Car seats help protect your most precious cargo. You might find it a hassle to strap in a wriggling toddler every time you head out to the park, but it’s worth the effort. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children are up to 82% safer in a car seat than with just seat belts alone.
Whether you’re new to car seats or wondering when to transition to a new style for your older kids, here’s what you need to know about car seat safety.
If browsing the car seat aisle makes your head spin, you’re not alone. There are a lot of options on the market.
Do you need all the bells and whistles of a convertible seat?
Or can you get by with something basic?
First, know that every car seat on the market is as safe as it can be. In the U.S., car seats must meet federal safety standards before hitting the shelves. So that deluxe $300 model provides no more protection than its more affordable $60 cousin. The difference is in comfort features.
That said, it’s important to buy your car seat from a reputable seller, preferably in person so you can check the labels. Federal safety standards require specific language on the seats and in the instruction manuals that come with them.
Third-party sellers, especially from online marketplaces, might not meet these standards because they might come from other countries where standards aren’t the same.
Car seats aren’t something to guess about. If you have doubts, buy from somewhere else.
Assuming you’re buying from a reputable store and just need to know which car seat to buy for which age, then that’s where things can get tricky. Do you need a rear-facing or forward-facing seat? And when?
Here are the different styles of car seats available:
Infant car seat
Sometimes known as “bucket seats,” infant car seats typically have a carrying handle so you can tote your baby around or affix the carrier to a stroller base. These 5-point-harness seats are used only in a rear-facing position. As the name suggests, rear-facing infant seats are for very young babies.
There’s another style of rear-facing seats. But unlike infant bucket seats, this type doesn’t get removed from the car regularly. For older babies, you can sometimes adjust these seats to a more upright angle than is possible with bucket carriers.
Once children are ready to turn around, you can put them in forward-facing car seats. Like rear-facing seats, this style features a 5-point harness for security and protection.
Some children’s booster seats make use of a car’s built-in seat belts rather than a 5-point harness. But some high-back boosters have harnesses.
A booster seat’s base elevates a child so that the seat belt crosses her body at the right spot. High-back boosters have headrests and positioning guides for seat belt shoulder straps.
If you have a very tall toddler who isn’t quite big enough to use a seat belt and you want the added safety of a harness, a high-back booster with the 5-point harness of a car seat is a good option.
Often the last step before moving out of car seats altogether, backless boosters lift older children to the correct seat height but don’t offer shoulder-belt positioning.
Multi-functional (convertible) seats
Many car seats are combination models that can transition from one style to another. For example, aside from infant carriers, almost all rear-facing car seats are actually convertible models that can be used in both rear- and forward-facing positions depending on your child’s height and weight.
Some forward-facing seats are advertised as 2-in-1 or 3-in-1 models. The harness straps can be removed to turn the car seat into a high-back booster. The booster back may also come off for use as a backless seat.
Ideally, convertible car seats grow with your child, making them a good value since you probably won’t need to buy a new car seat for each stage.
As your kid grows, the seat should change with him.
Most infants can use a bucket seat or a rear-facing convertible car seat. These restraints are usually acceptable for babies who weigh at least 5 pounds, sometimes slightly less.
Many car seats can remain in the rear-facing position until the child reaches 35 to 50 pounds. Convertible seats tend to have higher weight and height limits than infant carriers.
Don’t rush to move kids to forward-facing, even if they seem too tall.
Because the rear position offers more support for young necks and spines, the American Academy of Pediatrics specifies that 2 years is the minimum age for turning toddlers around.
In fact, that’s the law in some states.
Even after 2, children can stay rear-facing as long as they’re under the weight and height limits. There’s no harm in a preschooler crossing or folding his legs, either. It’s safer overall for kids to stay rear-facing for as long as the seat’s limits allow.
Your child shouldn’t move to a booster seat until he’s outgrown the height and weight limits of his 5-point harness, which probably won’t happen until at least age 4.
And as for boosters, most children need to start in high-back boosters before transitioning to backless models.
For kids ages 4 to 8, the CDC says that booster use leads to a 45% reduction in serious injuries compared to seat belts alone.
Think your big kid is too big for a booster? Think again.
Eight years is the earliest you should ever move your child out of a booster. Kids should be at least 4’9″ before switching to seat belts alone, which doesn’t usually happen until around age 10 to 12.
Become a car seat safety pro.
Car seat safety doesn’t stop once you’ve bought the right seat. Learn how to buckle and strap your child into the seat the right way.
And keep these other safety tips in mind.
Unlike that bag of sandwich bread with a suggestive date on the package, a car seat’s expiration date isn’t up for debate. There are several reasons why car seat manufacturers include an expiration date.
And surprisingly, it’s not because there’s a law requiring one. The government doesn’t regulate when a car seat expires. Manufacturers do this on their own for various reasons, including:
- Wear and tear
- Upgrades in tech or safety features
- Design updates
- Safety recalls
The components of a car seat start to weaken over time, which can render it less effective in a crash. Manufacturers may also update parts or find newer, better ways to keep kids safe in existing products.
For these and other reasons, you shouldn’t ignore the date that’s printed on your kiddo’s car seat.
Your seat will specify how long you can use it safely, but it’s usually 6 to 10 years from the date of manufacture.
Although bucket seats are convenient for moving your baby from one spot to another, they’re designed for a specific purpose: car rides. When you’re not on a drive, give your baby breaks from the car seat, especially at home.
The 5-point harness helps properly position your baby in the seat. Even at home, never leave your baby in the car seat unbuckled. And don’t let your infant sleep there all night.
Falls and asphyxiation are two big risks of improper seat use.
Proper installation can make all the difference in the effectiveness of your seat. Either the seat belt or the car seat’s LATCH straps can produce a solid installation.
Always read the owners manuals of both your vehicle and your car seat, and follow all guidelines regarding weight limits and the LATCH system.
Consider having a trained car seat expert check your installation. Safe Kids Worldwide maintains a list of certified child passenger safety (CPS) technicians. Check with your local fire department, police station, hospital or a car seat safety organization for help with installation.
And don’t be afraid to ask for help more than once. It may take some time and practice to get your car seat installed and uninstalled as needed.
Most aftermarket car seat accessories are not approved for on-the-road use. For example, harness covers and seat pads may reduce how well a car seat holds your child in place. It’s best to use only those accessories supplied by your seat manufacturer.
Avoid attaching anything to your baby’s car seat that she could choke on if it came loose.
Also, don’t attach any toys or other objects to the car seat that could hurt your kid in a crash.
And by the way, that’s a pretty low bar.
Loose, flying objects weigh substantially more in a crash thanks to the force involved at high speeds. That makes loose objects problematic at impact, especially for infants. A lightweight book, for instance, could become a deadly projectile in the right circumstances. Keep toys and other car distractions on the softer side.
Clothes and coats
Bulky clothing should never be paired with a 5-point harness. If puffy clothes are compressed in a crash, your child might slip between the harness straps. Not sure if your kid’s coat is okay for the car ride? Do a simple coat test to see if it passes.
Stick to lightweight coats, or place a blanket on your little one after buckling his seat. And only use aftermarket products that are approved by your car seat’s manufacturer to work with your car seat.
Should you replace your car seat after a crash? Probably.
But there may be a small amount of wiggle room depending on the type of crash and what kind of car seat you have. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration outlines five criteria that need to be met to determine if a car seat can still be used after a collision.
Consider your car seat manufacturer’s guidelines after a crash along with the NHTSA’s criteria. Most manufacturers still require you to replace the seat if it’s been in a crash, even a minor one. You’ll find that info in the manual. But if it’s not clear, just call the company and ask.
It doesn’t matter whether your kid was in the car or not at the time, either. The seat itself might be weakened or damaged in a crash even without its usual passenger.
Make sure you call your insurance company about replacing a car seat, too. Your policy might cover a replacement depending on your state’s regulations and your insurance company. It doesn’t hurt to check, especially if you’re replacing a pricier model.
Using the right car seat for your kids — infants all the way up through middle school — is one of the best ways to protect them. You can’t always avoid a crash, but you can make sure you’re all wearing the right safety harness if it happens.