting the seat tight.
(If you’re having a hard time installing a car seat you got from a rental car company, see if they can at least give you the instruction manual. Or look it up online. Most reputable companies have these documents available online for easy access.)
7. Try car seat installation foam strips
If you’ve tried everything and just can’t, for the life of you, get the car seat tight enough, there are some interesting products on the market that might help.
(I’ll add that if the seat is REALLY wiggly, you’ve probably done something wrong or have a defective seat. But if you just can’t get that last little bit of tightness, there are other options…)
These foam car seat installation strips can be really useful in this case.
Essentially, they’re little sections of “pool noodle,” (and you could just buy those from your local store, for less money, instead) that you jam in the seat crack behind the car seat.
When you put your weight into the seat and tighten the strap with all your might, the foam compresses. When you release the tension, it expands and presses back into the seat, giving it a little bit of extra tightness.
8. Call in the fire department (seriously)
If you just can’t do it, and you’re not sure what to do, your local fire department or police department might be able to help.
They often offer car seat safety inspections and, in some cases, will do it for you. They’re very well-practiced and trained in how to make sure the seat is installed perfectly.
If it can’t be done and there’s something wrong with your car seat, they’ll be able to tell you.
The downside here is, obviously, this doesn’t help you in an immediate jam. But if you plan ahead, this can be a massive help.
9. Get a new car seat
Having a seat that’s so mind-bogglingly, infuriatingly difficult to install properly is a bad situation to get yourself into.
It seems like a good enough idea to get it in the car tight once and then leave it forever, but if it ever needs to be…
- cleaned out
- or moved to another car
… you’re going to seriously regret not replacing it sooner.
(Also, I’ll add that getting a new isn’t quite as feasible! Much easier to replace the child safety seat.)
If you feel like you’re going to have problems or difficulty working with this car seat in the future, see if you can get a refund from the company or if they’ll even send a replacement unit you can try.
I promise you, being afraid of your child’s car seat is only going to cause you problems down the road.
How to know if the car seat is tight enough
If you think it’s not, it’s probably not.
The safety standards for child safety seats are VERY high. And honestly, the majority of car seats aren’t installed correctly.
So what’s the standard?
According to the DMV, the car seat should not move more than an inch in any direction when you wiggle, push, or pull on it.
That’s a high bar! So the strap needs to be super, super tight.
(Again, I won’t go into detail on why this is important. If you want to have some horrific nightmares, you can read up on the dangers of improperly installed car seats yourself.)
Also: Don’t forget to make sure the recline angle of your car seat is correct for your child’s age. Most modern models will have a little gauge on the side of the car seat with a level that helps you find the right setting.
There are a lot of variables involved in this problem.
- What kind of car you have
- LATCH vs seatbelt
- What brand of car seat
- What style of car seat
- And more
So it’s hard for me to offer a universal fix for when you can’t get the car seat strap tight enough.
I’d say the main problems are usually a) you haven’t put enough weight down on the seat to free up belt slack and b) you’re pulling from the wrong angle.
If trying those fixes doesn’t work, read the instruction manual and see if there’s anything you missed.
When all else fails, I’d recommend getting a different car seat or trying to get a refund/replacement from the company. Having a car seat that’s THAT hard to work with is a bad long-term investment.
Hope this helps, parents!