Your Car Seat Safety Guide
You’ve dreamed of having a family. Now that you do − it’s time to make memories! Whether driving to soccer practice, dance class, music lessons or a family road trip, you’ll relax knowing your little ones are well-protected with our car seat guidelines.
What Are the Car Seat Requirements for Children?
Do you know the car seat requirements for your state? If not, the AAA Digest of Motor Laws is a great resource. Check it out.
Car seat requirements are based on age, height and weight. In 2011 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) revised its guidelines to be categorized by age as opposed to type of restraint. You might find that what worked for one of your children, might not be a good fit for another.
Based on the NHTSA recommendations, this is a good overview of car seat requirements to get your started on your selection process.
Infants. From birth to 12 months, your child is considered an infant and should always ride in a rear-facing car seat. You can choose between a convertible car seat or infant-only. An infant-only seat tends to be smaller and might give your little one a better fit, while the convertible models typically have higher weight and height limits, letting you keep your child rear-facing longer.
1-3 years. In these toddler years you get some options. The overall recommendation is to keep your child in a rear-facing seat as long as possible. So if they still fit within the height and weight limits of their rear-facing seat, keep using it. Once your child outgrows it, it’s time to look for a forward-facing model that uses a harness and tether.
4-7 years. During these ages your child will probably reach the top end of the height and weight limits for their forward-facing car seat. Again, the best approach is to have them remain in the car seat until they hit those upper limits. When they’re too big for their forward-facing seat, it’s time for a booster seat.
8-12 years. Up to the age of 13, it’s recommended that children remain in the back seat. They’ll start this stage in a booster seat, but eventually will grow out of it. Even if they no longer need their booster seat, the back seat is the safest place. The booster seat pairs with the car’s seatbelt to provide security. A good fitting seatbelt, for both children and adults, should have a lap belt that lies snugly across the upper thighs and not the stomach. Make sure the shoulder strap rests across the chest, not the neck or face.
Different Types of Car Seats
There are a lot of different car seats on the market and even within the general categories there can be a variety of options. It can be overwhelming and confusing, especially when you factor in the differences between each child. We understand this confusion and know how important this decision is to you. Becoming familiar with the differences will help you narrow down your choices and pick the right car seat for your child. Use the definitions below to help you make the right choice.
Infant car seats. Infants should always be in rear-facing car seats. These small versions hold your baby securely and are designed to be used for a relatively short span of time. Expect your child to outgrow an infant seat by 8 to 9 months.
Convertible car seats. This seat is designed to be used longer and give you more versatility. They start as a rear-facing seat and once your child gets too big, they flip around and become forward-facing car seats. Remember, backward facing is safest — keep your child in the rear-facing position as long as possible.
All-in-one seat. This car seat goes even beyond the convertible to give you more flexibility. They go from rear-facing, to forward-facing to booster seat. These all-in-one seats are usually larger, so your child can stay rear-facing even longer, but they might need some accommodations to give them a snug fit when they’re smaller.
Combination seat. Converting from a forward-facing seat to a booster seat, the combination is designed for older, bigger kids and shouldn’t be used with infants. The versatility makes it a good choice for children who are already facing forward and beginning to transition.
High-back booster seat. When a child moves into a booster seat it’s key that the seatbelt fit properly. A high-back booster seat can help by providing the support and height necessary to get the lap belt to rest across the upper thighs and the shoulder strap across the chest. It also adds head and neck support which is really useful for cars that don’t have rear seat headrests.
Backless booster seat. This is typically the last step before a child transitions to only using a seatbelt. The booster gives them the height in the car so the lap and shoulder belts fit correctly. If the car already has a headrest in the back, then this is a good choice. It’s important to note that all booster seats need a backseat seatbelt with a shoulder strap. If your car has lap belts only, then you’ll need to use a travel vest or check to see if shoulder belts can be installed in your vehicle.
All of these car seat options are designed for use in the back seat of a vehicle. For safety, it’s best to keep all children under the age of 13 in the back seat. And, even after age 13, it’s still safer than the front seat.
Tips for Using Car Seats Safely
Now that you’ve picked a car seat, you’re on the road to safe travels with your child. But using it the right way is just as important as picking the right one. The good news is, once it’s installed properly and you get comfortable with it, your child’s car seat will become as familiar to you as your own seatbelt.
Learn about LATCH. LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. This system is on most car seats and required in cars made after August, 2002. LATCH is designed to make installing the car seat easier but it’s not required for car seat use. You can use a car seat without LATCH by using the car’s seatbelt and tether.
Be careful when it’s pre-used. It’s okay to have a used car seat, just make sure it’s in good condition, has never been in an accident and it meets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213. You should also check with the manufacturer to see if that seat has been recalled.
Check expiration date. Did you know that car seats can expire? That’s right, just like milk, a car seat has an expiration date. Check the date on the bottom. If it’s expired, it should be retired, for good.
Use the back center. The safest place for a car seat, according to the NHTSA, is the back seat, and more specifically the center. But, if your vehicle doesn’t have a center seatbelt or LATCH system, then the next safest position is behind the passenger seat. This side typically doesn’t face traffic, so it’s easier to get your child in and out of their car seat.
Install properly. If you’re having trouble following the manufacturer’s guidelines for installing your car seat, you’re not alone. This is why the federal government has set up child car seat inspection stations across the country to help. Your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office can help you find a station, but most hospitals, police stations and fire departments have specialists on staff. Just make sure to ask for a certified child passenger safety technician.
Learn how to pad. If your child is too small for their car seat or they don’t have a snug fit, you can pad the seat until they grow into it. This technique fairly common with infants. The car seat instructions will give you tips on padding, but typically a tightly rolled receiving blanket on either side of the child will offer a better fit.
Take off their jacket. Bulky sweaters, jackets and other clothing should be removed before you strap your child into their car seat. If there is a crash, this bulky clothing compresses and your child can move about in their seat — they lose that snug security they need. Instead, tuck them in with their jacket or blankets draped over them.
Limit the extras. Save toys, sun visors and seat protectors for activity outside the car. These items are typically not crash-tested with the seat.
Replace it. Car seats might be covered by your car insurance. If it’s damaged in an accident, contact your American Family Insurance agent to see if you’re covered and purchase a new one for your child. Damaged car seats shouldn’t be reused by anyone.
Look twice for safety. Remember to take a few seconds to check your back seat every time you leave your car. Soon, you’ll develop a habit that makes you confident you’ll remember to take your child out of the car.
Once your child is safely snuggled in their car seat, it’s time to check with your agent to learn how you can get coverage for the car seat if it’s ever damaged in an accident.