Most new parents have heard that the center position in the back seat is safest for baby's car seat. Since newer cars also have lower anchors for car seats as part of the LATCH system, many parents assume it's OK to install the car seat in the center using LATCh. Unfortunately, that isn't always the case, which means lots of parents are creating a car seat error that could put their baby at risk. Here's how to find out if center LATCh will work in your car, and what to do if it won't.
Where to Find Center LATCh Installation Information
Your first stop should be the back seat itself. Most of the time, the lower anchors for the LATCh system are marked by little circles with a LATCh symbol. If there are only two sets of circles, generally on the two outside seats, you'll need to investigate further. If there are three sets of LATCh markings, there's a set of lower anchors specifically for the center seat.
If you can't find the LATCh markings, or there are only markings on the outer seats, you'll need to take a look in the vehicle owner's manual. Some lower anchors are well-hidden under a flap or deep in the vehicle seat. Even if your lower anchors are well-marked, it's a good idea to check out the vehicle owner's manual anyway, for further information on how to use the LATCH system in any seating position. There should be a specific section about the LATCh system, usually under the subheading "Car Seats" or "Child Safety Seats." If you can't find those sections in your manual, try reading through the seat belts and occupant protection sections.
Sometimes there's a handy diagram showing the appropriate locations for a LATCh installation. In other vehicle manuals, you may have to dig a little deeper, or even read through the entire section bit by bit. There may be a highlighted sentence that specifically discusses using the outboard LATCh positions for a center car seat installation.
This section may say it's not OK to do this, or it may give details on the spacing between the innermost lower anchors, and refer you to the car seat manual to see if it's OK to install there.
The spacing between lower anchors in the LATCh system is federally mandated. If your vehicle owner's manual forbids using LATCh in the center, it's likely because the spacing is correct only for those outer seating positions. When you try to use the two inner anchors when it's not a designated LATCh position, the spacing is different.
If there's nothing in your vehicle owner's manual about using LATCh in that center position, don't give up hope just yet. You can also try calling the vehicle manufacturer. However, until you have confirmation from the vehicle manufacturer, don't install the car seat in the center using LATCh. The car seat may not be adequately installed if there's an anchor spacing issue for that position.
If your child is riding forward-facing, don't forget to attach the top tether.
It's required when the car seat is installed with LATCh. If you end up installing it with a seat belt, using the top tether is still highly recommended.
What If The Vehicle Manufacturer Forbids Center Installation with LATCh?
First, you should know that LATCh installations are not necessarily safer. The LATCh system was created as a universal, simple method for car seat installation. It's still just as safe to install baby's car seat with a seat belt, as long as you can do so properly. You can find seat belt installation information in your vehicle owner's manual, too, probably in a section right next to the LATCh info.
If the LATCh system truly is easier for you, and therefore gives you a greater shot at getting car seat installation right, it's OK to use LATCh in one of the outer seating positions. Yes, the center is safer by a small margin. However, if there are LATCh anchors in those outer seating positions, clearly the manufacturer intends them to be used for car seats. A properly installed car seat on the passenger or driver side is safer than an incorrect installation in the center. Use those outer positions if that's what works best for you.
Calling in Professionals
It's OK to admit you're stumped on all things car seat, too. The information may not be easy to find in your vehicle or car seat manual, or you may not be sure you're reading it right. After all, owners' manuals are written to federal standards, too, which may not always be clear to you. If you're still not sure if it's OK to use LATCh in the center position in your car, or you're not sure if you have that car seat installed correctly, get a car seat inspection by a certified child passenger safety technician. CPSTs have been trained to help you seek out the best information and find a solution to whatever car seat problem is plaguing you.