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Rose Walano

Car Seat Safety: What You Need To Know

Whether you have a newborn or school-aged superstar, these crucial tips will protect your precious cargo.

As you prepare your home for baby’s arrival, plenty of questions are probably whirling about: “Will the nursery be ready in time?” “Is the crib in the right place?” “Darn it, should I have ordered that shelving unit from IKEA after all?” But no matter how put-together the nursery is, in order to bring baby home, you’ll need to focus on car seat safety. Word to the wise: Don't wait until the last minute! Hospitals won’t let you take baby home without a properly installed car seat, and you can bet once those contractions kick in, you or your partner won't be in the best frame of mind to start figuring it out. Even if you’ve already picked out a car seat, you’ll need at least several weeks to set it up and have it inspected. Read on for the details on how to make that ride with baby a smooth one.

In this article:
Car seats by age
Car seat safety tips: installation
Car seat safety tips: strapping in

Appropriate Car Seats by Age

As if it’s not hard enough to assess the dozens of car seats (and the thousands of corresponding reviews) on the market, the rules shift as to what to buy when, every time safety experts discover better ways to protect your child. We get it: It can be hard to keep track. Here’s the latest update on the best types of car seats by age, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Car seats for infants and younger toddlers (under age 2):

Appropriate car seat types

  • Rear-facing-only car seats
  • Rear-facing convertible car seats
  • Rear-facing 3-in-1 car seats

Guidelines for infant and toddler car seat safety
If baby is younger than 2 years old or hasn't reached the highest weight or height allowed by your car seat’s manufacturer, your child should be riding in a rear-facing seat (or a convertible car seat installed so that it faces the rear) in the back seat of the car.

Car seats for older toddlers and preschoolers (age 2 to 5):

Appropriate car seat types

  • Forward-facing-only car seats with a harness
  • Forward-facing convertible car seats

Guidelines for toddler and preschooler car seat safety
Once your child has outgrown the rear-facing car seat’s weight or height limit, transition him into a forward-facing seat with a harness. It’s safest to have your child ride in a seat with a harness for as long as possible, at least until age 4. If he maxes out on the height or weight limits for the seat before age 4, the AAP suggests using a seat with a harness that’s approved for higher weights and heights.

Car seats for school-aged children (age 5 until seat belts fit properly):

Appropriate car seat types

  • Booster seats

Guidelines for school-aged car seat safety
When your child exceeds the height and weight limit of the forward-facing car seat, she can move on to a belt-positioning booster seat. When a child is old enough or large enough to have a seat belt fit her just right—usually when she’s at least 4’9”—she should use a lap-and-shoulder seat belt in the back seat. According to the AAP, seatbelts won’t fit most kids without a booster seat until they’re about 10 years old. Even when children can ride in the car without a booster seat, they still have a ways to go before they can move up to the front seat: All children under 13 should ride in the backseat. Most children don't reach the appropriate height and weight requirements to move to the front seat until they are 13 years old.

Car Seat Safety Tips: The Installation

When it comes to car seat safety statistics, one recent finding is especially astonishing: Nearly 95 percent of new parents make at least one mistake while installing the seat and strapping baby in, according to a 2016 Journal of Pediatrics study. Get a good grip on the car seat safety guidelines below to be among the five percent who get it right:

Make sure the car seat is secured as snugly as possible. When installing in your vehicle, press down on the car seat and pull the seat belt until it’s as tight as possible. If you can move the car seat more than an inch side to side or front to back, it’s not tight enough. Vehicles and child safety seats made after September 1, 2002, are compatible with the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system, which makes it easy to install the seat without seat belts.

Place the car seat in the safest backseat spot. Some studies have shown that the middle of the back seat may be the safest spot in the car for your child, but most cars don’t have lower anchors for the middle seating position. It can also be difficult to tightly install a car seat in the middle if the vehicle seat is narrow or even. Your best bet? The AAP says the safest position for your child’s car seat is wherever you can install it snugly, either with the LATCH system or seat belt—and that may be on either side of the back seat instead of the middle.

Set the car seat at the correct angle. Your car seat is designed to recline at just the right angle to keep baby’s head from flopping forward and potentially blocking their airway (but not too reclined to pose a risk in case of a crash). Usually the proper recline angle is somewhere between 30 and 45 degrees, but read the instructions to find out the correct angle for your seat and how to adjust if needed.

Read all of the instructions. We know it’s tempting to just figure it out on your own, but please don’t. Before you do anything, carefully read the instruction manuals for both your vehicle and your car seat. Check your seat belt labels for any important car seat safety advisories too.

Make sure it's locked. If your seat belts don't have an automatic locking mechanism, you can purchase a locking clip to be sure the car seat is secured to your vehicle.

Get an inspection. Double-check that you’ve correctly installed your seat by heading to your local NHTSA Child Car Seat Inspection Station, which are available in every state to assist new parents for free. You can also learn more by attending a Safe Kids Coalition event.

Drive safely. Set a good example for baby by always remembering to buckle up. After that, car safety is up to you and your defensive driving skills.

Car Seat Safety Tips: Strapping In

The big day is here: Baby is coming home! The final step to car seat safety is getting baby (and any older kids) strapped in correctly. Once you’ve nailed each of the following criteria below, you’ll be on your way!

Skip the bulky clothing. Bulky clothing, such as winter coats, should not be worn under the car seat harness—in the case of a crash, any fluffy padding immediately flattens out from the force, leaving extra space under the harness for baby to slip around, according to the AAP. If it’s cold, dress your child in thin layers and a thin fleece jacket. If necessary, you can put on her coat backwards, over the straps, after she’s already buckled in. Car seat bundling products or sleeping bag inserts are not safe if they weren’t packaged with the car seat.

Adjust the harness height: For a rear-facing car seat, use the harness slots that are at or below the child’s shoulders. For forward-facing car seat, use the harness slots that are at or above the child’s shoulders. The five-point harness chest clip should be placed at the center of the chest, even with your child’s armpits.

Perform a pinch test. Tighten the harness straps snugly. If you can pinch the harness strap at the child’s shoulders, the straps are too loose.

**All September, creating a registry on The Bump means one less child will be without a car seat. We’ve partnered with our friends at Buckle Up for Life, who will donate a car seat to a family in need for every new registry created on The Bump and teach them how to install it correctly. Learn more here.

To learn about Buckle Up for Life's car seat safety tips and programs, the national car seat safety program from Cincinnati Children’s and Toyota, please visit www.buckleupforlife.org.

Updated August 2017

The Bump and Diono present The Road Ahead, a sponsored series covering everything you need to know before buying baby’s first car seat. Visit Diono.com to shop their infant and convertible car seats.

PHOTO: Ariel Skelley / Getty Images