If you’re reading this, we sympathize with you. Cleaning a car seat isn’t fun or easy. Here’s a guide to tackling this inevitably disgusting task, and maybe preventing the need to do it again in the future.

Before starting, read your car seat's instruction manual

Seriously… read the instruction manual to your child’s car seat. There’s always a section on how to clean it. If you can’t find your manual, look on the manufacturer’s website for a pdf version. If you still can’t locate the manual or if you’re confused by the instructions, call the car seat manufacturer’s customer service number. They’ll be happy to give you the do’s and don’ts for cleaning your specific car seat

Do not use cleaning products like Lysol, Febreeze, vinegar, etc., on the car seat

Car seats are one of the only products you’ll ever buy with the sole purpose of saving your child’s life. Car seats have to withstand thousands of pounds of force in a crash. Maintaining the car seat’s integrity is critically important to it functioning as designed. Cleaning products, even “green” products, can affect the integrity of the plastic and the straps, especially given that car seats are also exposed to extreme heat and extreme cold. The harness straps have elastic fibers that can be compromised by these products as well. Be safe and don’t use products that can weaken the car seat’s materials. 

How to remove and wash the cover

Most car seats have a removable and machine washable (but NOT machine dry-able) fabric cover. Getting the cover off can be tricky so we’ve listed a few pointers. Before starting we’ll give you a heads-up that the covers CANNOT go in the dryer, so make sure you have enough time for it to air-dry before starting this process.

Before doing anything to the car seat:

Read the car seat’s instruction manual and check the manufacturer’s website for videos on removing/replacing the fabric cover. Often following a specific step-by-step order will make it much easier to get the cover off (and of course this order is often counter-intuitive).

Video yourself detaching and removing the cover to use as a guide when it comes time to put the cover back on. You can also take still pictures at each step. Trust us… while you think you’ll remember how to get the cover back on, you won’t!

Take a picture of how the shoulder straps are connected before you disconnect them. Typically, removing the fabric cover requires detaching the shoulder straps from the metal plate they connect to in the back of the car seat. This is because the shoulder straps thread through holes in the fabric cover. Take a picture of how the shoulder straps are connected before you disconnect them and when you put the seat back together pay careful attention to the photo you took, making sure you connect them properly, without twisting or misrouting the straps. 

Don’t worry if it’s difficult! Physically removing the cover off can be hard to do on some seats, particularly on more expensive models where the fabric cover is tucked neatly into the frame of the seat.

When you’re ready to wash:

Don’t use detergent if you wish to maintain the integrity of the flame retardants used in the fabric cover. If you want to get rid of the flame retardants,  use detergent to wash the fabric cover.

Do NOT put the fabric cover in the dryer. Trust us on this one. Using the dryer will ruin the cover. We’re not exaggerating here — the fabric on the back actually disintegrates in the dryer. Not only that, but the instructions to basically every car seat forbid you from putting the cover in the dryer. Make sure you wash the cover at a time when you have sufficient time for it to air dry.

How to clean the straps

Washing straps is tricky for several reasons. First, some car seats have the straps permanently attached to the car seat, meaning that you can’t remove them or replace them. It’s harder to clean these, obviously, but many of the steps below still apply.

Can you use water? It depends on the car seat model. Some manufacturers don’t want you to submerge the straps in water. Others permit the straps to be submerged in water. Read your car seat’s manual or call the manufacturer for clarity on this issue.

Can you use other cleaning products besides water? Most manufacturers prohibit other cleaning agents (even if they allow water). So don’t use baking soda, vinegar, lysol wipes, febreeze, etc.

Use a toothbrush! Due to a disgusting personal experience with a messy car seat, we’ve found that a toothbrush (with water, not toothpaste on it!) can help clean straps, especially the nooks and crannies in the chest clip and buckle tongues.

If all else fails, replace the straps. If your straps are still smelly from vomit or other yuck despite your best attempts with water, we recommend replacing the straps.  It usually costs less than $15 and you can start by calling the car seat company’s customer service number.

How to clean the crevices

We’ve found a dry-wet-dry approach to be best.

First, shake out the car seat. Next, if you have a dustbuster or vacuum, use the long thin sucker to remove whatever stuff you can. Next, if there’s hardened on stuff (like raisins that have joined together to form a solid mass) use a flat head screwdriver to gently dislodge the yuck.

Now comes the wet. Take a wet (but not dripping) rag and wrap it around the end of the screwdriver to get the stuff out of the crevices. Some crevices might respond best to a toothbrush (with water, not toothpaste!). Don’t use chemicals on the shell of the seat – no lysol, clorox, febreeze, baking soda, etc – stick with water, it will get the plastic clean.

Last, take a dry rag or paper towels and dry off the seat, paying particular attention to areas with metal. Make sure the metal parts are dry to avoid the possibility of rusting. If it’s a sunny day, doing the cleaning outside can help keep it neat (since the mess goes in the grass and not on your living room floor) and the sun will help dry the car seat.

What about a car seat cleaning service?

Cleaning services specifically devoted to car seats and strollers have begun to proliferate in many areas in the past few years. Having seen car seats that parents have brought to various cleaning services in the NYC area, we’ve noticed several recurring problems with many of these businesses.

First, they clearly do not know how to work a car seat. We often see chest clips threaded improperly, twisted straps, and/or misrouted straps when the car seat is returned.

Second, there’s almost always “yuck” visibly remaining in the seat, particularly in the crevices.

Third, it’s unclear whether their cleaning practices are in keeping with the instructions as stated by the car seat manufacturer.

Tot Squad is the only company whose cleaning practices have been approved by any (albeit a few) of the car seat manufacturers.

Prevent the mess in the first place!

Because cleaning vomit out of car seats – particularly the straps – is a parenting nightmare, we suggest having your prone-to-puking child wear a bib/smock OVER the straps to keep the car seat and themselves nice and clean should the grossness happen. AFTER your child is buckled snug, put the bib/smock on them… then if the gross happens, the gross only gets on the bib. The Bumkins Super-Sized SuperBib is under $10 and should do the trick nicely Best of all, it has a pouch at the bottom to prevent the ultimate grossness of puke running down to the floor of the car. Another full-coverage bib is the Bib-On. These are also helpful for kids who eat in the car seat and let’s just say aren’t the neatest of eaters.