How to Keep Your Kids Safe in a Car Seat at Any Age

When you’re a parent, car seats are a fact of life. You can’t even bring your infant home from the hospital without a properly-installed one. But what about the other stages of your child’s life? Car seats change as your children get older, and the safety guidelines change with them! Read our step-by-step guide to keep your kids safe at every age.

Infant Car Seat Guidelines

 A picture of an infant car seat     

When to Use

From the time they are born until they are at least two years old, your child’s car seat should face the rear of the car, and ideally be placed in the center of the back row. Studies show that the center of the back row is 43% safer than sitting on either side. Questions about whether the seat itself is installed correctly? Local police stations, hospitals, and even car dealerships often offer classes on installing infant car seats. However, generally speaking, when an infant car seat is installed properly it should move no more than an inch to the front or sideways in a vehicle, straps should lay smooth (never twisted) and taut, and the car seat should never be placed in front of a passenger-side air bag. 

Watch Out For…

Some things to note when you prepare to install an infant car seat; first, how old is it? Safety regulations change, and car seats technically “expire” within six years. Car seats aren’t cheap, but consider this before buying secondhand: once a car seat has been in a crash, it is no longer safe to use. Do you know the history of what you’re buying? If not, it’s better to pass on the deal and buy new.

Child Car Seat Regulations

 A picture of a child car seat.

When it’s Safe to Use

When do you switch to a forward-facing child car seat? That depends on the child. All children should continue to use car seats with a harness until they reach the maximum height or weight allowed by the manufacturer. This generally occurs around age 2, but don’t rush it! Once your child graduates to a forward-facing seat, installation is also different: you will want to secure the top of the car seat to an anchor in the back of the vehicle to limit forward motion.

Safety Issues to Watch Out For…

Be careful of adding any extra layers between your child and the straps of the car seat. Anything that increases the distance between your child’s body and the harness straps can create compression issues or otherwise interfere with the car seat’s ability to protect your child. A blanket or jacket placed over your child once they are securely buckled in is a better option. The same with add-ons that don’t come with your car seat, such as warmers. They aren’t regulated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), so exactly how safe they are is a subject of contention. Your best route? If it didn’t come with the car seat, it’s best not to use it.

Booster Seats

A picture of a child's car booster seat.

When it’s Safe to Use

How old should your child be in order to move up to a booster seat? As with the child car seats, it depends on the child. You will want to wait until he or she outgrows the weight limit on his front-facing seat before moving your child to a booster seat. One of the main safety features of a child’s seat is the 5-point harness, which is one of the safest belt configurations on the market. By moving to a booster seat, you are giving that up, as this seat’s main function is to ensure your child is tall enough to fit a traditional two-strap seat belt correctly. 

Safety Issues to Watch Out For…

Make sure the lap and shoulder belt both fit! The rules for kids are no different than those for adults; the lap belt should fit low across the hips, and the shoulder belt should lay smoothly across the shoulder. Make sure your child doesn’t squirm around and put the shoulder belt under their arm or behind their back. Also, with an older child, you have the benefit of being able to explain the importance of the booster seat. Generally, children will need a booster seat until they are at least 4 feet 9 inches tall and weigh between 80 and 100 pounds. They might be getting to an age where using a booster seat meets with some resistance; remind them that it’s a must for safety. Still have some complaints? Backless booster seats are less conspicuous option.

After the Car Seat

Once your child moves on from the booster seat, you’ll want to continue the safety discussion. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends that children under the age of 13 always ride in the back seat. The reason? Air bags that can be a lifesaver for adults can cause injuries to smaller bodies. No other options? At least make sure their seat is as far back from the dashboard as possible. Also, it never hurts to emphasize the importance of using a safety belt, no matter what. The statistics don’t lie: seat belts reduce serious crash-related injuries and deaths by about half.

The options may be mind-boggling, but the function behind car seats and booster seats remains the same: keeping your child safe. By keeping these tips in mind, you can help keep your child safe at any age!