Do Your Research before Adding Accessories to Your Baby’s Car Seat

Baby in a car seat.

Parents and caregivers spend time meticulously researching which car seats to use when they bring their baby home from the hospital, making sure they have chosen one that will keep their baby safe. But, what about the toys, pads, mirrors and other accessories that can be added?

There is no federal safety standard for car seat accessories, such as toys that hang off the handles, shoulder pads, strap covers or seat mats. Instead, individual standards are developed throughout the industry that recommend how these items should perform. This information can be misleading and it is important to know how crash tests are performed with each of these items. Also, most people are unaware that if you add an accessory that did not come in the same box as the car seat, the car seat manufacturer is not liable for any injuries or failure of the car seat if a crash occurs.  

Just because these accessories are on the market, it does not mean they are made to work with every car seat or vehicle. “I assumed if it was being sold at Babies ‘R Us it was safe…until I did more research and learned how dangerous these items can be,” says Nicki a mom of three from Hampstead, NH.

The question I most frequently receive is, “Well, then what can I use?” Let’s look at the need behind each item parents flock to, and the recommended adjustments:

  • New England winters can be some of the harshest, making bundle covers a very common accessory. To keep your baby warm it is recommended that you use a bundle cover that goes over the shell of the car seat not in the car seat. Anything that comes between the straps of the car seat and the child poses a hazard if it is too fluffy. This includes winter coats. Skip hooded jackets entirely and trade it for a cute winter hat. Use a thin fleece or put a child’s jacket on them backwards once they are buckled. 
  • We may get a reprieve with our sunshine during the warmer months, but most children do not enjoy having the sun in their eyes. We are all quick to purchase window shades for the car to protect our children from the sun. However, the suction cup shades can detach in a crash becoming a projectile for all occupants in the car. Recommended instead are window clings, which do not pose a projectile hazard. You can purchase a window cling at a hardware or automotive store for a fraction of the cost of a suction cup shade.
  • Many children get bored in the car, and when they are rear facing you cannot see them either. Activity mirrors attached to the rear-head restraint—which takes your eyes off the road when you are checking on your baby—or toys dangling from the handle of the car seat can also detach in a crash. Soft cloth books or a set of soft toys designated for the car are alternatives. “My kid hates the car because she gets bored, but you know what she would hate more? Dying,” says Katie, a mom of one and medical device engineer.
  • Kids are messy, and car seats can be hard to clean! If you’d like to use a car seat protector mat or add an accessory, call the manufacture of the car seat (not the manufacturer of the after-market item) to find which one was crash tested with your specific car seat. It’s all about using the right item for your child’s car seat. Some manufactures let you use a thin towel, which is a cheaper alternative to a seat protector. Think of how great an option this is when it comes time for cleanup!

Companies may have their own add on products such as Britax who makes a protector mat and activity mirrors that are crash tested with their child restraints, or Graco, which partners with another manufacturer for seat protector mats, support cushions and other accessories. If you call a car seat manufacturer, tell them the exact item you would like to use such as “X Company’s bundle insert” or “Y Company’s mirror.” If they say their child restraint does not support this accessory, ask a follow-up question about what kind of product they would recommend to address your need. Explain that you want to know what works, and what has been tested and approved for use.  

As a child-passenger safety specialist, instructor and educator I recognize that some accessories are helpful to add to car seats and vehicles. Children can be messy, and it can be helpful to have toys that can entertain them in the car, keep them warm and even protect the car seat while potty training. It’s always a good idea to make sure that if it’s going in or near the car seat and your baby, it’s been approved by the manufacturer. When we know better, we do better. For more information on traveling safely with your littles visit Safe travels.

Julie Dietrich, CPSTI, is the New Hampshire Child Passenger Safety Program Coordinator.