I have shared these facts in random places, in words. Never all in one place and never with photos. Last year, I started a crusade with #CarseatFullstop. I was so full of righteous anger and frustration at all the parents of South Africa that had the means, but didn’t use car seats for their children. I still carry a huge amount of frustration, but it comes with a humility of having faced my own mom shame on all the things I was doing wrong that was putting my child’s life at risk… This is not a pat-myself-on-the-back for changing my ways post.
Every time I see a photo of baby Charly in her car seat before July last year, I have a visceral reaction to the seeming list of every big car seat no-no possible. Let’s be very clear… Until the day I decided to do some research in order to write my original rant post, I believed completely that I was doing things right. And it was months of learning before I realised how badly wrong I was. Seeing the children playing in the back of cars or standing between the front seats always made my blood run cold and the passions run hot. It never once occurred to me that my child wasn’t safe – she has been in a car seat every trip on every day of her life from birth – except one occasion.
Having spoken to people who have lost their children in car crashes, because they weren’t strapped in. Having spoken to the head of pediatric neurosurgery at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s hospital about the things he had seen and heard. The stories I have read while doing research and double and triple checking facts. Learning the physics of car accidents and the physical development of babies to toddlers to teens and then adults. Having all this knowledge means I feel like somebody has punched me in the throat every time I think of that one occasion.
On 4 April 2014, a few days after our 6 week check ups (Charly’s and mine), we went on our first outing. My mom, Charly and I went off to meet a then-online friends (and thei brand new baby boy) in real life for the first time. That meeting developed what was a life-saving online relationship into a lifelong friendship with Cassey, “founder” of the #Fab5. I was nervous and excited and afraid to meet this stranger I was so close to online. I was also extremely afraid to be out with Charly… don’t ask, I have no idea why now. Anyway, all the context is still me avoiding the subject.
Just after we finished eating, my mom received a phone call. My aunt had found my grampa floating face down in the swimming pool (it was later found to be a heart attack) and she was in shock. My mom was the closest to their house so needed to get there asap. I was shaking too badly to strap Charly into the car seat. My mom didn’t know how. The very very worst time for me to do this, shaking and in shock. The first time I was driving since Charly was born. We had to drive up 1 road to get home. But I KNEW, even then, that this meant NOTHING and it wasn’t any more safe because it was a short trip. I just couldn’t get her into the seat. So my mom wrapped her in her blanket, held her close while sitting in the back seat and I drove home. It is a 60 second drive. My gut knew that this was a life-threatening risk, even though I had no knowledge of the facts then. Even now my instant reaction is to defend myself with “I DIDN’T KNOW!!” And everything was fine, she was fine and we got home safely in 60 seconds with not even one car in sight.
But now I know. I know that when a car crashes or suddenly stops, the body takes on the weight of the speed you were travelling multiplied by your actual weight. My 6 week old baby weighed about 5kgs, I was driving cautiously at about 50km per hour…
If I had crashed, her weight would have been 250kgs! Physics research has shown that my mom, as a passenger, would have had less than half a second to react if I crashed or even if I had slammed on breaks. It would have been scientifically physically impossible for my mom to hold onto my suddenly 250kg baby within that less than half a second. I don’t know if she had on her own seatbelt, under the circumstances probably not. So her weight would have been around 3,000kgs flying at my baby and both of them would have hit the back of my seat. I also know now that at even 40km per hour, the blow to my Charly’s head making contact with the back of my seat would have caused the same damage as if I dropped her from 6 meters (a second story balcony) onto concrete.
Every time I think of those 60 seconds with all that context swirling around in my head, I am flooded by an intense helpless panic. There isn’t even relief that everything turned out ok, because with South African roads being some of the most dangerous in the world, it so might not have. And that would have been 100% my fault. I am swamped by mom shame over that. I have never really recovered. I cannot begin to imagine the constant torture a parent who lost a child because of a situation like that would feel.
That is my biggest confession, the mom shame that torments me the most and still after 3 and a half years, when nothing bad even happened. But it is far from the only confession I have… And the others weren’t once off’s either.
I had NO idea that putting my baby in thick clothing under the harness of her seat could mean her being ejected from the seat in a crash! Soft thick clothing, bulky jerseys, puffy jackets, and blankets are completely compressed by the forces in a crash. This flattening out creates enough slack that your child could easily be flung out of the safe shell area of the car seat or slip loose of the straps completely. Even without that compression, the straps never sit in the correct position over a puffy jacket or raincoat.
I was always scared to tighten the straps of her harness too much. She was so soft and small. She HATED being in her infant car seat in a car. She would scream non stop the whole trip and then pass out in exhaustion the minute we got out the car. I would never have removed her to soothe her, because I knew how unsafe it was… but I did try EVERYTHING else to make her comfy, including making sure it wasn’t the harness being too tight. I know now that you shouldn’t be able to get more than two fingers between the harness and your baby’s collar bone and that you shouldn’t be able to “pinch” or gather the belt in any way. If the harness isn’t tight enough, your baby can be ejected. Logical right? Not at the time…
At 4 months, I was convinced the screaming was because she had reflux and the position of the infant seat was exacerbating it. So, we bought the best car seat we could afford without needing to save up, the Bambino Express, which allowed rear-facing up to 10kgs. I cringe at having moved her at 4 months now that I know how much safer the infant seat is for a baby. And I am angry at myself and at the car seat manufacturers for there being a seat that makes you forward face your baby at 9 or 10kgs. The risk of forward facing a baby that small with their adorable big bobble heads is internal decapitation for goodness sake! By having seats that only rear face to 9 or 10kgs OR seats that explicitly only forward-face as small as 9kgs, it allows parents like me – and SO many others – to believe it is safe. Allowing any baby under 13kgs or under 1 year old to face forward should be illegal.
I’m not sure exactly when I turned her to face forward, I have this uneasy feeling that it was above 10kgs. I always had age 1 in my head, but who knows… My mom memory from that time most closely resembles swiss cheese. With my little rant above about not allowing kids to forward face, why am I uneasy at thinking I turned her at age 1 (when she was 12kgs)? I’m not sure that many people know this, but once your child has reached the maximum weight shown on the orange sticker on your car seat (in this case, rear facing only to 10kgs), that seat is no longer going to protect your child. Even if you actually strapped them in securely enough, which you can see in image 2, I wasn’t.
Whenever it was, I genuinely believed that it was completely safe to turn Charly forward facing. This is a tough one, because some people really don’t have a financial choice but to use a forward-facing car seat. (This wasn’t why I chose this seat, I just had NO idea that extended rear facing was even a thing.) In South Africa right now there are no very affordable extended rear facing (ERF) seats and the second hand market is still fairly small, because ERF is still a new concept here (even though it is very well known across the world). There is also often an issue with ERF car seats fitting in our cars – they require more space than a forward-facing seat.
It is completely scientifically undisputed that rear-facing under age 4 is substantially safer than forward-facing. Very simply put, rear-facing seats evenly distribute the force of a crash impact across the shell of the seat, and then the entire back and solid head. Forward facing, the vulnerable neck takes the full force of the crash exacerabted by the weight of their proportionally large heads. You can read a lot more information on rear-facing in this article I share. I’m going to reshare this video, because it makes it very easy to understand the difference.
Anyway, so there I was, forward facing my little one before she was ready. Not only that, but there was no adjustable headrest, so her head was outside of the protective shell of the car seat – completely unprotected. This was from 18 months old, so it isn’t as if she had outgrown the seat. Also, looking at these photos now, I have noticed that her harness was much too low behind her shoulders (rear facing the straps should be below or level with the shoulders; foward-facing should be level or slightly above the shoulders).
That car seat in particular has some of the WORST harness straps EVER. They twist near instantly and it takes a fair amount of time to untwist them every. single. time. you want to put your child in the seat. So, here’s the thing… I didn’t know there was anything wrong with a twisted harness strap. It seems innoccuous enough, right? It isn’t – at all.
Each twist makes the harness less effective. You need to think about how the harness actually works. Tight and smoothed against your child, it catches your child in a crash, distributing the impact evenly across a wider area of the body. A twist affects it’s ability to do that. Depending on the severity of the crash and how many or tightly the straps are twisted, they could place strain on the straps themselves and they could cut into and injure your child. Reading this hurts my heart more than I can explain. Again, it makes me angry at myself for not knowing and at car seat manufacturers that don’t take this into account when they design and build the seats. Thankfully, this isn’t the case with all car seat harnesses and it has become a formal criteria I always tell people to consider when trying to choose a car seat.
I could make little infographics on what not to do with car seats with any of the photos of my child before I started researching. I start physically twitching when I look at the photo below. It is a serious miracle that we were never in an accident when she was strapped in like this.
I am the founder of a national movement on car seat awareness and education… Not because I know everything about car seats – although it is a massive priority for me to keep the knowledge I have now up to date with international and local standards – but because I suffer daily from the mom shame of all the things I didn’t know and every parent’s worst nightmare, the “what if” that never quite goes away. My life’s mission is to make sure that I can share what I have learnt with as many parents as possible, so that their “what if’s” are as lucky as mine – looking back and seeing the mistakes, but never having to suffer the consequences of those mistakes because what they know NOW means their littles are as safe as they can be.
After learning all these things, and still learning more every day, Charly is rear-facing again. She never wears too thick clothes, jackets come off before she is strapped in. Her rear-facing harness is below her shoulders and she has a protective head rest. Her harness is always as tight as I can get it (I try to pinch it every single time I strap her in and I always check her if somebody else straps her in – even Brett or my mom who I have trained to do it the way that is needed). Her straps are never ever twisted.
I am incredibly blessed that through this initiative, I received the Volvo Maxway last year and at the end of this week, I am finally able to return her to rear-facing in my mom’s car (she fetches Charly from school) in that Volvo seat. I am quite sad that the Volvo seats are not currently available in South Africa (I will update when they are again),
I am able to move the Volvo to my mom’s car because this year, we have partnered up with BeSafe, and I will finally be installing the BeSafe iZi Plus in our car this weekend (a dream since learning of it’s existence). while both of these seats rear-face up to 25kgs and 115cm, the iZi Plus is in a class all of its own though. It is a safety test winner (the Volvo test results are there too, 1 point behind) in some of the most stringent tests in the world and there are so many little “extras” it offers that ensure your child is literally as safe as is possible in a car. I am busy reviewing the seat as I learn more about it. I am reading manuals and watching videos in preparation of the install this weekend and watching how Charly is instantly “encased” by the seat when she sits in it makes this mama heart very happy and eases some of the worst of the mom shame I carry. (She hasn’t let me get a photo of her in it yet :-/)
I am over the moon that the amazing folks of Born Fabulous (who are the BeSafe partners in South Africa) have made #CarseatFullstop an official retailer of the BeSafe car seats and accessories (the only ones I know of that are actively crash tested and passed and therefore safe). What being a retailer means to you is that you can buy one of the safest car seats in the world from us and the profits will go to maintaining #CarseatFullstop! So saving your littles and helping us to save all the other littles out there!
If you are interested in purchasing a BeSafe car seat, you can join the “BeSafe with #CarseatFullstop” group on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/supportcarseatfullstop/. If you have any questions, you can ask them in the groups or email me on email@example.com.
What are some of the things you don’t or didn’t know about car seat safety?
With statistics saying that up to 93% of people aren’t strapping in their kids… We ALL know somebody who is adding to that number.
“You have the power to save a little life.
One share, seen by one person, who straps in one child, saves a life.
#CarseatFullstop. Every child. Every time. No matter what.”
Please follow us on our social media channels and share them to encourage others to follow along too.
If you have an old unused car seat gathering dust in your garage, please consider donating it to our very favourite NPO, Wheel Well. You can drop your seat at your closest Renault dealership and they will get the seat to Peggie and her team. They will clean and safety check it, before giving it a new home with somebody in need for a small donation <3
Watch out for next week’s BeSafe iZi Plus review and giveaway!!
Sending you all the love xxx