One of the most important jobs you have as a parent is keeping your child safe when riding in a vehicle. Each year thousands of young children are killed or injured in car crashes. Proper use of car safety seats helps keep children safe. But with so many different car safety seats on the market, it’s no wonder many parents find this overwhelming.
The type of seat your child needs depends on several things, including your child’s size and the type of vehicle you have. The following information from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers guidance on choosing the most appropriate car safety seat for your child.
To see a list of car safety seats and safety seat manufacturers, click here.
Infants and toddlers—rear-facing
The AAP recommends that all infants should ride rear-facing starting with their first ride home from the hospital. All infants and toddlers should ride in a Rear-Facing Car Safety Seat until they are 2 years of age or until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by their car safety seat’s manufacturer.
Types of rear-facing car safety seats
There are 3 types of rear-facing car safety seats: infant-only seats, convertible seats, and 3-in-1 seats. When children reach the highest weight or length allowed by the manufacturer of their infant-only seat, they should continue to ride rear-facing in a convertible seat or 3-in-1 seat.
Types of Car Safety Seats at a Glance
|Age Group||Type Of Seat||General Guidelines|
|Infants/Toddlers||Infant seats and|
rear-facing convertible seats
|All infants and toddlers should ride in a Rear-Facing Car Safety Seat until they are 2 years of age or until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by their car safety seat’s manufacturer.|
|Toddlers/Preschoolers||Convertible seats and forward-facing seats|
|All children 2 years or older, or those younger than 2 years who have outgrown the rear-facing weight or height limit for their car safety seat, should use a Forward-Facing Car Safety Seat with a harness for as long as possible, up to the highest weight or height allowed by their car safety seat’s manufacturer.|
|School-aged children||Booster seats||All children whose weight or height is above the forward-facing limit for their car safety seat should use a Belt-Positioning Booster Seat until the vehicle seat belt fits properly, typically when they have reached 4 feet 9 inches in height and are between 8 and 12 years of age.|
|Older Children||Seat belts||When children are old enough and large enough to use the vehicle seat belt alone, they should always use Lap and Shoulder Seat Belts for optimal protection.|
All children younger than 13 years should be restrained in the Rear Seats of vehicles for optimal protection.
- Are used for infants up to 22 to 35 pounds, depending on the model.
- Are small and have carrying handles (and sometimes come as part of a stroller system).
- May come with a base that can be left in the car. The seat clicks into and out of the base so you don’t have to install the seat each time you use it. Parents can buy more than one base for additional vehicles.
- Are used only for travel (not for positioning outside the vehicle).
Convertible seats (used rear-facing)
- Can be used rear-facing, then “converted” to forward-facing for older children. This means the seat can be used longer by your child. They are bulkier than infant seats, however, and do not come with carrying handles or separate bases.
- May have higher rear-facing weight (30–40 pounds) and height limits than infant-only seats, which make them ideal for bigger babies.
- Usually have a 5-point harness that attaches at the shoulders, at the hips, and between the legs. Older convertible seats may have an overhead shield—a padded tray-like shield that swings down over the child.
3-in-1 seats (used rear-facing)
- Can be used rear-facing, forward-facing, or as a belt-positioning booster. This means the seat may be used longer by your child.
- Are often bigger in size so adequate space within the vehicle when rear-facing should be determined.
- Do not have the convenience of a carrying handle or a separate base; however, they may have higher rear-facing weight (35–40 pounds) and height limits than infant-only seats, which make them ideal for bigger babies.
Installation tips for rear-facing seats
When using a rear-facing seat, keep the following in mind:
- Place the harnesses in your rear-facing seat in slots that are at or below your baby’s shoulders.
- Ensure that the harness is snug and that the harness clip is positioned at the mid-chest level.
- Make sure the car safety seat is installed tightly in the vehicle. If you can move the seat at the belt path more than an inch side to side or front to back, it’s not tight enough.
- Never place a rear-facing car safety seat in the front seat of a vehicle that has an active front passenger air bag. If the air bag inflates, it will hit the back of the car safety seat, right where your baby’s head is, and could cause serious injury or death.
- Be sure you know what kind of seat belts your vehicle has. Some seat belts need locking clips to keep the belt locked into position. Locking clips come with most new car safety seats. If you’re not sure, check the owner’s manual that came with your vehicle. Locking clips are not needed in most newer vehicles, and some seats have built-in lock-offs to lock the belt.
- If you are using a convertible or 3-in-1 seat in the rear-facing position, make sure the seat belt is routed through the correct belt path. Check the instructions that came with the car safety seat to be sure.
- If your vehicle was made after 2002, it may come with the LATCH system, which is used to secure car safety seats. See below for information on using LATCH.
- Make sure the seat is at the correct angle so your infant’s head does not flop forward. Many seats have angle indicators or adjusters that can help prevent this. If your seat does not have an angle adjuster, tilt the car safety seat back by putting a rolled towel or other firm padding (such as a pool noodle) under the base near the point where the back and bottom of the vehicle seat meet.
- Still having trouble? There may be a certified child passenger safety (CPS) technician in your area who can help. If you need installation help, see below for information on how to locate a CPS technician.
Toddlers and preschoolers—forward-facing
All children 2 years or older, or those younger than 2 years who have outgrown the rear-facing weight or height limit for their car safety seat, should use a Forward-Facing Car Safety Seat with a harness for as long as possible, up to the highest weight or height allowed by their car safety seat’s manufacturer. It is best for children to ride in a seat with a harness as long as possible, at least to 4 years of age. If your child outgrows his seat before reaching 4 years of age, consider using a seat with a harness approved for higher weights and heights.
Types of car safety restraints
There are 5 types of car safety restraints that can be used forward-facing.
1. Convertible seats—Seats that “convert” from rear-facing to forward-facing seats. These include 3-in-1 seats.
2. Forward-facing only—These seats can be used forward-facing with a harness for children who weigh up to 40 to 80 pounds (depending on the model).
3. Combination seat with harness—These seats can be used forward-facing with a harness for children who weigh up to 40 to 80 pounds (depending on the model) or without the harness as a booster (up to 80–100 pounds).
4. Built-in seats—Some vehicles come with forward-facing seats built in. Weight and height limits vary. Read your vehicle owner’s manual or contact the manufacturer for details about how to use these seats.
5. Travel vests—These can be worn by children between 20 and 168 pounds and can be an alternative to traditional forward-facing seats. They are useful for when a vehicle has lap-only seat belts in the rear or for children whose weight has exceeded that allowed by car safety seats. These vests may require use of a top tether.
Installation tips for forward-facing seats
Make sure the car safety seat is installed tightly in the vehicle and that the harness fits the child snugly.
To switch a convertible or 3-in-1 seat from rear-facing to forward-facing
- Move the shoulder straps to the slots that are at or above your child’s shoulders. On some convertible seats, the top harness slots must be used when facing forward. Check the instructions that came with the seat to be sure.
- You may have to adjust the recline angle of the seat. Check the instructions to be sure.
- Make sure the seat belt runs through the forward-facing belt path. When making these changes, always follow the car safety seat instructions.
- If your vehicle was made after 2002, it should come with the LATCH system, which is used to secure car safety seats.
A tether is a strap that attaches to the top of a car safety seat and to an anchor point in your vehicle (see your vehicle owner’s manual to find where the tether anchors are in your vehicle). Tethers give important extra protection by keeping the car safety seat and the child’s head from moving too far forward in a crash or sudden stop. All new cars, minivans, and light trucks have been required to have tether anchors since September 2000. New forward-facing car safety seats come with tethers. Check the car safety seat instructions and vehicle owner’s manual for information about the top weight limit and locations of the tether anchors.
School-aged children—booster seats
Booster seats are for older children who have outgrown their forward-facing car safety seats. All children whose weight or height is above the forward-facing limit for their car safety seat should use a Belt-Positioning Booster Seat until the vehicle seat belt fits properly, typically when they have reached 4 feet 9 inches in height and are between 8 and 12 years of age. The owner’s manual that comes with your car safety seat will tell you the height and weight limits for the seat. As a general guideline, a child has outgrown his forward-facing seat when any one of the following is true:
- He reaches the top weight or height allowed for his seat with a harness. (These limits are listed on the seat and also included in the instruction booklet.)
- His shoulders are above the top harness slots.
- His ears have reached the top of the seat.
Types of booster seats
Booster seats are designed to raise the child up so that the lap and shoulder seat belts fit properly. High-back and backless booster seats are available. They do not come with harness straps but are used with the lap and shoulder seat belts in your vehicle, the same way an adult rides. Booster seats should be used until your child can correctly fit in lap and shoulder seat belts. Booster seats typically include a plastic clip or guide to help ensure the correct use of the vehicle lap and shoulder belts. See the instruction booklet that came with the booster seat for directions on how to use the guide or clip.
Installation tips for booster seats
Booster seats must be used with a lap and shoulder belt. When using a booster seat, make sure
- The lap belt lies low and snug across your child’s upper thighs.
- The shoulder belt crosses the middle of your child’s chest and shoulder.
Older children—seat belts
Seat belts are made for adults. Your child should stay in a booster seat until adult seat belts fit correctly (usually when the child reaches about 4 feet 9 inches in height and is between 8 and 12 years of age). When children are old enough and large enough to use the vehicle seat belt alone, they should always use Lap and Shoulder Seat Belts for optimal protection.
Using a seat belt
1. An adult seat belt fits correctly when
- The shoulder belt lies across the middle of the chest and shoulder, not the neck or throat.
- The lap belt is low and snug across the upper thighs, not the belly.
- Your child is tall enough to sit against the vehicle seat back with her knees bent without slouching and can stay in this position comfortably throughout the trip.
2. Other points to keep in mind when using seat belts include
- Make sure your child does not tuck the shoulder belt under her arm or behind her back. This leaves the upper body unprotected, putting your child at risk of severe injury in a crash or with sudden braking.
- Never allow anyone to “share” seat belts. All passengers must have their own car safety seats or seat belts.
Shopping for car safety seats
When shopping for a car safety 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.
- Don’t decide by price alone. A higher price does not mean the seat is safer or easier to use.
- Avoid used seats if you don’t know the seat’s history. Never use a car safety seat that
- Is too old. Look on the label for the date it was made. Check with the manufacturer to find out how long it recommends using the seat.
- Has any visible cracks on it.
- 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.
- Does not come with instructions. You need them to know how to use the seat.
- Is missing parts. Used car safety seats often come without important parts. Check with the manufacturer to make sure you can get the right parts.
- Was recalled. You can find out by calling the manufacturer or by contacting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Vehicle Safety Hotline at 888/327-4236. You can also visit the NHTSA Web site.
- Do not use seats that have been in a moderate or severe crash. Seats that were in a minor crash may still be safe to use, but some car safety seat manufacturers recommend replacing the seat after any crash, even a minor one. The NHTSA considers a crash minor if all of the following are true:
- The vehicle could be driven away from the crash.
- The vehicle door closest to the car safety seat was not damaged.
- No one in the vehicle was injured.
- The air bags did not go off.
- You can’t see any damage to the car safety seat.
If you are unsure, call the manufacturer of the seat. See “Manufacturer phone numbers and Web sites” for manufacturer contact information.
About air bags
Front air bags
All new cars come with front air bags. When used with seat belts, air bags work very well to protect teenagers and adults. However, air bags can be very dangerous to children, particularly those riding in rear-facing car safety seats, and to preschool and young school-aged children who are not properly restrained. If your vehicle has a front passenger air bag, infants in rear-facing seats must ride in the back seat. Even in a relatively low-speed crash, the air bag can inflate, strike the car safety seat, and cause serious brain injury and death.
Vehicles with no back seat or a back seat that is not made for passengers are not the best choice for traveling with small children. However, the air bag can be turned off in some of these vehicles if the front seat is needed for a child passenger. See your vehicle owner’s manual for more information.
Side air bags
Side air bags improve safety for adults in side-impact crashes. Read your vehicle owner’s manual for more information about the air bags in your vehicle. Read your car safety seat manual and the vehicle owner’s manual for guidance on placing the seat next to a side air bag.
If you need installation help
If you have questions or need help installing your car safety seat, find a certified CPS technician. Lists of certified CPS technicians and child seat fitting stations are available on the following Web sites:
NHTSA (or call NHTSA Vehicle Safety Hotline at 888/327-4236)
SeatCheck (or call 866/SEATCHECK [866/732-8243])
National Child Passenger Safety Certified Technicians (or call 877/366-8154) This site provides information in Spanish and also provides a list of CPS technicians with enhanced training in protection of children with special needs.
1. Be a good role model. Make sure you always wear your seat belt. This will help your child form a lifelong habit of buckling up.
2. Never leave your child alone in or around cars. Any of the following can happen when a child is left alone in or around a vehicle:
- He can die of heat stroke because temperatures can reach deadly levels in minutes.
- He can be strangled by power windows, retracting seat belts, sunroofs, or accessories.
- He can knock the vehicle into gear, setting it in motion.
- He can be backed over when the vehicle backs up.
- He can become trapped in the trunk of the vehicle.
3. Always read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. If you do not have the manufacturer’s instructions for your car safety seat, write or call the company’s customer service department. They will ask you for the model number, name of seat, and date of manufacture. The manufacturer’s address and phone number are on the label on the seat. Also be sure to follow the instructions in your vehicle owner’s manual about using car safety seats. Some manufacturers’ instructions may be available on their Web sites.
Car Safety Seats: A Guide for Families 2011 (Copyright © 2011 American Academy of Pediatrics)