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My car seat instructions say kids shouldn’t be wearing bulky clothing. Why? This doesn’t seem realistic for winter here. So what exactly should I be doing to keep them from freezing? – Meaghan, Regina

Baby, it’s cold outside – but a puffy jacket can stop a car seat from doing its job in a crash, safety experts say.

Still, there are ways to keep your kids safe from both a crash and the Canadian winter.

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"We’re not talking about putting a child in a T-shirt in a car seat in the winter,” said Katherine Hutka, president of the Child Passenger Safety Association of Canada (CPSAC). “You can have snug-fitting layers instead of something that’s big and bulky that makes a seat’s straps fit the child in a weird way.”

CPSAC, CAA, the Canadian Paediatric Society and the Canada Safety Council all recommend following a car seat’s instructions about bulky winter clothes.

Safety experts say a puffy jacket can stop a car seat from doing its job in a crash.

Halfpoint/iStockPhoto

So, what do the car seat manuals actually say? One from Evenflo states: “Bulky coats/snowsuits make it difficult to tighten the harness to the child, which may allow the child to be ejected from the restraint during a crash.”

In a crash, a bulky jacket can compress – the way a sleeping bag can squeeze into that little storage bag. Properly-fitting straps redirect crash forces to a child’s shoulders and hips instead of their internal organs or neck – and if the straps get loose, they might not do that.

Transport Canada regulates car seats, but the provinces set the rules about how you have to use them – and no provinces ban snowsuits in car seats.

We asked Transport Canada whether it recommends that parents avoid bulky jackets. It said to make sure straps are tight on your child’s shoulders with any clothing.

“It is important for users to check that the harness is snug every time they place their child in the car seat,” Transport Canada said in an e-mail statement. “This is especially important when changing clothes for different seasons.”

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It’s snug enough “if you cannot slide more than two fingers under it, or if you cannot pinch the straps towards you,” Transport Canada said.

Backwards jacket?

Hutka recommends the pinch test – try to pinch the shoulder strap between your thumb and forefinger. It shouldn’t give.

Consumer Reports recommends testing whether a jacket is too bulky by putting your child in the seat with it, tightening the straps properly – and then trying them in the seat again with the jacket off, without readjusting the straps.

“If you can pinch the webbing between your thumb and forefinger now, then the coat is too bulky to be worn under the harness,” it said.

And even if that jacket is too bulky, you can still keep your child in it on the way to the car, Hutka said.

Have them wear a warm fleece under it. Then take off the bulky jacket in the car, put them in the seat and put the jacket on backwards, over the straps.

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“If they get too hot, they can shake it off,” Hutka said. “And for smaller babies, you can put blankets over the straps and easily pull them off once the car gets warm.”

For babies, you can put them in their seat in the house – when the seat is still warm – and keep them covered up as you take it outside.

And steering clear from bulk is still a good idea even once kids graduate to a booster seat and the adult seatbelt.

Hutka said her kids still wore snow pants, toques and mitts in their car seats – even though they didn’t wear bulky snowsuits.

“It’s not like adults wear snowsuits in the car,” she said. “We wear jackets and we keep them open if it gets too warm.”

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com. Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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