It was 17 below zero when I loaded my kids in the car this morning. Even though we’re headed into March, extremely cold temperatures and winter weather are still gripping much of the country (some school districts as far south as Houston have delayed opening because of the cold).

keep kids safe in cold weather
A screenshot of this morning

Driving in snow and ice means taking extra precautions, but you may not realize that some of the steps you take to protect your kids from cold weather could actually be putting them at risk when they’re in the car.

As a mom of a 2-year-old and a 10-month-old living on what can feel like Ice Planet Hoth (I actually live in New England), I’m used to bundling my kids up to head outside. When we’re getting in the car though, I skip the puffy coats and snow suits. Seem counterintuitive? It did to me at first, but the extra-thick coats that keep my kids warm when we’re playing outside aren’t the best choice for commuting to day care, even when it's -17 degrees out.

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When your kids are in a thick coat, you can’t effectively tighten the straps of their car seat, which could lead to them being seriously injured or even ejected from the seat in an accident. When it’s extremely cold, here’s what I do to keep my kids safe and warm.

First, I start the car and allow it to warm up. It’s not the choice that’s best for the environment – and trust me, I feel plenty guilty about it – but I only do it when the temperature is below zero and I only run the car for five minutes. 

For the walk to the car, I have my toddler wear her coat. When we get to the car, the coat comes off. I buckle her in and put the coat on top of her, like she’s wearing it backwards (she actually loves wearing her coat “silly style” in the car). The only time I worry about this process is if she decides to throw a tantrum or wants to climb into the car by herself after she’s taken her coat off. She ended up throwing a tantrum, coatless, in our driveway this morning, so I had to scoop her up and get her into her seat while she kicked and screamed. It wasn’t fun, but it kept her safe and warm and proved that there’s a very good reason why moms are bigger than their kids.

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My 10-month-old is still in his bucket-style infant car seat, so it’s a little easier to keep him warm. I buckle him into his seat while we’re in the house, then place a car seat cover over the seat. Infant car seats covers are easy to find and they provide the warmth a baby needs without coming between the baby and the car seat straps, or the baby’s back or head and the car seat. Most car seat covers have also been crash tested to make sure they don’t interfere with the car seat in an accident. I use a cover because we got it when he was a newborn and we were concerned that loose blankets over the car seat might pose a smothering risk, but now that he’s older a blanket would probably be fine.

Driving in winter requires extra preparation for anyone, but when you have little kids, you have to take extra steps to keep them comfortable and safe. As we prepare for our 2015 Best Cars for Families awards to launch on March 11, we’ll be sharing parent-tested tips and tricks for making sure that everyone in the family is safe and happy when you hit the road. What steps do you take to keep your family safe in the car in winter?

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