Everything You Need to Know About LATCH Kids Car Seat Systems

LATCH systems are a great way to ensure kids car seats are installed properly. But like anything, it has its limits. Here's what you need to know, plus a few fun facts

Latch Car Seat System Nuna
A rear facing Nuna car seat installed with the LATCH system. Photo: Nuna

Created to Ensure Proper Car Seat Installation, There Are Limits, Too

If you’ve ever ended up with suspiciously moist crumbs under your nails after rooting around for a LATCH anchor in a car, you already know that super accessible anchors come in clutch. But have you ever wondered what LATCH stands for or how it became such a foundational element in the car seats our littles travel in today?

It turns out that the LATCH car seat system came along in an effort to both make car seat installation more convenient and to increase the number of correctly installed car seats. Obviously, we all want our kids to be safe back there when we take to the streets. LATCH is all about safety, so any parent can get on board with this marvel of car seat evolution.

Related: Best Travel Car Seats, From All-in-Ones to Booster Seats for Big Kids

Love This Details Covered Latch Anchors
LATCH anchors covered by a flap in a Land Rover Defender. Photo: Scotty Reiss

How It All Began…

My MeeMee always used to tell me about the little canvas hammock she once placed her babies in way back in the day. This seemed a bit far-fetched, but it’s actually true. The first version of any kind of car seat or child restraint was a little sack that hung over the headrest in the passenger seat. Yes. You read that right. A burlap sack… imagine!

It wasn’t until the mid 1960’s that car seats designed for the specific purpose of safety even became a thing. That’s a long history of drive time that’s honestly terrifying to think about.

Soon, though, we were able to install children’s car seats with seatbelts for safely ferrying our progeny. But, turns out, interpretations of what a correctly installed car seat differed. And children suffered.

I remember when I had my first baby, I did so much research. I watched so many YouTube videos and pored over websites like The Car Seat Lady.  When the time came to strap that baby in, I painstakingly perfected our car seat installation to meet virtually every safety protocol I had found on the internet. It’s amazing to think that back in the before time, when we couldn’t just Google everything, people were actually slinging their babies in a hammock to go for a drive.

Related: Our Favorite Booster Car Seats – And What You Need to Know About Them

Our Car Seats In The 2024 Chevrolet Trax Latch
The LATCH car seat system with our car seats in the 2024 Chevrolet Trax. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Are There Federal Car Seat Regulations?  

Since the hammock days, car seats have come a long way. We humans tend to do that. In fact, we’ve now made it all the way to near-dynamic brands like Graco car seats and elite designer seats like the Nuna car seat and stroller line (Forbes says Kim Kardashian loves her Nuna, in case you were wondering). No matter what, they all have a few things in common – and the LATCH car seat system is one of them.

The reason we see these commonalities from seat to seat is because there are regulations enforced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). But that didn’t start until 1971 when they told drivers that car seats must be strapped into the car with a seat belt. This may seem shocking, but when you realize that seat belts weren’t even mandated until 1968 it puts things into perspective. Over time, more laws and regulations for things like crash test requirements made their way into the books.

In 2003, the US government mandated that car manufacturers install the LATCH system in vehicles, aiming to enhance child safety during transportation.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Baseless Car Seats: 7 Great Choices for Traveling Moms

Latch Car Seat System
A Britax car seat installed via an easily accessible LATCH system. Photo: Erica Mueller

What Is the LATCH Child Car Seat System?

LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. The tethers come out from the lower end of the car seat toward the back of the adult-size seat. The tethers latch to the anchors engineered into the factory seats in various places and, voila! A simple yet revolutionary invention that has saved thousands of children’s lives.

Much to the distress of rushed parents the world over, these LATCH anchors are sometimes nestled deep in the crack (you know the one) and difficult to access. That’s a feature I always check out in every model I review. An accessible LATCH car seat anchor is an absolute game changer when it comes to car seat installation and removal. Nowadays, all modern car seats have a LATCH car seat system, and all cars are sold with the necessary anchors to attach them too.

Britax, a leading car seat manufacturer, played a pivotal role in developing the US LATCH system. The brand’s pioneer version was so effective that the government requested the release of Britax’s patent. It wanted to facilitate widespread integration of the system into every car, emphasizing its importance in child passenger safety.

How the LATCH System Works

The LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system is a critical component of child car seat safety, providing a standardized method for securing car seats in vehicles. Here’s a breakdown of how the LATCH system works and some important considerations:

The LATCH system consists of two primary components: The lower anchors and the upper tether. Lower anchors are metal bars or hooks located in the seat bight, the crease between the vehicle’s seat cushion and seat back. Child car seats are equipped with connectors, either rigid or flexible, that clip onto these lower anchors. The number of lower anchors and upper tethers available in vehicles can vary. Some vehicles may have lower anchors and tethers in all rear seats, while others may only have them in certain positions.

The upper tether is also a hook or bar to attach a strap from the top of the car seat. The tether is secured to an anchor point in the vehicle, often found on the seat back or on the shelf behind the rear seat headrests. All car seats can use the upper tethers. However, the lower anchors should not be used in addition to seat belt installation; it’s one or the other depending on the weight of the child.

Always consult the car seat owner’s manual to determine the available anchor points and their locations, ensuring proper utilization of the LATCH system. The manual will also provide more insight into conditions and criteria for using a seat belt vs. the LATCH system.

Latch Car Seat System
LATCH car seat tethers in the Acura Integra A-Spec. Photo: Sara Lacey

The Volkswagen Golf IV and its Claim to Car Seat Fame

Another fun little factoid about the LATCH car seat system’s origin goes back to its first ever entrance into the automotive safety scene. The original system was called ISOFIX, and it was introduced in Germany in 1997. Car safety brand, Römer, launched its first car seat in collaboration with the all-new 1997 Volkswagen Golf IV. In Europe, you may still see car seats labeled ISOFIX instead of LATCH. Just know that it’s virtually the exact same system by a different name.

In fact, the LATCH car seat system goes by several different names – depending on which country you are in. For example, you’ve got LATCH in the United States, ISOFIX in Europe, and the UAS (Universal Anchorage System) in Canada.

During a vacation in Ireland years ago, my family bought a car seat for our toddler so we could drive from Dublin to Limerick for a rugby match. Bringing it back across the pond with us was so worth the hassle – seeing that Recaro car seat on the daily brought back fond memories. Plus, there was something about that ISOFIX label that was a touch exotic in the best way.

Car Seat Installed In The 2024 Audi Q7 Quattro. Photo Erica Mueller Latch
Car seat installed via the LATCH system. Photo: Erica Mueller

Proven Success with the LATCH Car Seat System

From 1975 to 2017 in children under the age of 5, 11,606 lives were saved by LATCH, and that is no joke. Overall, The LATCH car seat system represents a crucial advancement in child passenger safety, simplifying the car seat installation process and making correct installation more achievable for parents and caregivers.

Selecting the right car seat, ensuring it fits properly in the vehicle, and using the LATCH system correctly can significantly reduce the risks for our youngest passengers. As technology and vehicles evolve, so too will the mechanisms for protecting children on the road, but the LATCH car seat system’s legacy as a foundational improvement in child safety will undoubtedly continue.

Like I said, we’ve come a long way from the baby hammock.

Learning to drive in an F-350 dually pickup gave Jordan an early intro into the world of trucks. A... More about Jordan Almond