As a parent, the safety of your child is your highest priority, especially when you’re on the road. Being in a car accident puts children in the car at a high risk of injury. The best way to keep your child safe in the car is to use an age-appropriate car seat.
Understanding the different types of car seats — and when to use them — might feel overwhelming. Use this guide to help get a better idea of the best time to transition your children to a different car seat and how to use them safely in your family vehicle.
Car Seat Safety Tips for All Ages
After spending some time researching and learning how to install car seats, remember that regardless of the age, height or weight of your child, there are some safety rules you should always follow. Help keep your family safe by following these safety tips:
- Remove Coats Before Buckling: Coats, car seat pads and other bulky items can cause you to think your child is secured in their car seat. That excess padding can compress during an accident and result in serious injuries from a loose-fitting harness. Always remove extra bulk before buckling the car seat harness so you know you have the right fit.
- Make Sure Straps are Snug: Although your kids — especially toddlers — may protest to being securely restrained in their car seats, you want the safety harness to be snug and in the right position. This includes having the chest protector pushed up to your child’s chest instead of over their stomach or lower ribcage.
- Require Everyone to Buckle Up: It’s easy to forget your seat belt when you’re an adult riding in the back seat, but this could set a bad example for children in the car. As the driver, always require passengers to buckle up before you put the car in gear. This helps kids establish good safety habits when in the car.
- Get a Professional Inspection: Take your car seat to a professional technician after installing it. A professional should be able to tell you if it’s installed correctly and help you fix any issues. Some local emergency departments regularly host car seat inspection days.
- Be Careful Buying Used: Your jaw might drop when you first see the price tag for a new car seat. It’s tempting to shop for a car seat on the used market, but this can be dangerous. You never know if a car seat has been compromised in some way, such as being involved in an accident. The other problem with used car seats is how fast safety technology improves. A car seat that’s only a few years old might already have outdated safety features.
Infant Car Seats
Infant car seats are a rear-facing seat designed especially for newborns and young infants — usually up to 8 or 9 months of age. These small, portable seats are the safest option for your infant. The rear-facing design helps cradle your baby and protect their fragile body in the event of an accident.
If you're welcoming a new baby to the family, don’t forget to look over your insurance policies.
Rear-Facing Seats for Toddlers
Use your car seat manufacturer’s recommendations to know exactly when to transition your child from an infant-only seat to a rear-facing toddler seat. Like infant seats, rear-facing seats provide the highest level of protection for your child.
In a crash, the force of the car often pushes the front seats backward. As the front of the car comes back, the rear-facing seat tilts forward to form a protective barrier between your child and debris from the front of the car.
Children should be in rear-facing seats until at least age 2 and ideally longer. You shouldn’t be in a rush to turn your car seat around, even though your toddler might throw a fit. Most parents would agree that it’s better to deal with a tantrum than a life-altering injury.
Forward-Facing Seats for Preschool-Age Children
When your child does reach the maximum limits for a rear-facing seat, you can secure them in a forward-facing seat. Depending on the size of your child, you may not need to use a forward-facing seat until your child is almost school-aged.
Many car seats are convertible from rear-facing to forward-facing so you don’t have to buy a new car seat when your child outgrows riding rear-facing. Be sure to adjust the recline and harness positions when you turn your convertible car seats around. This helps ensure the harness will protect your child in an accident.
You can increase the safety of your forward-facing seat by using a tether. The tether is a strap that connects to the top of the car seat and an anchor point somewhere near the headrest of the seat. When connected, the tether helps reduce the amount the top of your car seat can move. In an accident, this means your child’s head will experience less forward motion on impact.
Booster Seats for Grade Schoolers
Check your car seat’s manual to find out the weight and height restrictions to safely use a forward-facing seat. Install a booster seat when it’s time to get rid of the car seat. Booster seats help lift your child to the appropriate height to safely use the seat belt across their lap, shoulders and chest.
Your child should be in a booster seat until they are old and tall enough to use a seat belt properly. Many children may need a booster seat until at least 10-12 years old. You can use a quick test to determine if your child is ready to ride without a booster seat:
- The child must sit with their back against the seat.
- Their knees should be able to bend around the edge of the seat.
- The lap belt should be across their thighs and the shoulder belt should lay between the neck and shoulders.
- Your child should be mature enough to sit properly — which means no slumping, playing with the belt or leaning forward.
Graduating from the Booster Seat
If your child can pass the booster seat test, they are ready to transition to sitting in the seat alone. Encourage good habits and increase safety by requiring a seat belt and having children ride in the back seat.
No matter your child’s age, taking the time to properly install your car seat and secure your child could be what keeps them safe if you’re in an accident.