Dirt and spilled food can affect a car seat’s performance—but cleaning it can, too. Improper cleaning methods and harsh chemicals can weaken straps, rust buckles, and damage plastic. Here are some tips for handling messes without sacrificing your kids’ safety.
Car Seat Cleaning Basics
Talk to any car seat safety expert, and they will tell you that the number-one rule when it comes to cleaning is: Follow the guidelines in the user’s manual. “There are some things people don’t really consider—like how cleaning methods and chemicals can affect the performance of the car seat,” says Angela Knudson, a community impact program specialist for AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah and a certified child passenger safety technician who works with parents and families to help keep them safe and prepared on the road. “So the rule of thumb is to always follow the cleaning instructions provided by the manufacturer for your specific car seat.”
Misplaced your manual? Most companies have them available on their websites as PDFs. Or you can call the customer service number to request a replacement—and ask any questions about cleaning, including whether that garden hose spray-down of your soiled seat last year may have caused invisible damage.
1. Prevent messes.
The simplest solution is to avoid a mess in the first place. While that’s easier said than done, there are a few tricks. The first is to restrict certain foods in the car: dairy products that will smell, sticky or gummy foods that are hard to clean, and crumbly snacks that trickle down underneath the seat into the locking mechanisms. Consider using spill-proof containers and solutions such as the ChooMee silicon cap that can be attached to squeezable food pouches and slow the flow.
Unfortunately, the main reasons car seats are deep-cleaned are more unpleasant: vomit and urine. But there are ways to mitigate these messes, too. Alisa Baer, M.D., a pediatrician and co-founder of The Car Seat Lady, suggests outfitting a motion-sickness prone child with a large bib that goes over the straps and lap once the child is buckled in—like the terry cloth Neat N’Cozy or the waterproof Bumkins Super-Sized SuperBib. For potty-training, Baer stresses not setting up your child for failure: “If the child might possibly fall asleep or you might possibly hit traffic and not be able to find a place to stop, put the child in a diaper or Pull-Up.” While some car seat manufacturers sell compatible seat liners (such as Britax and Diono), most third-party products are not safety tested for use in car seats. An acceptable alternative is a small, thin chux pad (like those used for puppy training) placed right underneath the child.