It may not be the first thing you think about when you’re expecting, but car seat safety is an essential part of parenthood that begins with your baby’s first journey home from the hospital.
Thousands of young children are killed or injured in car crashes each year. In fact, accidents — particularly motor vehicle accidents — are the leading cause of death of children in the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The best way to protect them is to use the right seat, at the right time, the right way.
But with so many car seats on the market, choosing one can be a daunting task. The type of seat your child needs depends on several things, including his or her age and size.
Here’s what you need to know.
Infants and Toddlers: Rear-Facing Seats
For maximum safety, keep your baby in a rear-facing child safety seat in the back seat of the vehicle for as long as possible. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommend that children ride rear-facing until age 2 or until they reach the height and weight limits of their particular seat. Recent studies show that children age 2 and younger are 75 percent less likely to die or incur a serious injury when in a rear-facing seat.
When your child reaches the maximum height and weight limits of his or her rear-facing infant seat (these limits are listed on the seat and in the instruction manual), they should continue to ride rear-facing in a convertible or three-in-one seat, which typically have higher height and weight limits, allowing you to keep your child rear-facing for a longer period of time.
There are three types of rear-facing car seats — infant seats, convertible seats and three-in-one seats.
Infant seats, which are typically small, have carrying handles and accommodate babies up to 22 to 40 pounds, can only be used rear-facing. These seats sometimes come as part of a stroller system and usually come with a base that can be left in the car. The seat clicks in and out of the base so you don’t have to install the seat each time you use it. Infant seats fit newborns and smaller babies best, but you’ll have to buy another seat as your baby outgrows it.
Convertible seats, which are bulkier than infant seats and do not come with carrying handles or bases, can be used rear-facing and then converted to forward-facing for older children. This means your child can use the seat longer. These seats typically have rear-facing height and weight limits up to 40 or 50 pounds, which make them ideal for bigger babies, and forward-facing limits up to 70 or 80 pounds. Some are designed with newborn inserts to eliminate the need for an infant-only seat.
Three-in-one seats, often the largest in size, can be used rear-facing, forward-facing or as a belt-positioning booster. Like convertible seats, three-in-one seats also have higher rear-facing height and weight limits than infant seats, so children can use them longer. But because they are larger, it is important to check that they fit in your vehicle in the rear-facing position.
Toddlers and Preschoolers: Forward-Facing Seats
Once your child outgrows the height and weight limits for the rear-facing position, he or she is ready to travel in a forward-facing seat with a harness. This typically happens around age 2. It is best for children to ride in a seat with a five-point harness for as long as possible, up to 4 years of age or the height and weight limits of the seat. If your child outgrows his or her seat before age 4, consider using a seat with a harness with higher height and weight limits.
Types of forward-facing car seats include convertible seats, three-in-one seats and combination seats, which can be used forward-facing with a harness up to 40 to 90 pounds or as a booster without the harness up to 80 to 120 pounds, depending on the model.
School-Age Children: Booster Seats
Once your child outgrows the forward-facing car seat with a harness, he or she can travel in a belt-positioning booster seat in the back seat of the vehicle.
As a general guideline, a child has outgrown his or her forward-facing seat when he or she reaches the maximum height and weight limit of the seat, when his or her shoulders are above the top harness slots, or when his or her ears have reached the top of the seat.
Booster seats are for older children who have outgrown their car seats, but are still too small to be restrained by a vehicle’s seat belts. These seats are designed to raise the child up so that the lap and shoulder belts fit properly.
There are two types of booster seats — high back and backless. High-back boosters are useful in vehicles without headrests or with low seat backs. Backless boosters, which are usually less expensive and are easier to move from one vehicle to another, can be used in vehicles with headrests and high seat backs.
The AAP recommends that children use a booster seat until the car’s lap and shoulder belts fit properly, which is typically when they are 4 feet 9 inches tall and are between 8 and 12 years old. All children younger than 13 should ride in the back seat.
Tips for Buying a Car Seat
When shopping for a car seat, keep the following tips in mind:
- No one seat is the “best” or “safest.” The best seat is the one that fits your child’s size, is correctly installed, fits well in your vehicle, and is used properly every time you drive.
- Do your research. To keep up with product safety recalls, check a particular manufacturer’s safety track record or report an unsafe product, visit the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the agency responsible for protecting the public from unsafe consumer goods.
- Never buy a used car seat if you do not know its full history. Avoid seats sold at flea markets, yard sales or online.
- Never use a car seat that has been in a crash.
- Never use a car seat that has visible cracks.
- Never use a car seat that is too old. Look on the label for the date it was made, and check with the manufacturer to find out how long it recommends using the seat. Most expire after six years. Many have expiration dates printed on the label.
- Never use a seat that was recalled. Before purchasing a car seat, check the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website and its consumer site safercar.gov. This agency monitors both automobile and car seat safety recalls, and provides the child restraint registration forms parents need to register their seats and receive recall updates.
- Never use a seat that does not have a label with the date of manufacture and model number. Without these, you cannot check to see if the seat has been recalled.
- Do not use a seat that does not come with instructions or is missing parts.
- Follow the manufacturer’s installation instructions.
- Never put a rear-facing car seat in front of an active frontal airbag. Children are always safest in a back seat.
- Have your car seat checked by a certified child passenger safety technician to make sure it is properly installed. Lists of certified CPS technicians and child seat fitting stations are available at the NHTSA (888-327-4236), SeatCheck (866-732-8243) or the National Child Passenger Safety Certified Technicians (877-366-8154).