How (Not) To Install a Carseat

Meg LarsenMay 29, 2020

A couple of weeks ago, Brad and I faced one of the inevitable rights of passage that all expecting parents must face: the installation of the car seat. I’m not sure whether it was movies, web articles, or popular lore that instilled me with the message that installing car seats is difficult, but regardless of the source, it was a message I had heard many times and had confidently chosen to ignore. After all, if everyone who has a baby has to do it, how hard could it be? Well, let me tell you, I got a good smack in the old humility belt on this one. 

Before purchasing a car seat, I did a lot of research.  Initially, I was just going to get a convertible car seat (because I’m cheap), but instead decided to follow the advice of some more seasoned parents who are friends of ours and start with an infant car seat.  They made a compelling argument about the ease of getting the baby in and out of the car without having to wake them up. As the temperatures have been slowly rising to their usual summertime hellfire, the prospect of not having to worry about fitting our newborn son into a puzzle of belts and clips as hot as branding irons in the middle of the hospital parking lot on the day we bring him home has made the infant car seat an even more appealing proposition. 

After several days of searching online, we decided to go with the Nuna Pipa because although the price tag packs a punch, it’s one of the few carseats that can be installed without a base (which will be helpful if the grandparents are watching him or when we travel) and because, let’s face it, it’s pretty. I felt fairly confident that a $300+ car seat would have something by the way of design features that would make it easier to install than less expensive alternatives. I also felt pretty confident that between my master’s degree in education and my husband’s ph.d in rocket science, we’d probably be able to figure it out.  Oh, how pride cometh before the fall. 

We prepared well for installation process.  Each of us read the directions thoroughly and discussed them with one another to ensure we had a proper understanding of the parts of the car seat and how they were supposed to fit into the car.  We read the warnings and caution labels.  We planned to complete this task in the morning before the sun got too high and it got uncomfortably warm outside.  Again, we had prepared.  But lo, we had not prepared to be part of the 75-90% of parents who struggle to install a car seat correctly, and yet, that is where we found ourselves.

We started by trying the rigid latch installation, which seemed like the sturdiest and most straightforward option.  Unfortunately, the angle of the back seat in my husband’s Toyota Corolla just didn’t seem to want to work with the angle of the latches. The Nuna Pipa is outfitted with the supposedly helpful “recline adjustment” feature, but let me tell you, helpful, it was not.  The recline adjustment only has two positions, up or down.  For us, when it was in the up position, the bubble on the base’s level wasn’t in the right position, but when it was in the down position, it tilted the base so high up that Hulk couldn’t have pushed the latches into the seat hooks. 

When it appeared that the seemingly idiot-proof “secure and simple 5 second install” wouldn’t work, we tried to install the base using the seatbelt option.  Again, the back seat’s incline posed problems for installation. The angle of the belt passage in relation to the angle of the base on the back seat simply made it impossible to lock the seatbelt in place while having it lay completely flat.  In dismay, Brad joked that our cheap-o Toyota just must not be compatible with our luxury carseat. Perhaps we had missed a key part of the directions that stated, “If you experience problems with installation, try upgrading your car to a BMW, or at minimum a Lexus.” Laughing, sweating, and possibly crying a little, we decided to return to the apartment and try again later. 

I tried asking more experienced mommas if they had any tips or solutions for our conundrum. I also tried calling the fire department, who will usually come out and help you install your car seat correctly, but like so many other wonderful services normally available to helpless first time moms like myself, COVID cancelled this one too (I know, #firstworldproblems, but still, it was a nice service). We couldn’t figure out what we were doing wrong. After reading several blog posts and watching The Car Seat Lady make us look like incompetent dunces, we had to take a break in order to swing by Brad’s parents’ house to pick up some mail from them. 

Before we headed out, I decided on a whim to grab the level.  One of the first steps in the directions is making sure you are parked on “level ground.” After Brad suggested that maybe the parking lot wasn’t actually level, I had to check. You see, I had taken “level” to mean, “not a hill,” but apparently level literally means, “perfectly flat,” because when I checked, sure enough, the ground was indeed not level–not enough to notice visually, but apparently enough for a stupid bubble not to line up with a stupid line on a BMW car seat.  

When we got to my in-laws’ house, like unwavering explorers undaunted by failure, we decided to try again. With Brad towering over the base in the back seat (a drop of sweat glinting on his brow), me leaning over his shoulder, his dad peering in from the other side of the car, his mom observing from the front passenger seat, and all of us delivering well-meaning but uninformed suggestions at rapid fire, the latches finally clicked, and the base registered as level.  We did it. We also managed to answer the question I’m sure no one was asking, which is “How many advanced degrees does it take to install one car seat?”–in our case, nine. And it all could have been avoided with a simple level.  

So yes, we did finally install the car seat correctly, and yes, we did look like idiots doing it, but nevertheless, we prevailed.  The moral of the story is, the next time you install a car seat: read the directions, never assume you’re above average, and bring a level. 

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