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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Below: NOT A GOOD CAR SEAT FIT!
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 parenting.com:
It might be okay, but it’s risky. Here are some tips from kidshealth.org regarding a used car seat:
Only replace a car seat for one of 3 reasons:
Otherwise, your seat is good to go!
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.
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!
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