Your Car Seat Safety Guide

Car Seat Safety Guide for Infants and Children

Updated November 1, 2020 . AmFam Team

Learn everything you need to know to keep your child safe on the road with our car seat safety guide. We provide car seat safety tips and share the requirements to help select the best seat for your child.

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.

Car Seat Safety Requirements and Recommendations

Do you know the car seat requirements for your state? If not, the AAA Digest of Motor Laws (Opens in a new tab) 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 the car seat that worked for one of your children, might not be a good fit for another based on body type, weight and size.

Here’s a good overview of car seat requirements from the NHTSA recommendations (Opens in a new tab) and guidelines to get started on your selection process.

Infant Car Seat Safety Rules

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, allowing you keep your child in the same car seat for a longer period of time.

1-3 years

In these toddler years, you’ll find increased car seat 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 car seat, keep using it. Once your child outgrows that  car seat, it’s time to look for a forward-facing model that uses a harness and tether. Harnesses being the straps that hold your child in place and absorb the shock of the collision, and tethers being the strap placed over and behind the seat to anchor the top portion of the car seat into place.

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 or car seat anchors to provide stability. 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. Becoming familiar with those differences will help you narrow down your choices and pick the right car seat. Use the definitions below to help you make the best 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 within the first year of your child’s life. Expect your baby to outgrow an infant seat by 8 to 9 months.

Convertible car seats

This infant car seat is designed to be used longer and give you more versatility. They start as a rear-facing seats and once your child gets too big, they flip around and become forward-facing car seats.

All-in-one car seat

This car seat goes even beyond the convertible to give you more flexibility. The all-in-one car seat can 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 fine-tuning to get the fit right when kids are smaller.

Combination car seat

Converting from a forward-facing seat to a booster seat, the combination car seat 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 growing quickly.

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.

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 can be found installed into most car seats and the anchors are required in all cars manufactured 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, but the LATCH system is by far the safer way to go.

Pay attention to used car seat safety

It’s okay to install a used car seat, but car seat safety advice experts suggest you should make sure it’s in good condition, has never been in an accident and it meets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213 (Opens in a new tab). Also, be sure to check with the manufacturer to see if that seat has been recalled.

Because you may not always have the full history of the seat itself, it’s inherently difficult to know whether it’s truly safe. You would have to buy from a trustworthy seller who knows its history, or you run the risk buying a faulty car seat.

If the seat has been in any collisions, you’ll want to avoid using it. Even if it looks undamaged! Why is that? Because car seats that have been involved in accidents could have taken a blow from the force of the crash to critical parts and components. And the threat of damaged components could make the seat ineffective if that seat were involved in another accident.

Check the expiration date on your car seat

Did you know that car seats can expire? That’s right, just like hard hats and lanyards, 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 to place your car seat

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. Because this side typically faces the curb, it’s easier to get your child in and out of the car in that position.

Install your car seat 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 for their help.

Learn how to pad a car seat

If your child is too small for their car seat or they don’t fit snugly, you can pad the seat until they grow into it. This technique is 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 help bolster the child until they’ve grown into the car seat.

Take off your child’s jacket inside the car seat

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 their car seat safety belts.

Limit the extras

Save toys, sun visors and seat protectors for activity outside the car. These items are typically not crash-tested with car the seat.

Replace the car seat after an accident

Car seats might be covered by your car insurance. If it’s damaged in an accident, replace the car seat and contact your American Family Insurance agent (Opens in a new tab) to see if you’re the cost is covered. Car seat safety recommendations suggest treating a car seat that has been in a collision as if it were damaged — and damaged car seats should be replaced immediately.

The damage to a car seat’s vital components may not be visible, therefore the seat shouldn’t be reused after an accident. Breakaway points and other sensitive components in the car seat are designed to absorb the force of a collision and damage to them may not be detectible.

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. To help you get there, try apps like Waze (Opens in a new tab) that alert you at the end of a trip to check the back seat, or Kars 4 Kids Safety App (Opens in a new tab) that connect via Bluetooth to your phone and detect if you left the vehicle before unbuckling baby. Some car seats may even come equipped with smart tech that connects to your phone and alerts you if you forget someone, if the car is too hot or too cold, or if the child has been in the seat for longer than recommended.

Have the Right Coverage for All Your Auto Needs

Now that you’re a car seat pro, and you know how to safely snuggle your child in their car seat, it’s time to check with your agent (Opens in a new tab) to learn how comprehensive coverage protects you from bumper to bumper, including coverage for the car seat if it’s ever damaged in an accident or stolen.

The right coverage can also net you significant discounts! Like our Diminishing Deductible program that lowers your deductible year-over-year when you go accident free!

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    Checking social media

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    Eating behind the wheel

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    Other types of distracted driving

    There are a few more forms of distracted driving that could cause an accident. If you’re in the driver’s seat, try to avoid these altogether:

    • Taking selfies
    • Talking on the phone
    • Drinking coffee or another beverage
    • Putting on makeup
    • Using an app
    • Loud music

    Top 5 Ways to Prevent Distracted Driving

    There are easy ways to prevent distracted driving. Try using making these five simple changes distracted driving safety tips to have a safer driving experience.

    Use a text-blocking app

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    Have a passenger navigate for you

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    Make music selection easy

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    Don’t text while driving

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    Eat at home or while stopped

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