Car Seats Guide (Types, Installation, Safety & Shopping Tips)

car safety seats

If you’re a parent then you definitely know that one of the most important tasks you have is keeping your baby safe not just at home, but also when riding along in a vehicle and that’s why car seats are very important in this regards. As a parent, you’ll need a car seat from the moment you give birth and even when carrying your newborn baby from the hospital to the house. With thousands of infants and children killed or injured in car crashes each and every year, the proper use of car seats to help ensure babies and children are safe has always been a very important factor to consider. And with so many brands and models on the market to choose from, it’s not a surprise to know that most parents become overwhelmed by all these varieties and types of car seats to choose from.

For expectant parents, they should at least give themselves ample time to learn how to install a car seat properly in their vehicle before even the baby is born so as to ensure the baby rides safely from the hospital to the house.

The type of car seat your infant or child needs will depend on a number of things such as your baby’s age, height, weight and size and also the type of vehicle you have.

Types of car seats

Below we list and discuss the different types of car seats based on the different age groups of babies and children.

Infants and toddlers (Rear-facing only & Rear-facing convertible) – It’s recommended that all infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing position until at least 2 years old or until they reach the maximum height and weight limit recommended by the manufacturer.

Toddlers and preschoolers (Convertible car seats & Forward-facing with harness) – It’s recommended that children who have outgrown the rear-facing height and weight limit of convertible car seat to use a forward-facing car seat with safety harness for as long as possible until they reach the maximum height and weight limit allowed by the manufacturer.

School-aged children (Booster car seats) – All children with heights and weights exceeding the forward-facing limit of a car seat should use a belt-positioning booster seat until they can fit properly and securely in the vehicle’s seat belt, typically around the ages of 8 to 12 years with a height of 4 feet and 9 inches. Also, all children who are younger than 13 years old should ride in the back seat.

Older children (Seat belts) – Children who are old and big enough for the vehicle’s seat belt to fit them properly and securely should use lap and shoulder seat belts for the best protection possible.

Seat belts and LATCH

There are two main ways that car seats can be installed, either by using your vehicle’s seat belt or by using LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system.

What is LATCH?

Latch is basically an attachment system for car safety seats. Parents sometimes prefer to use lower anchors instead of a vehicle’s seat belt to install the car seat since most parents find them easier to use in some vehicles. The top tether improves on the safety that’s already provided by the car seat and is very important to be used on all forward-facing car seats as well as those installed using the vehicle’s seat belt. Almost every vehicle manufactured from 2002 to date come equipped to allow for LATCH attachment. Vehicles with LATCH system usually have lower anchors located in the back seat, at the point where the cushions of the seat meet. Tether anchors are usually located behind the seat and depending on the type of vehicle, can be found either on the panel behind the seat (in sedans) or back of the seat, ceiling or floor (in pickup trucks, SUVs, minivans and hatchbacks). All car seats come with attachments that can be fastened to these anchors. Additionally, all lower anchors are rated for a maximum weight of 65 pounds which is the total combined weight of your child and the car seat.

Installing a car seat using your vehicle’s seat belt

Always ensure the seat belt locks to help obtain a tight fit. You can lock the seat belt by pulling it all the way out and then letting it retract to keep the seat belt tight around your baby’s car seat. Nowadays, most car seats come with built-in lock-offs for locking the belt without the need to separately lock the seat belt as well. And while the back seat is the safest place for all children who are under 13 years old to ride on, parents should try to put the child in the middle of the back seat if it’s possible. But since most vehicles have a narrow middle back seat, it may also prove difficult to install a car seat tightly in that position. Also, most vehicles lack lower anchors for the middle seating position of the back seat. With this in mind, it’s thus safest to place the car seat in a position where you can install it tightly and securely using either the seat belt or lower anchor system, and in most cases this may be on either side of the back seat as opposed to the middle.

Rear-facing car seats for infants and toddlers

rear-facing car seat

For ultimate safety and protection, the AAP recommends that all infants should ride in the rear-facing position starting with their first ride from the hospital to the house. They also recommend that all infants and toddlers should ride in the rear-facing position until they are at least 2 years old or until they reach the maximum weight and height limit allowed by the manufacturer.

Types of rear-facing car seats

There are three main types of rear-facing car seats and they are: rear-facing only, convertible car seats and 3-in-1 car seats. Children should continue riding rear-facing in a convertible seat or 3-in-1 seat when they reach the maximum weight and height limits allowed by the manufacturer of a rear-facing-only car seat.

Rear-facing only car seats

• These are used on infants from 5 up to 22 or 40 pounds depending on the model

• They are usually small and have a carrying handle

• Usually feature a base that can be left in the vehicle. The car seat clicks in and out of the base to prevent you from installing it each and every time you use it. If you have more than one vehicle, you can buy more than one base for more convenience.

• They should be used only for travel purposes and not for sleeping, feeding or any other task outside the vehicle.

Convertible car seats

• These can be used for rear-facing purposes and then later on converted to forward-facing position for children who have outgrown the height and weight limit for a rear-facing position. This gives them a longer life span than rear-facing only seats. Convertible seats are also bulkier than infant car seats and lack carrying handles or separate bases designed for staying in the car.

• Most have higher limits for rear-facing height and weight (up to 40-50 pounds) than infant car seats and this makes convertible car seats more ideal for larger babies and toddlers.

• For safety purposes, they feature a 5-point harness for securing your child safely at the shoulders, hips and between the legs.

• Just like the infant car seats, convertible seats should also be used only for travel and not for feeding or sleeping.

3-in-1 car seats

• These can be used for rear-facing, forward-facing and even as belt-positioning boosters which provide your child with longer use as he/she continues to grow.

• Since they are often bigger in size, it’s important to test and check whether they fit in your vehicle especially when installed in a rear-facing position.

• They lack the convenience of carrying handle or separate base but they have higher limits for rear-facing height and weight (up to 40 – 50 pounds) than infant car seats and so they are suitable for bigger babies and toddlers.

Installation tips for rear-facing car seats

When using a car seat in rear-facing position, always keep the following tips in mind:

• The harnesses in your rear-facing car seat should be placed in slots that are either at or below your baby’s shoulders

• Always make sure the harness is snug and the harness chest clip is placed at the center of your child’s chest while being even with his/her armpits. You’ll know that the harness is snug if you can’t pinch any slack between your fingers when you’re testing the harness straps over your baby’s shoulders.

• The car seat should be tightly installed in the vehicle using either LATCH or a locked seat belt. The car seat is tight enough if it can’t be moved at the belt path for more than an inch from side to side or from front to back.

• A rear-facing car seat should never be placed in the front seat of a vehicle with an active front passenger airbag. This is because if the airbag inflates, it would hit the back of the car seat at the point where your baby’s head is and this could cause serious injury or even death.

• In case you’re using a convertible car seat or 3-in-1 car seat in the rear-facing position, always ensure that the lower anchor webbing or seat belt is routed through the correct belt path. For this, you can check the instructions that came with the car seat just to be sure.

• Making sure that the seat is at the right angle to prevent your baby’s head from flopping forward is also important. Even though all rear-facing car seats come with built-in angle indicators, it’s wise to check the instruction manual to know the correct angle for your seat and how to adjust the seat’s angle if you need to.

• Also check the instructions of the car seat together with your vehicle owner’s manual to know whether the car seat can touch the back of the vehicle seat in front of it.

FAQs about rear-facing car seats

What to do when your baby’s feet touches the back of the vehicle seat?

While this happens to be a very common concern for most parents, it shouldn’t be a cause for any worry. This is because children are able to bend their legs easily and will be therefore comfortable in the rear-facing position. Also, it’s very rare to hear of leg injuries in children in the rear-facing position.

What if my baby slouches down or to the side while in the car seat?

If this happens, you can place tightly rolled receiving blankets on both sides of the baby. Most manufacturers allow you to use a tightly rolled small cloth or diaper between your infant and the crotch strap to prevent slouching. However, it’s recommended not to place padding or insert under or behind your baby unless that padding or insert came with the car seat and was made by the manufacturer to be used with that specific car seat.

Why should I dress my baby in thin layers of clothing before strapping him/her in a car seat?

This is because bulky and heavy clothing including snowsuits and winter coats can compress in a collision and leave the straps too loose to restrain your baby safely and securely, thus leading to increased risk of injury. Ideally, you should dress your baby in thinner layers of clothing and wrap a blanket or coat around him/her over the buckled harness straps if you need to.

Do preemies need a special car seat?

Car seats should be approved for a baby’s weight. If a very small baby can sit safely in a semi-reclined position, then he/she can fit better in rear-facing only car seats. But still, preterm babies should be tested when still in the hospital to ensure they can fit and sit comfortably in a semi-reclined position. For babies who need to lie flat while travelling they should ride in a car bed that meets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213. They also need to be tested when still in hospital to ensure they can lie safely on the car bed.

Forward-facing car seats for toddlers and preschoolers

forward-facing car seat

Before installing a car seat it’s always important to first read the car seat manual and the vehicle owner’s manual. Once a child has outgrown the rear-facing weight and height limit for a convertible car seat, he/she should use a forward-facing car seat with harness for as long as possible or until he/she reaches the maximum weight or height limit allowed by the car seat manufacturer. It’s also best for your child to ride in a car seat with a harness for as long as possible, at least until he/she is 4 years old.

Types of forward-facing car seat restraints

There are 5 types of car safety restraints that can be used as forward-facing:

Convertible car seats – which can be converted from rear-facing to forward-facing and this also includes 3-in-1 car seats.

Forward-facing only seats – these can be used forward-facing with a harness for children weighing up to 40 to 80 pounds depending on the model. Even though manufacturers currently aren’t making any forward-facing only car seats, most of the models in use are from the previous years.

Combination seats with harness – depending on the model, these can be used forward-facing with a harness for children weighing up to 40 to 90 pounds or without the harness as a booster seat for children up to 80 to 120 pounds.

Built-in seats – some vehicles come with built-in forward-facing car seats. The height and weight limits will of course vary from model to model. However, it’s recommended to not use built-in car seats until your child is at least 2 years old.

Travel vests – as an option to traditional forward-facing car seats, travel vests can also be worn by children weighing between 20 to 168 pounds. Travel vests are useful for children who have certain special needs, children whose weight has exceeded the limit allowed by car seats or when your vehicle has lap-only seat belts in the back seat. Additionally, travel vests might require the use of a top tether.

Installation tips for forward-facing car seats

When you want to switch a convertible car seat or 3-in-1 car seat from rear-facing to forward-facing, then it’s important to follow the tips outlined below:

• The shoulder straps should be moved to the slots that are at or below your child’s shoulders. It’s wise to check the instructions that came with the car seat since some convertible car seats require the use of top harness slots when forward-facing.

• You may also need to adjust the recline angle of the seat to a more upright position in your vehicle. Again, check the instructions manual just to be sure.

• If you’re using a seat belt, then ensure it runs through the forward-facing belt path and that the seat belt is also locked and tightened.

• Ensure that the total weight of your child together with that of the car seat does not exceed 65 pounds if you’re using the lower anchors. Nowadays, most car seats state the maximum weight of your child for use with anchors in the manual and on the side stickers. You must install the car seat using seat belts if your child weighs too much.

• The top tether must always be used if/when possible. A tether is usually a strap that’s attached to the top part of a car seat so as to hold the car seat tightly by connecting to an anchor point in your vehicle. During a crash or if the vehicle stops suddenly, tethers provide your child with extra protection by preventing the car seat and your child’s head from moving too far forward. Forward-facing car seats come with tether straps which should always be used as long as your child has not yet reached the maximum weight limit for the tether anchor.

• For information about the locations and maximum weight limit of tether anchors, you can check the car seat instructions and also your vehicle owner’s manual.

FAQs about forward-facing car seats

What if I drive more children than can be safely buckled in the back seat?

Try your best to avoid this and more importantly if your vehicle has front passenger airbags. For safety purposes, all children not older than 13 years should ride in the back seat. If you want your child to ride in the front seat, then securing him/her in a forward-facing car seat with harness may be the best choice. Just ensure the front seat is moved as far back away from the dashboard and airbag as possible.

What if my child is driven by someone else such as for school or child care?

If your child is driven by someone else, then you need to make sure:

• The car seat to be used by your child fits properly in the vehicle used for transportation.

• The car seat to be used is appropriate for your child’s size and age.

• The person in charge of driving your child knows how to use and install the car seat correctly.

Schools and child care programs must have written guidelines for transporting children, including the following:

• All drivers must have a valid driver’s license. In a number of states, school bus drivers are required to have a special type of license.

• Staff-to-child ratios for transport should meet or even exceed the ratio required for the classroom.

• During transport, every child must be supervised by either school staff or a volunteer parent so as to allow the driver to focus on driving safely.

• In case of an emergency, the school staff, teachers and also the driver should know what to do, know the proper use of car seats and seat belts and also be aware of other important safety requirements.

Should my child use a car seat when flying on an airplane?

The AAP and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recommend children who are not more than 40 pounds to be securely fastened in certified child restraints when flying so as to keep the child safe in case of turbulence or during takeoff and landing. While most convertible car seats, rear-facing car seats and forward-facing car seats can be used on airplanes, booster seats and travel vests cannot.

You can also look out for a label on the car seat that says, “This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft”. Additionally, you can consider using a restraint that’s approved by the FAA and made only for use on airplanes. For larger children, they can use the airplane’s seat belt but it’s important to keep in mind that your child will need to use an appropriate car seat when you get to your destination.

Booster car seats for school-aged children

booster car seat

Booster car seats are the next type of car seats to be used by children who have outgrown forward-facing car seats. All children whose height or weight has exceeded the forward-facing limit of their car seat should use a belt-positioning booster car seat until they can fit properly and securely in a vehicle’s seat belt and this is typically when they are 4 feet 9 inches tall between the ages of 8 to 12 years old. Without a booster seat, most children can’t fit properly in most vehicle seat belts until they get to around 10 to 11 years of age.

When any of the following situations are true, then you’ll know your child has outgrown his/her forward-facing car seat:

• When he/she reaches the maximum height or weight limit allowed by the car seat manufacturer with a harness.

• When your child’s shoulders are above the top harness slots.

• When the top of your child’s ears have reached the top of the seat.

Types of booster seats

There are two main types of booster seats and they are high-back booster seats and backless booster car seats. Both types don’t come with a harness strap but are instead used with lap and shoulder seat belts in your vehicle, just exactly the same way that an adult rides. Booster seats are designed to help raise your child higher up to allow the lap and shoulder seat belts to fit properly over the strongest body parts of your child.

Since most booster seats simply rest on the vehicle’s seat and are held in place when the seat belt is fastened over your child, most of them therefore don’t need to be secured to your vehicle’s seat with the seat belt or by using lower anchors and tethers. However, depending on the model, a booster seat can be secured to the vehicle seat and held in place using lower anchors or top tethers.

Installation tips for booster car seats

It’s important to always read the car seat manual together with the vehicle owner’s manual before installing a booster car seat. To help you correctly position your vehicle’s lap and shoulder belts over your child, booster seats usually have a plastic clip or guide just for this purpose.

Booster seats must always be used with a lap and shoulder belt. Ensure you follow the tips below when using a booster seat:

• The lap belt should lie low and snug across your child’s upper thighs.

• The shoulder belt should cross the middle of your child’s chest and shoulder and should be off the neck.

FAQs about booster car seats

What to do if your vehicle has only lap belts in the back seat?

While lap belts work just fine with convertible car seats, rear-facing only seats and forward-facing car seats, they can never be used with a booster car seat. Alternatively, if your vehicle has only lap belts, you can use a forward-facing car seat with a harness and higher weight limits. You could also check whether shoulder belts can be installed in your car, or use a travel vest since some of them can be used with lap belts or even consider purchasing a new car that has lap and shoulder belts in the back seat.

What’s the difference between backless boosters and high-back boosters?

High-back booster seats should be used in vehicles that have no headrests or with low seat backs. Many car seats that look like high-back booster seats are usually combination car seats which come with harnesses for smaller children that can also be removed later for older children. Backless booster seats on the other hand, can be safely used in vehicles which have headrests and high seat backs. Backless boosters are also more portable and easier to move around from one vehicle to another and are usually less expensive than high-back booster seats. However, both types of booster seats will reduce your child’s risk of injury during a collision and both have been designed to raise your child high on the vehicle’s seat so that the seat belt can fit properly.

Seat belts for older children and adults

It’s important to note that seat belts are made for adults. However, when your child is old enough and large enough to use the vehicle seat belt alone, then he/she must always use a lap and shoulder seat belt for the best protection possible. All children younger than 13 years old should ride in the back seat for safety purposes.

How to use a seat belt

An adult seat belt fits correctly when:

• The shoulder belt is lying across the middle of the chest and shoulder and not across the neck or throat.

• The lap belt is low and snug across your child’s upper thighs and not across the belly.

• Your child can comfortably sit against the back seat of your vehicle with his/her knees bent over the edge of the seat without slouching and can stay in this position comfortably throughout the journey.

Other important tips to keep in mind when using seat belts include:

• Ensure that your child doesn’t tuck the shoulder belt under the arm or behind his/her back. This is because if the vehicle was to halt suddenly or if a crash happens, it leaves the upper body of your child unprotected while also adding extra slack to the belt system.

• If you have multiple children, never allow them to share seat belts since all passengers must have their own seat belts or car seats.

FAQs about seat belts

Should I get products that say they can help make seat belts fit better?

No. such products should not be used because they can instead interfere with the proper fit of the seat belt by causing the lap belt to ride either too high on the stomach or making the shoulder belt to be too loose. They can also damage the seat belt. In the case of car seats, the same rule applies too; don’t use extra products unless they came with the car seat or are approved by the car seat manufacturer. Since these products are not covered by any federal safety standards, the AAP does not recommend the use of them. So long as your child is riding in the correct restraint for his/her size, then he/she doesn’t need to use additional devices.

Car seats shopping tips for parents

Keep the following tips in mind when buying a car seat:

There’s no “best” or “safest” car seat – the safest and best car seat is one that’s correctly installed, fits your child’s size, fits well in your vehicle and is used properly each and every time you’re travelling with the baby or child.

Don’t decide by price alone – a higher price doesn’t necessarily mean that the car seat is safer or easier to use than lower priced models.

Avoid buying a second hand or used car seat especially if you don’t know its history in terms of how it was used or whether it was involved in a crash.

You should never use a car seat that:

Is too old – check whether the car seat’s period of use has expired. Look on the label for the date it was manufactured as well as how long the manufacturer recommends the car seat to be used.

Has any visible crack/s on it

Doesn’t have a label with the date of manufacturer and model number – this is because without those two important information, you won’t be able to check whether the car seat has been/was recalled.

Doesn’t come with instructions – these instructions are important to know how to use the car seat.

Is missing some parts – if you buy a used car seat, then it can come without some important parts. Check with the manufacturer to ensure you can get the right parts with the purchase.

Was recalled – you can either call the manufacturer or contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Vehicle Safety Hotline at 888/327-4236 to know whether that particular car seat was recalled. Additionally, you can visit the NHTSA Website.

Was in a moderate or severe crash – some manufacturers recommend replacing a car seat that was involved in any crash, even if the crash was minor. The NHTSA considers a crash to be minor if all the situations below are true:

• The vehicle could be driven away from the crash

• The door of the vehicle closest to the car seat was not damaged

• None of the passengers in the vehicle were injured

• The airbags didn’t go off

• Not a single damage can be seen on the car seat

About airbags

All new cars nowadays come with front airbags and when used together with seat belts, airbags work well in protecting adults and teenagers. However, in the case of children who are riding in rear-facing car seats and even preschool and young school-aged children who are not restrained properly, airbags can be very dangerous. If you have an infant who rides in a rear-facing car seat, always make sure he/she is riding in the vehicle back seat if your vehicle has front passenger airbag. This is because even in a relatively low-speed crash, the airbag could inflate and strike the car seat which as a result could cause serious brain injury and even death.

If you have a vehicle with no back seat or a back seat that’s not intended for passenger use, then that vehicle is not the best choice for travelling with small infants or children. However, if you really need to put your child on the vehicle front seat, then you can turn off the front passenger airbag of some vehicles.

Most new vehicles nowadays also come with side airbags which improve the safety of adults in side impact collisions. You should read your vehicle owner’s manual and the car seat instruction manual for guidance on placing the car seat next to a side airbag.

Important points to keep in mind:

Be a good role model by ensuring you always wear your seat belt so as to help your child in forming a lifelong habit of always buckling up when travelling in a vehicle.

Ensure everyone who transports your child uses the correct car seat or seat belt on every travel, every time. Being consistent with car seat use is not only good parenting and safest for your child, but it also reduces fussing and complaints.

Children should never be left alone in or around cars. If you leave your child alone in or around your vehicle, any of the following situations can happen:

• Temperatures can reach deadly levels in minutes thus causing your child to die of heat stroke.

• Any power windows, retracting seat belts, sunroofs or accessories can pose strangulation hazard to your child.

• Out of curiosity, your child can accidentally knock the vehicle into gear thus setting it into motion.

• Your child can be backed over when your vehicle backs up.

• Your child can become trapped in your vehicle’s trunk.

You should always read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for your car seat. You can always write or call the company’s customer service department if you don’t have those instructions. The manufacturer’s phone number and address are usually on a label on the car seat. The manufacturer will then ask you for the car seat’s model number, name and date of manufacture. In addition, always follow the instructions in your vehicle owner’s manual or on the manufacturer’s website about using car seats.

Need help installing your car seat?

You can get help about car seat installation on the following websites:

NHTSA Parents Central

National Child Passenger Safety Certified Technicians (either click on “Find a Tech” or call 877/366-8154)

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