Making sure your baby or child is safe in the car is paramount, which is why finding the right car seat is a must. There are hundreds of different designs available, with guidelines offering varying pieces of information. This can make it very difficult to find the right car seat, not to mention installing and using it correctly!
This guide will walk you through the available types of car seats, how to install them and where to find them, as well as other useful information that will help to guarantee your child’s safety when you’re traveling from A to B.
Types of Car Seats
There are a number of different styles of car seats and many will vary depending on your child’s age and size. Here are some of the most popular styles and who they’re designed for:
A Rear-Facing Car Seat: This is perfect for a young child as it not only has a harness but will ensure stability and safety should you be involved in an accident. As it cradles your child, it’ll reduce the impact that could be felt on your child’s fragile spinal cord and neck.
This type of seat is made specifically for small babies and newborns. Because of this, they’ll be rear-facing only and will be small and compact. You’ll normally find that this will be outgrown by the time your baby is 8 to 9 months old.
A Forward-Facing Car Seat: To limit the movement of your child during an accident, this type of seat comes complete with a tether and a harness. These seats will normally convert from a rear-facing one, or be one that will then convert into a booster seat.
A Convertible Seat: This gives you the flexibility of changing your child’s seat from rear- to front-facing as they grow. As they’re designed for children that are slightly bigger, it allows you to keep the seat rear-facing for a longer period of time.
A Booster Seat: Made for an older child, these help to lift your child into a position that makes sure the seat belt fits them properly and provides them with maximum support. There are a two common designs of booster seats:
- A High Back Booster Seat – This style of booster seat not only provides your child with additional height but will also offer more support to their head and neck. These types of booster seats are particularly important if your car doesn’t have a high seat back or headrest.
- A Backless Booster Seat – This will help to give your child that extra height so the seat belt in the car provides them with the right support. It’s perfect for a vehicle that has head rests.
An All-in-One Seat: The ultimate in car seats, this goes one step further than the convertible seat by also changing to a booster seat when they get to the right age. As before, the flexibility of this seat and the fact it can alter to a child’s size will help you to keep your child in a rear-facing position in the car for longer.
Car Seats by Your Child’s Age and Size
As your child grows they’ll require a different type of seat. Below is a guide on the differing seats and which are suited to the age of your child.
Infants and Toddlers: These should be in rear-facing or convertible seats that are set to be rear-facing. Until they are 2 years old they should be in a rear-facing seat, or at least until they reach the maximum height / weight that’s recommended by the manufacturer of the car seat.
Toddlers and Preschoolers: As they outgrow their rear-facing seat, your child should be placed in a forward-facing one or one that converts to be this style of seat. They should be riding in the car in one of these seats with a harness until they reach the maximum height / weight that’s recommended by the manufacturer of the car seat.
School-Aged Children: Booster seats should be used by any child that has outgrown their forward-facing seat. They should be using this style of seat until the seat belt fits them correctly without the need for added height that the booster seat provides them with. This is normally when they are around 8 to 12 years old and have reached a height of 4’9”. Any child under 13 should also be riding in the back of the car.
Older Children: It goes without saying that seat belts are a must for children who are old enough to be in the car without a specialist seat. They should fit correctly, going over their lap and shoulder.
Finding a Car Seat
When you’re shopping for a car seat for your child, there are a number of things that you should consider. These guidelines are also particularly useful when you are considering a previously used car seat.
- Get the right fit – It’s important that the seat you select is the correct size for your child. It matters little if the seat’s the best in the world, if it doesn’t fit correctly, it’s not going to provide your child with the best protection. Check what seats are recommended for your child’s size and age and make sure it’s installed correctly.
- Don’t just decide based on the price – The pricing of car seats will vary dramatically, but again, the most expensive doesn’t mean the best for your child. Shop around and find one that has the right safety features and suits your child’s size.
- Don’t buy a seat that’s too old – Always look for when the seat was made and find out how long these seats are supposed to be used for.
- Don’t buy a seat that’s got visible cracks – This could mean that the seat has been in a previous accident and it could be significantly weakened. Equally, if you know the seat has been in an accident, don’t purchase it, even if it was only a minor crash.
- Don’t buy one that doesn’t have a manufacturer’s label on – You need to know that the seat you’re buying is 100% safe and without the correct label, you can’t check to make sure it’s never been recalled.
- Don’t buy one that doesn’t come with the relevant instructions – Installing a seat correctly is just as important as buying the right one, and without the right instructions, you can’t make sure you’re fitting the seat properly in your car.
- Don’t buy one that’s missing any parts – This could severely impact the effectiveness of the seat.
- Don’t buy one that’s been recalled – Always check the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website to make sure the seat you’re looking at has never been recalled.
- If in doubt about any of the features of a car seat, ring the manufacturer.
Car Seat Ease-of-Use Ratings
The NHTSA provides parents / caregivers with an in-depth set of guidelines that help them to evaluate how easy a car seat is to use before they buy it. They also help to provide regulations to make sure your child is safe and secure in the car.
The NHTSA rating system is as follows:
5 Stars = A car seat in this category has exceptional child restraint features.
4 Stars = A car seat in this category has above-average child restraint features.
3 Stars = A car seat in this category has average child restraint features.
2 Stars = A car seat in this category has below-average child restraint features.
1 Star = A car seat in this category has poor child restraint features.
Even though all car seats that are rated are safe and have adhered to the relevant guidelines, they can differ in their ease of use. This is split up into four categories:
- Evaluation of Instructions – This looks into how clear the instructions are for the car seat.
- Vehicle Installation Features – This will look into how easy the car seat is to install.
- Evaluation of Labels – This evaluates how clear the labeling is on the car seat.
- Securing the Child – This examines how easy it is to restrain the child correctly in the car seat.
How to Install Your Child’s Car Seat
When you’ve found the best car seat for your child, it’s important that this is then installed correctly in the car. The manufacturer of the seat should provide you with clear instructions, however, there are some general guidelines that should be followed:
Installing the Car Seat Using LATCH: LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) is a system that most car seats will come with. The lower anchors are in place instead of using the seat belt, as many parents find this much easier to use. The top tether then provides additional safety for your child, and is particularly important in forward-facing seats.
To check if your car has the LATCH system, you’ll need to check for lower anchors that are found in the back seats, where the cushions meet. The tether anchors will be found in the panel behind the seat, or they may be on the floor or ceiling. All car seats can be fastened to these devices using the attachments provided. Most vehicles that have been made since 2002 have had the LATCH system installed.
A maximum weight of 65 pounds is to be used on the lower anchors (this includes your child’s weight and the weight of the seat). You should check the recommendations of the car seat manufacturer before using these anchors.
Installing the Car Seat Using a Seat Belt: It’s important that the seat belt in your car locks so a tight fit is provided for the car seat. In a lot of newer cars you can do this by pulling the seat belt out and retracting it. Alternatively, some cars may have a lock-off built into them. Refer to your vehicle guide to find out which is relevant to your car.
It’s also advisable to place car seats in the middle of the car, if possible. However, you’ll need to make sure the place where you’re installing the seat is stable and can be tightly secured with the seat belt or the lower anchors.
Any child under the age of 13 should be riding in the back of the car.
Registering Your Child’s Car Seat
Finally, once you’ve found the right seat and you’ve installed it and used it, it’s important to make sure you’re kept up to date on the safety of this seat. To help continue to monitor and regulate the safety standards of car seats, the NHTSA offer a registering option that allows you to remain in the loop with the car seat manufacturer you have chosen.
While some seats will pass the safety tests with flying colors, there may be safety-related defects or other issues that mean the seat is recalled. To make sure you know exactly when this happens, the manufacturer can contact you directly with their safety notices through this registered system at NHTSA. That way, you can be sure your child’s safety is guaranteed at all times.
Other Useful Resources
NHTSA’s Parents Central – This website provides you with detailed information on car seats, what you should be looking out for and the latest safety standards.
Healthchildren.org – This site is run by pediatricians and provides you with in-depth advice on car seats, common questions parents have and videos on the installation of car seats.
GHSA – Here you can check what laws there are in your state for child passenger safety. This includes the type of seat required, at what age a seat belt is permissible and what fines are in place if you don’t abide by these laws.