Car Seats: The Rules of the Road
Here is one of the first tests of parenting: Before you and your new baby can be discharged from the hospital, you must have a car seat that is the right size for your baby and is placed correctly in the car. It sounds simple, but it can be more complicated than you imagine. Every state requires that infants and small children ride in car seats. Yet, car crashes are the most common cause of death and injury in children, because, although a car seat was used, it often is used incorrectly. In fact, some studies show that 80% of child safety seats are used the wrong way. So what can you do to ensure your child has the safest ride?
The rules of car seat safety
- Buckle yourself and your child up for every ride, no matter how short.
- Purchase the appropriate seat for your child, which depends on his age and weight.
- Check the list of recalled car seats before buying a used car seat or borrowing someone else's.
- Carefully read all car-seat instructions and keep them for future reference.
- Never put a child in a rear-facing car seat in the front seat if there is a passenger-side air bag. Serious injury or death can occur from the impact of the air bag against the back of the car seat. The back seat is the safest place for all children since it is farthest away in front end collisions, the most common type of accident. The back middle seat is the most preferable seat for children because they are also better protected from side-impact collisions in that seat.
- Keep your child in a rear facing car seat for as long as possible given your car seat's weight and height limitations. The newest safety recommendations suggest that children remain rear-facing until 2 years of age. At age 2, a child may be moved into a forward-facing car seat appropriate for the child's height and weight.
- Use a forward-facing car seat for as long as the child fits well (for example, shoulders below the seat strap slots and ears below the top of the back of the seat).
- Use a booster seat for a child who is older than 4 years of age and weighs greater than 40 pounds.
- Never put a blanket around or over a child before fastening the straps of the car seat.
- Never drive with small children for whom you do not have a properly installed car seat. Every child in your car should be secured in a car seat or vehicle seat belt, no matter how short the ride.
- Do not use a car seat beyond its expiration date. Generally, this is six years after manufacture and many seats have this date stamped on for reference.
- Avoid buying a used car seat at a yard sale, flea market or online; especially avoid purchasing a car seat that might have been used in a crash.
Types of car safety seats
Infant-only seats. These seats, used for newborns and infants who weigh up to 30 pounds, depending on the model, are always rear-facing and should be used only in the back seat. Make sure your car seat uses a five-point harness. A five-point harness has five straps: two at the shoulders, two at the hips and one at the crotch. Be sure the harness is tight, so you cannot pinch extra strap webbing at the shoulder.
If necessary, put a rolled towel around the baby's head and neck for support. If the car seat slopes so the baby's head flops forward, recline the car seat back at a 45-degree tilt (according to manufacturer's instructions). Don't put bulky clothing on the baby or any extra cushioning under or behind the baby, which may cause slack in the harness straps during a crash. If additional padding is needed, use only the padding that comes with your child safety seat.
Convertible seats. Bigger and heavier than infant-only seats, these seats should be used in the rear-facing position until the baby is 2 years and until the child reaches the maximum height or weight allowed by the manufacturer. The seats can be used in the front-facing position for toddlers who are at least 2 years of age and a minimum of 20 pounds.
Although these seats may be used for newborns, some don't fit newborns as well as infant-only seats do. So make sure your baby can recline comfortably in the seat.
Make sure your car seat uses a five-point harness. A five-point harness has five straps: two at the shoulders, two at the hips and one at the crotch. Be sure the harness is tight, so you cannot pinch extra webbing at the shoulder.
When your child is old enough and weighs enough to sit facing forward, move the shoulder straps to the slots above your child's shoulders (usually the top slots, but check your instructions to make sure). Also place the seat into the upright position and move the seat belt through the forward-facing belt path.
Forward-facing seats. These are designed to be used in the forward-facing position only. These seats are certified for use for babies weighing 20 pounds or more; the child also must be at least 2 years old. The harness straps should be at or above your child's shoulders. Forward-facing seats have several slots into which shoulder straps can be inserted, so choose the slots above and as close as possible to your child's shoulders. The chest clip should be positioned across the chest at armpit level to keep the harness straps in place. Use a forward-facing seat until the harness no longer fits.
Integrated (built-in) seats. These days, many vehicles, particularly station wagons, sports utility vehicles and minivans, have integrated forward-facing child safety seats that can be used for children older than 2 years who also weigh at least 20 pounds. These built-in seats eliminate the installation challenges associated with separate car seats. However, weight and height limits vary. Check with your vehicle's manufacturer for details about the built-in seats currently available with your car.
Booster seats. Once your child is over age 4, weighs at least 40 pounds and his ears have reached the top of his car seat, he is ready for a belt-positioning booster seat. Make sure to use the car's lap and shoulder belts to help protect your child's upper body and head. Both high-back and backless models of booster seats are available.
Your child should use a booster seat until the car's seat belt fits properly, which is usually not until he or she is at least 4 feet 9 inches tall and 80 to 100 pounds. Your child will be between the ages of 8 and 12 when he is ready to move out of a booster seat.
When your child reaches 4 feet 9 inches and between 80 to 100 pounds, use the Safety Belt Fit Test to determine if she is big enough to use the adult seat belt without a booster.
The Safety Belt Fit Test includes meeting the following criteria:
- With your child sitting in a back seat with her back against the vehicle's seat back, your child's knees must bend at the seat's edge.
- The lap belt strap must stay low on the hips or high on the thigh. It should not rest on your child's stomach.
- The shoulder belt should rest on your child's collarbone and shoulder. It should not rest on the face or neck.
Combination seats. Forward-facing combination seats can be used after your child is 2 years old and 20 pounds until he outgrows a booster seat. So, like the convertible seats, they can be used for several years. You should remove the harness when your child weighs 40 pounds and is at least 4 years old, according to the manufacturer's instructions, and instead use the seat as a belt-positioning booster seat with the vehicle's lap and shoulder belt.
When used as a forward-facing seat, the harness straps should be at or above your child's shoulders. Forward-facing seats have several shoulder strap slots, so choose the slots closest to (but always above) your child's shoulders. The chest clip should be positioned across your child's chest at armpit level to keep harness straps in place and snug.
Your child's safety is most important
Do not ever put your baby in his car seat in a shopping-cart basket. The seat could slip out of the basket, injuring your child. Other car-seat safety guidelines, from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, include:
- Test the seat in the store. Put your child in it and try all the belts and buckles. Make sure it's easy to use and will fit in your car.
- Remember that the seats displayed in the stores may not be positioned correctly.
- Use either the car's seat belt or LATCH system to secure the car seat into the car. Never use both systems at the same time.
- Install tether straps according to the manufacturer's instructions if your seat requires or recommends a tether strap. Tether straps are attached to the car seat and bolted to the window ledge or floor of the car.
- Your car seat should never move more than 1 inch side to side or front to back. Grab the car seat at the safety belt path or LATCH path to test it.
- Don't equate price with quality. More expensive doesn't necessarily mean better quality.
Still not sure if you've got your car seat installed properly? You can get a free inspection and receive training in the proper way to install a car seat by visiting the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration to find a certified child-safety seat inspection station near you.
Last updated May 29, 2011