Car Seat Safety Guidelines: Everything You Need to Know

Whether you are buckling in your newborn for the very first time or taking your big kid to their first day of school, car trips are a big deal. There’s no more precious cargo than your amazing kiddos, and keeping them safe during any ride is so very important.

Although we take car seats for granted when we buckle our kids in, we actually need to make sure that they are in the right seat for the right age and that it’s installed correctly. If not, the car seat can’t do its job.

I’ve put together a comprehensive guide for you. I’ll go over the importance of car seats before I dive into guidelines. I’ve divided it up by ages and stages of car seats for easy reading. Then we’ll take a look at installation and other important car seat questions.


Why Are Car Seats Important?

If I had a dollar for every time that my grandma asked me why I keep fooling around with these big, bulky car seats… Why back in her day, they laid the baby on the front seat next to them! Okay, Grandma, we drive a lot faster, a lot farther, and a lot more often now. Our safety standards have got to keep up.

Did you know that auto accidents are the leading cause of death for children of all ages? According to the CDC, the highest death rate occurs for children who are occupants of motor vehicles.

If cars are so dangerous anyways, why bother with the inconvenience of the right car seat and the right installation? Because you can greatly reduce your child’s risk of being injured or killed! For kids in car seats, their risk of serious injury can be reduced by anywhere from 72% to 82% compared to kids in seat belts alone! Auto insurance pros AAA also estimate that the risk of death by auto accident can be reduced by 28% when using a car seat. And it doesn’t end when the kiddo gets a little bigger. Children aged 4 to 8 can reduce the risk of serious injury by 45% just by using a booster seat.

Here’s an older, but compelling video from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety:

So how does a car seat accomplish this? By taking away a lot of the force of the crash. Just like a seat belt protects adults by redirecting the force of the crash to the strongest parts of our bodies (pelvis and ribcage), a car seat does the same for kids. It basically provides a strong connection point to the car to keep the child stabilized, all while absorbing impact forces. Each type serves its own purpose:

  • Rear-facing seats have the padding, structure, and safety harness needed to keep a smaller child safe by protecting their head, neck, and spine
  • Forward facing seats offer continued shielding of the neck and spine while properly restraining a bigger child
  • Booster seats get kids to the proper position to have that seat belt hit their stronger areas so that it can spread the force of the crash across a wider area

Using a car seat is the law, and breaking it has financial consequences. How much is a ticket for not having a child in a car seat? Fines alone can cost anywhere from $25 to well over $100, depending on the state. That doesn’t even include any additional fines or fees. Second time charges are much, much more (think $).

This all leads to one conclusion: car seats are so, so important! Young kids should never not use a car seat!

Here’s an older, but compelling video from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that proves my point:

What Kind of Car Seat Should My Child Be In?

It would be so nice if there were universal car seat height and weight guidelines. It would make shopping for and using car seats really easy. Manufacturers set their own height and weight limits based on the design of each individual car seat. Most of the numbers are similar, so there are some basic guidelines. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as well as the AAP say children should be in each seat type as long as possible before transitioning to the next step.

Car seat weight and height limits by type

The American Academy of Pediatrics no longer has an age guideline for the use of car seats; instead they recommend following the car seat manufacturer’s limits for weight and height. This is because children are not all the same size and seats are not all designed in the same way.

The NHTSA does have age guidelines, as does AAA SafeSeats.  Some kids grow faster than others, so if possible, always go by your child’s weight and height as well as the manufacturer’s limitations on the seat.

This covers the different ages and stages of car seats, all the way up until your child is nearly grown. Let’s dive into each one separately.

1.Rear-Facing Car Seats

Up to the maximum height/weight specification of the seat

This type of car seat is specifically designed to be installed with the baby’s back toward the front of the car. This is called “rear-facing” and it reduces the strain on little babies in the event of head-on collisions.

Pay special attention to the weight limits listed for the specific seat you are purchasing. Rear-facing car seats may accommodate babies from 4 lbs to 40 lbs, but it is always important to double-check.

There are several types of rear-facing car seats.

  • Infant carrier with or without base
  • Rear-facing only car seatImage result for graco car seat
  • Convertible car seat
  • 3-in-1 or 4-in-1 car seat

Each of these has a certain type of structure that helps to keep your baby’s head and neck supported and shielded.  It accomplishes this by having a contoured design with a strong plastic and/or steel frame as well as a side bolsters and extra head protection.

When you consider that the average car accident can reach well over 30 Gs, you really want to make sure that the force of the impact isn’t all directed at your child. That’s why that strong design, combined with a 5-point safety harness that will redistribute the force of the crash, is so important.

Our article on the Best Infant Car Seats features all of the safest car seats for your little one. Be sure to check it out!

Image result for graco car seat

Keep Them Rear-Facing As Long As Possible

The most recent recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), is that your child should remain rear-facing as long as possible and up to the maximum height/weight specifications of the car seat. These recommendations have tightened up several times as more safety data has come to light.

Many parents, especially parents with children that are big for their age, get so excited to flip that car seat around, but that’s just not a good idea!

Even though your child might be tall or heavy for their age, their musculoskeletal system and nervous system just aren’t developed enough. They need to have a lot more control to be forward-facing and not get severely injured in a car accident.

All that being said, if your child has outgrown the weight and height limitations for their rear-facing car seat, it’s no longer safe to keep them in it. But don’t hesitate because of legroom or allowing your child to see out the window. Many parents believe that their children are uncomfortable if they’re legs are bent. That’s just not true! And kids will use their imagination and explore visually no matter where they are looking.

For example, let’s look at Sweden. In a study cited by the AAP in their policy recommendation, many children in Sweden remain rear-facing until the age of 4, where they are then transferred to a booster seat. The rates of serious injuries to children are reduced by 90%. That means that rear-facing even bigger little ones can almost eliminate serious car crash injuries! So embrace that rear-facing seat for as long as possible!

2. Forward-Facing Car Seats

Forward facing car seats mimic the design of race car seats. They have extra support along the torso, shoulders, and back of the head, while also providing a winged headrest that will shield their head from debris in an accident.

Image result for car seat

However, the most important part of the forward-facing car seat has to be the five-point safety harness. Having five points of contact with the seat- the two shoulders, the two hips, and the between the leg buckle- help redistribute the force of the crash. I’ve already mentioned that the shoulders and pelvis are the strongest parts of the body, and that is also true for children.

Having that strong chest clip across the top helps ensure that your child stays buckled during the force of an accident. Many children have been ejected from car seats because the chest buckle was too low and the force was so much that it’s simply shot them between the straps and up and out of the car seat.

Many forward-facing car seats can support your child until they reach 50 to 60 pounds, which is usually around Age 5 or 6. But again, it is the car seat specifications that dictate when your child can transition, not the age of the child.

3. Booster Seats

After they no longer fit in a forward-facing seat until they pass the 5-step test

There used to be a grey area when a child outgrew a car seat and went straight to a seat belt, even though the seatbelt didn’t fit properly. Now, there are booster seats for this in-between time. This helps your child become tall enough to help the seat belt fit.

Most seat belts don’t properly fit a person until they are 4 ft 9 in or taller, which is usually somewhere around age 8 to 12. Belt-positioning booster seats help the belt to sit across a child’s hips instead of their abdomen. It also keeps the shoulder part of the belt off of their neck and face.

When a child passes the 5-step test, it is safe for them to transition to using the vehicle seat belt system.

Booster seats help avoid what experts call “seat belt syndrome,” which involves severe spinal and abdominal injuries from a car accident. They mostly work by adding height to your child and keeping their back flat against the seat.

You can find both regular boosters, backless boosters, and high backed boosters. The advantage of a high backed booster is that it provides extra protection to the head and torso in an accident because of the added stability and padding that absorbs impact forces.

To see all our top booster seats, check out our Best Booster Seats article.

4. Seat Belt

From the time it fits until forever!

While we’ve covered all the basics concerning car seats, there is one last safety note to consider. The AAP has a final best practice recommendation that all children under 13 ride in the back seat with a seat belt. It’s much safer because it’s in the center of the vehicle. Even if your child has outgrown the car seats and booster seats, keep them in the back seat until age 13.

How Do I Know If My Car Seat is Installed Properly?

Car seat safety ratings won’t mean a thing if your car seat is installed wrong. US News reported on a 2011 car seat safety study, in which 46% of car seats were found to be installed incorrectly. And within that study, only 80% of parents even read the directions for installation. That number should be 100%, people!

There are 2 ways to install most car seats: the latch system and the vehicle belt. The LATCH system, which stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, is a clip system that attaches the seat directly to the vehicle’s seat. The vehicle belt can buckle the seat into the car to keep it secure.

Each manufacturer has its own way of installing a car seat. Installation depends on whether you do it forward or rear-facing, and also what type of car seat you have (convertible, infant carrier with base, booster seat, etc.). NHTSA has wonderful installation instructions and videos to make it easy. YouTube can be a fantastic resource for finding installation videos for your particular model too!

So how do you know if it’s done properly? The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has a fantastic guide that focuses on 5 main areas for correct car seat installation:

  1. Installation tightness. The car seat or base shouldn’t move more than 1 inch in any direction. Grab the seat near the belt path or latch straps and do a wiggle test. If it moves more than 1 inch, you have to try again to get it tighter.
  2. Harness position. For rear-facing seats, make sure the shoulder straps are threaded through the seat back at or below the level of your baby’s shoulders. For forward-facing car seats, it should be at or above shoulder level. Always make sure the chest clip is at armpit level.
  3. Baby harness straps. Do the pinch test- if you can grab extra strap material on the baby’s shoulders or torso, then the straps are too loose and need to be tightened.
  4. Belt path. Check the vehicle seat belt from top to bottom if being used. Make sure it’s not twisted, that the retractors are locked either automatically or with clips, and that you are using the correct belt path on the car seat itself.
  5. Top tether. That top tether makes a huge difference for secure forward-facing seats. Check your car seat and vehicle manufacturer info to find out how and where to attach the latch top tether.

One more important thing that they forgot: car seat angle. US News says that if the car seat isn’t at a 30 to 45 degree angle, the child could come out of the car seat harness in an accident. Double check the level on your car seat to make sure your seat is at the right angle for your child’s weight and age. The proper angle can be tough to achieve in a small car with little space, so make sure you’ve got one of the Best Car Seats for Small Cars.

Still questioning your installation skills? Get it double checked by an expert. There are three main ways to do this.

To those who are installing more than one car seat in the same vehicle, you’ve got your work cut out for you! Don’t let a bulky car seat ruin your safe installation. Get yourself a safe, narrow infant car seat and then get it installed and double checked. Read our Best Narrow Car Seat article for great options at any age or stage.


Other Car Seat Questions

Can a car seat be reused after an accident, or do I need to replace my car seat after an accident?

The biggest question is how serious was the accident? Was it a fender bender in the grocery store parking lot or an airbag deployed, people hurt, car totaled kind of accident? If it’s the former, you’re fine. If it’s the latter, then it’s time for a new car seat. When a seat goes through a serious accident, it becomes less structurally sound and won’t be as safe. Here are the NHTSA criteria to look at to see if you can still use your car seat, as reported by

  • You could drive your vehicle away from the crash
  • The airbags did not deploy
  • No one was injured in the accident
  • The door nearest to the car seat was not damaged
  • No damage was done to the car seat itself

Is it okay to buy a used car seat?

It might be okay, but it’s risky. Here are some tips from regarding a used car seat:

  • Be sure it passes Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213
  • Never buy a seat that has been in an accident
  • Don’t use a seat that’s older than 6 years
  • Stay away from seats that are missing parts or have no labeling
  • Double check for manufacturer recalls

When should I replace my car seat?

Only replace a car seat for one of 3 reasons:

  1. It was involved in a serious car accident (see above for criteria)
  2. It’s past the manufacturer’s expiry date, which is anywhere from 5 to 8 years
  3. Your child has outgrown the height or weight limitations for the seat

Otherwise, your seat is good to go!

Are car seat accessories okay to use?

No. All those extra things, like headrests, bunting bags, shoulder pads, etc. can affect the safety of the car seat. Even thick coats and blankets wrapped around your child are dangerous because the force of a car crash would compress these items and create extra space between your child and the harness, which could result in a bad injury. Only use items from your car seat manufacturer that have already been safety tested with the seat.

Are there rear-facing car seats with higher weight limits?

Yes. Convertible car seats often have greater weight limits compared to a traditional infant carrier. Look for a car seat that can keep a child rear-facing until 35 to 45 pounds. This will get even bigger children past their 2nd birthday while still being rear-facing.

We have a great list in our Best Convertible Car Seats article. You can’t go wrong with one of those safe picks!

Now that you have all the information on car seat safety, go forth and travel without fear!

Additional Resources

Childbirth & Parenting Resources | Amma Parenting Center – Twin Cities
Parenting Column Links by Dr. Dave Wenzel | River Ridge Counseling
Parenting Mojo ? Help for Difficult Child Behavior: Links
QR Codes Links in 21st Century Parenting? Grow a Generation
Parenting Resources – Nurture and Thrive
Resources | Family of Woodstock