Choosing The Right Car Seat For Your Baby Or Child

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All you need to know about child safety seats in your car

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Car accidents remain the leading cause of death for children under the age of 13 in the USA, and while common sense dictates that you certainly can't strap a 5-year old into a baby seat in your car or pop your newborn into a booster seat, there are some basics about safe travel with your children to learn.

If you aren't a parent or guardian to a youngster, you may not know there is legislation surrounding how to travel with your baby or young child in a motor vehicle, and, although this varies from state to state, it remains important to have your most precious cargo securely strapped in when you travel. Whether this means a car seat, a booster seat, or making use of the standard seat belt depends largely on the age of the child, but the premise is the same - the laws of physics apply very differently to smaller bodies when collisions occur, so it's not enough to merely rely on adult-oriented safety systems.

This guide on how to choose a child car seat for your child will clear up any questions you may have about the best way to ensure your little ones get to their destination safe and sound.

Child Car Seats pexels.com

What is the Law?

Safety standards and regulations for minors differ between states, but in all regions, the safety of car passengers below 16 years of age is carefully outlined. Some states like Colorado are happy for children between 8 and 16 to use only standard seatbelts, while other states like Delaware prevent children under 12 from sitting in the front passenger seat unless the airbag has been deactivated entirely. For the most part, all states expect infants, babies, and toddlers up to the age of four years old to be in an appropriate child car seat; children up to eight are required to be strapped into a booster seat; and, those over the age of eight must wear a regular seatbelt. There are some variances in terms of height and weight across states, with some specifying offenses and fines as well.

Some states stipulate more detailed rules, for example, also specifying that 2-year old children and younger should be in rear-facing seats, while others only expect this of little ones under a year old. Make sure you know what is legal in your state.

Types of Car Seats for Your Child

There are four main types of child car seats, and each has its merits. While the sizes of the seats themselves aren't all that important, the size, height, and weight of your child are:

  • Rear-facing seats: This type of car seat is ideal for infants and smaller children, as it cradles and protects your baby entirely; your little one is strapped in with a harness, and there is more protection for their neck and spine. In a collision, this type of seat offers the most protection, acting as a bubble or cage around the child, moving with them, and protecting them from impact and debris. These can be bought as infant-only, or convertible car seat types that switch to forward-facing when the child is older, or as an all-in-one option that becomes a booster seat over time, too.
  • Forward-facing seats: Forward-facing seats are for slightly larger children. The seat itself is tethered down to limit forward movement during a crash. In some cases, these can be converted to booster seats as your child grows. One of the advantages of these seats is that your child can look at you and their surroundings more easily.
  • Booster seats: Functioning mainly as an elevated seat, a booster also positions the standard seatbelt over the strongest parts of your pre-teen's body. These may have a high back with additional neck and head support, or be entirely backless. Pros of this type of seat are that the child has great visibility and the seatbelt is correctly positioned for maximum safety.
  • Standard seatbelts: Using the standard fare for safety is all good and well, provided the belt lies across the upper thighs of the individual, and fits snugly across the shoulder and chest, not across the stomach or neck/face. As seatbelts are designed with adult bodies in mind, these are not ideal for smaller passengers, and will not offer the same level of protection as specially designed car seats. Seatbelts should be worn by every passenger over the age of 12.
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NHTSA Guidelines

As the rules for child car seats and their usage differ across the various states, we recommend following the NHTSA's recommendations regarding which restraint method is appropriate. The authority suggests choosing a child car seat by age or height/weight:

  • Newborn - 12 months: Use a rear-facing baby seat for car drives for as long as possible, until they reach the weight or height limit. This can overlap for those over 12 months, and can even be used for smaller-built 2- and 3-year-old toddlers.
  • 1 - 3 years old and up: As soon as your child outgrows the rear-facing seat by reaching the maximum pounds in weight or inches in height, move to a forward-facing seat. The exact age guidelines for this may vary but, ideally, your 6-year old should be in a child car seat like this.
  • 8 - 12 years old: Still installed in the back seat, this can be used for larger 4-year-old children and up, but using a booster seat in your car for a child 8 - 12 years old is best, according to the NHTSA. Continue using it until a seatbelt fits properly.
  • Seatbelt: Only use when it fits your child correctly, most likely only after 12 years of age - no 5-year old should be strapped in with only a seatbelt.
Rear-Facing Baby Seat pexels.com

Car Seat Safety Standards

If you've ever shopped for a car seat, you'll know that it's a substantial financial investment; there are reasons, for this, however - and it's much less about status, brand, and what the influencer moms are posing with on Instagram. All car seats sold in the USA must meet federal safety standards, but this is not to say that there aren't some noncompliant seats and cheap gadgets available for purchase - never skimp on the real deal. The best way to know is to carefully study the label. Compliant car seats will have the following:

  • The exact wording, "This restraint system conforms to all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards. This restraint is certified for use in all motor vehicles and aircraft" should appear on the label to confirm compliance with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213, although wording pertaining to aircraft may be left out without concern.
  • Information for the manufacturer and distributor as well as the date of manufacture.
  • Basic instructions for installation.

The Costs of Car Seats

Although the value of your child's safety and well-being can never be equated to a monetary figure, anyone with children will tell you that budget is important. Still, spending a little more on a car seat that meets federal safety standards is not only advisable in terms of legality, but they are definitely more likely to place a higher priority on safety than cheap knock-offs or strange gadgets.

Depending on the type of seat you need for your child, expect to budget anywhere from $50 for a backless booster, to upwards of $500 for top-end, all-in-one seats that will grow with your child until they are able to make use of standard seatbelts. You can find a compliant car seat under $100 if you know where to shop and are not looking for exclusive brands that can do everything short of feed and burp your little one for you.

How do You Choose the Right Car Seat for Your Baby?

Choosing the correct car seat for your child depends on the following factors:

  1. Age and weight: This seems obvious - you cannot put a newborn in a booster seat, nor a pre-teen in a confining rear-facing seat. Pick the child car seat by age appropriateness; sticking with the NHTSA recommendations is a good place to start but, if you have a child who is a little larger or heavier than most, it's alright to move up to the next level a little earlier than their age would dictate.
  2. Type of car: Not every car seat will fit in all cars, so make sure you check compatibility - for example, there is more space for car seats in a Toyota Sienna than there is in a Honda Accord. It may be worth your while to have a professional fit one or two examples into your car to see what works best.
  3. Ease of use: Some seats are much easier to install than others, particularly if you have a fancy setup with a base. Make sure you are able to fit, install, and manage whatever you buy, at a moment's notice. A car seat should not take you more than a few minutes to install or use on a daily basis.
  4. Safety standards: Make sure the seat you want to buy adheres to regulations and federal safety standards. This is much more important than how it looks, what brand it is, and whether or not the other moms in the Book Club like it - it needs to keep your child safe above all else. It is advisable to ask other parents, either in person or online, and read reputable reviews of child car seats before making a purchase.
  5. Practicality: Overly complicated seats aren't great either. Difficulty installing or cleaning a child car seat means you should probably look at something else.

When and Where to Use Child Car Seats

This may seem straightforward to you, but you'd be surprised at how many people think it's perfectly fine to do without a car seat for a ten- or fifteen-minute drive to the store. The first rule is this: always strap your child into their restraint, no matter how quick your journey is supposed to be. Accidents happen in driveways and cul-de-sacs, too. The only acceptable exception to the rule would be if you are rushing your child to a hospital for an injury or illness and need to hold them, in which case you should be seated in the back.

Where to install the car seat is the next question. Depending on the type of seat, the car you drive, and your state's regulations, your best bet is generally to install the baby seat for your car in the middle of the rear bench away from active airbags. This is standard for all family sedan vehicles. If you have a three-row family SUV, stick to the second row.

Never install a car seat on the front seat - should the airbag deploy against the car seat, it could cause a serious, possibly fatal, injury. If you're driving a truck with only one row of seats, however, and you don't have a choice, but make sure the airbag is deactivated first.

What is LATCH?

The Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children system, also known as LATCH, was designed to make it easier and safer to install safety seats correctly, without the need for using seatbelts. Older cars and child safety seats made before 2002 relied mostly on the seat being strapped in using the existing seatbelts. While this method was safe when used correctly, many people struggled to install child seats in their car the right way.

LATCH systems are also known as ISOFIX in Europe, and LUAS in Canada, and consist of built-in anchors on both the vehicle and the car seat, together with connecting straps and hooks. Lower anchors comprising a pair of metal u-shaped bars welded to the frame can be found hidden in the creases of the vehicle's back seat. Tether anchors, which are metal rings or bars to strap the seat to, can be found behind the seat on the shelf under the rear windshield, but this can vary in SUVs, wagons, and minivans, where they may be on the back of the rear seats themselves. This kind of system will make it easier for you to ensure the safety of your little ones; note that the NHTSA recommends using either seatbelts or LATCH anchors, but never both.

That being said, if you have an older car without these (or an older model car seat), don't give up on using child seats for your car entirely - just ensure you follow the installation instructions carefully.

Tips for Safe Traveling with Infants and Children

Now that we've covered the basics, let's look at some child car seat safety tips:

  • Familiarize yourself with installation instructions and processes before you need to hurriedly load up the family and go - this is not something you should rush or make a half-hearted effort at. Practice if you must, but ensure you are getting it right. A car seat (and the base it clips into, if you're using one) should never wobble or slide around.
  • Always remove bulky clothing before strapping your child into their seat. Also make sure to buckle the straps around their body, and not around blankets or loose clothing - strap your little one in first, and then use a light blanket over their legs, or cover the baby car seat itself if you're concerned that they may be cold.
  • Check the angle of incline once you've installed the seat. This may be slightly concerning to new parents, especially when using a rear-facing seat that may make it difficult for you as the driver to keep an eye on your newborn. Make sure they are not so far reclined that it negates the safety aspect of the car seat, nor too upright that their head will flop forward. Follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully - many seats come with clever gauges and leveling devices to help you find the right incline. A 45-degree angle is what you should be aiming for.
  • Adjust the harness to fit snugly - not so tight as to restrict breathing, but not too loose that the baby can slip from beneath it (or the toddler can wriggle out of it). Straps should not be twisted, and should lie flat against the body - you should be able to slip a finger or two beneath to check.
  • Don't be in a rush to move to a forward-facing or booster seat too soon. It's understandable that switching to the next step up is something you want to do as soon as you can, since forward-facing and booster seats mean your child can see and interact with you and enjoy the ride, but their safety is much more important. Only move to the next seat up when they have truly outgrown the current setup in age, weight, or height.
  • If you have two seats to install in the back seat, place the youngest in the center, if at all possible. It's also a good idea to plan your placement of seats according to which child will take the longest to strap in/take out - buckle the one that requires a bit more time on the passenger side, so if you park in the street, you can have the door open onto the sidewalk.
  • General rule of thumb: All passengers under the age of 13 should be seated in the back seat where it is safest for them.
  • Register your car seat with the NHTSA to sign up for recall notices and safety updates.
Child Seat freepik.com

Conclusion

The safety of your children should always come first; this means that every decision you make with regard to transporting them carries a lot of weight. From how safe the car you drive is to the ratings of the child car seat you choose to strap them into, make sure you pick what will keep them safe. This means carefully ensuring the car seat complies with safety standards and regulations, that you install it correctly, and strap your little one in properly. Also, make sure you are using the correct seat for their stage of development, and that you comply with the laws in your state.

FAQs

Can you put two car seats next to each other?

If you have two little ones to strap in, you can install two seats in the back of your car. We recommend placing the most vulnerable (ie: youngest) in the center position. If you cannot fit two seats next to each other using the center seat, it's acceptable to use both rear outboard positions.

Can child car seats be used in airplanes?

Yes they can; in fact, using the appropriate seat for their age/weight category is recommended by the Federal Aviation Administration for all children under four on board airplanes.

Can I leave my child unattended in the car?

You should never leave your child unattended anywhere, and especially not in a car. Barring the fact that this is simply irresponsible parenting and your child will likely be afraid and anxious the entire time, they are at risk of overheating, suffocating, and choking, to name a few. While there are some manufacturers that now install rear-seat occupancy warnings, it is almost impossible to imagine any parent needing this and forgetting that they have their child with them. Never leave your child unattended in the car, not even for a short period of time.

Can I buy a used car seat?

It's not advisable to buy a used seat that is more than a couple years old, simply because of wear and tear and having no guarantee as to the structural integrity of the seat. However, a used seat is better than no seat. If you do find one that is in good condition that was originally compliant with regulations, always get it checked by the manufacturer, baby store, or through the NHTSA directory where you can find a car seat inspection station. You can also search for a certified technician through the National Child Passenger Safety Certification Program to give it a once-over.

Can I leave my child to sleep in their car seat?

If you're traveling in the car, it's safe to let your little one doze off if they are properly strapped in and the car seat is securely installed at the correct angle - this is what the seats are designed for. However, children and babies should never be left unattended to sleep in car seats outside of the car - there is the risk of death from suffocation and strangulation as they will not be positioned properly.

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