Last week, I realized both Big M and Lil’ M were about to outgrow their current car seat settings. The same morning, another mom at preschool drop-off asked me how long our girls had to stay in their 5-point harnesses. The world of car seat safety has changed dramatically since we were children. My mother-in-law often tells me about the infant ‘beds’ they used to put in their backseats, if the babies rode in anything. I remember fighting my sister and brother for who got to sit in the front seat every day from the time we started school! It has even changed significantly from the time Big M was born to the time Lil’ M was born less than 2 years later. As I was refreshing all this information for myself, I decided to share it as well – here’s the latest on Car Seat Safety.
Car Seat Safety
In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its Child Passenger Safety recommendations. These guidelines are designed to inform child passenger safety legislation, though adoption to date varies by state.
Current AAP Recommendations
The biggest change in the recommendations relate to the age children should remain rear-facing and the age they should remain out of the front seat (highlighted below).
- Infants and toddlers should remain rear-facing until at least age 2 (increased from age 1)
- Young children should ride in car seats with a 5-point safety harness until at least age 4, or the maximum height, weight allowed by seat manufacturer
- Children should ride in a belt-positioning booster seat until at least age 8, or until the seat belt fits correctly as described by the AAP and NHTSA – “the lap portion of the belt rides low over the hips and the shoulder portion crosses the sternum and shoulder”
- Children should ride in the rear seat until age 13 (increased from age 12)
Note the recommendations are for at least a given age. Many car seats are now designed with maximum height and weight limits that will permit you to leave your child rear-facing or in a 5-point safety harness even longer.
“It is important to note that every transition is associated with some decrease in protection; therefore, parents should be encouraged to delay these transitions for as long as possible” — Policy Statement – Child Passenger Safety, American Academy of Pediatrics
Properly Securing 5-Point Harness
For a 5-point harness to be effective, it must be properly used and secured. A 5-point harness is designed to spread the impact of a potential crash over 5 strongest points of a child’s skeletal frame vs. just 3 a normal seat belt provides, and then only if hitting your body at the proper placement. Consult your manufacturer’s instruction manual to confirm proper strap placement for you seat. Typically, for rear-facing, harness straps should be at or just below the child’s shoulders. For forward-facing, harness straps should be at or just above the child’s shoulders.
The harness straps should be placed over your child’s shoulders and buckled into the crotch strap. Then, buckle the chest clip. Pull all slack out from around the waist, and tighten the harness by pulling the harness adjustment strap. When you are no longer able to pinch any of the harness webbing at your child’s shoulders, the harness is tight enough. Finally, raise the chest clip to even with your child’s armpits.
You should NEVER put your child into their car seat with heavy, winter clothing on (coats, snowsuits). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also recommends “to keep your baby the safest, always remove bulky clothing or blankets before you place the child in the seat. Then, put the blanket or coat over the baby. You should never place anything thick underneath the baby, unless that item came with the car seat originally — which tells you it’s been tested by the manufacturer. When a child is wearing a thick coat, it’s hard to tell if you have a good harness fit, which is crucial. A coat can add a lot of slack, reducing the level of protection for your child in a crash.”NEVER put your child in car seat with winter clothing on #carseatsafety #safetyfirst #parenting Click To Tweet
Types of Seats
There are numerous car seat manufacturers and even more varieties of seats. You can find a list of manufacturers by type of car seat, including seat specifications, here.
- Infant seats – these are designed only to be used rear-facing, typically have handles and can be secured onto a base that remains installed in the car. Height and weight limits vary, but typically range from 4-35 pounds and 30-32″
- Convertible seats – these are designed to be used both rear and forward-facing. Does not have handles and is designed to remain secured in the car. Height and weight limits vary, but typically range from 5-40 pounds and 40-49″ for rear-facing and 20-65 pounds and 49″ for forward-facing. These can be helpful for larger infants to allow them to remain rear-facing for a longer period of time.
- 3 or 4-in-1 seats – these are designed to be used rear and forward-facing, as well as convert to a belt-positioning booster. These are a great investment as the seat will grow and convert with your child up to 100-120 pounds and 57″ (basically until they can sit and use the car seat belt safely)
- Combination seats – these are designed to be used forward-facing only and convert to a booster seat. Height and weight limits vary, but they are typically appropriate for children at least 2 years of age, 25 pounds and 30″ and will grow and convert with your child up to 120 pounds and 57″
The LATCH System
Nearly all 2003 model cars and later come with a built-in LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children) system. It is a system of metal anchors specifically designed to secure car seats in vehicles. Please note that all lower anchors are rated for a maximum weight of 65 pounds, which includes the total weight of the car seat plus your child. Car seat manufacturer’s should include what the maximum weight of a child can be using lower anchors, given this limitation. Given the weight of most car seats, the limit is reached once your child weighs 35-40 pounds, but you should consult both your vehicle manufacture’s manual and car seat manual to confirm your system’s limit.LATCH system anchors are only designed for a max weight of 65 lbs - including carseat + child… Click To Tweet
When your child exceeds that weight, you can secure the seat using the car seat belt. You should not use the lower anchors and seat belt at the same time – detach the lower anchors and secure the seat with the car seat belt. However, you should still use the tether to secure the top of your child’s seat.
Lastly, MANY vehicle LATCH systems are not designed to secure a car seat in the middle seat, which is often considered the safest position. Do not attempt to secure your car seat using the LATCH system in a middle seat if your car is not designed to do so. The anchors in the two side seats are positioned too far apart to secure it properly. Instead, use the seat belt.
Child Passenger Safety Technicians will perform car seat installations to insure seats are safely and properly secured, as well as advise on where and how to secure your car seat. Check out SafeKids.org to find a certified CPST near you. Our local police force has a CPST certified officer on staff, and schedules free car seat inspections once a month at the local fire station. You can also check with your pediatrician’s office or birthing facility to see if they have contacts or resources who will offer this service.
When to Replace Your Car Seat
Did you know your car seat has an expiration date? Most car seats expire 5-6 years from the date of manufacture, not the date of purchase or beginning of use. The plastic seat shell can begin to breakdown and degrade over time, as does the insulating Styrofoam. The harness will also wear with ongoing use. Graco imprints the bottom of every car seat with a “Do Not Use this car seat after Month, Year”. All manufacturers also include a sticker on the seat with a model number and date of manufacture or serial number – it is important to keep track of these, not only to watch for expiration, but in the event of any product recalls. If your seat does not have a printed expiration date, please calculate your expiration date based on the expiration guidelines provided by your car seat manufacturer.
Additionally, if your car seat is ever in a car involved in any accident, it can also cause damage to your car seat, compromising its safety and efficacy. The good news is your car insurance should replace the car seat along with the car repairs, so be sure to report it on your claim. This is the primary reason to also be cautious of purchasing or accepting a car seat second hand, unless you can be absolutely certain of the car seat’s history.
Avoid Common Misuses
The most common misuse of car seats I see are:
- Turning a child forward-facing too soon (I myself was guilty of this with Big M simply out of not knowing any better!)
- Moving a child to a booster or seat belt too early – remember seat belts are designed to secure the average adult
- Not properly securing the 5-point harness, especially placement of the chest buckle
- Putting children in their 5-point harness with bulky winter attire on
- Using the lower anchor system after child has exceeded its rated weight limit
Most of us today would never think about getting in a car without buckling our seat belt. The same level of attentiveness should be given to these car seat safety guidelines. According to the AAP statement, “current estimates of child restraint effectiveness indicate that child safety seats reduce the risk of injuryby 71% to 82% and reduce the risk of death by 28% when compared with those for children of similar ages in seat belts. Booster seats reduce the risk of nonfatal injury among 4- to 8-year-olds by 45% compared with seat belts.”
What is your car seat(s) of choice? How old was your child before you turned them forward-facing? Let them sit with just a seat belt? If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy Transitions: Sleeping in a Big Kid Bed. You can find both of these on our Parenting Tips board on Pinterest.