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Car Seats Series 1 of 5: Selection
Did you know that 59% of car seats and 20% of booster seats are misused in a way that could reduce their effectiveness, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Adminstration?
Car crashes are the leading cause of preventable death for children ages 1 to 13. There is a lot that can be done to further prevent these deaths.
Selecting the right car seat is the first step in car seat safety.
But which car seat is the right car seat?
There is no one answer because it depends. Generally speaking, the right car seat is the car seat that fits your car, fits your child and you can install correctly every time.
You might be thinking more expensive equals better. Rest assured, that may not necessarily be the case — more on that later.
And what may work for your situation may not work for your friend’s. Selecting the right car seat for you first you need to know which stage your child is in.
The 4 (+) Stages of Car Seats
There are 4 stages of child restraint usage: rear facing , forward facing, belt positioning and seat belts. The type of seat you need will depend on your child’s age and size.
Stage 0 (or the + stage): Prenatal
Others may not, but we include the prenatal stage as the child in the womb needs special attention and protection while in the car as well. There are a surprisingly high number of pregnancies lost every year in car crashes. Studies reveal an average of 3,000 pregnancies lost every year from car crashes. And a 2015 study showed that unborn babies are at least at five times the risk in a car crash compared to newborns in rear-facing car seats.
Not only should pregnant women wear their seat belt, they should wear it properly and use a crash tested pregnancy seat belt positioner. There is only one that we know of that is crash tested. It is the Tummy Shield which redirects the seat belt away from the pregnancy.
Stage 1: Rear Facing
Birth to max limits of rear facing seat; AT LEAST until 2 years old; ideally until age 3 to 4 when they no longer fit their seat in a rear-facing position.
“All infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing car safety seat (CSS) as long as possible, until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by the seat’s manufacturer.” – The American Academy of Pediatrics
Why should a child remain rear facing? While a child is rear facing the child’s head, neck and back are all supported and protected by the car seat, reducing the stress to the child’s fragile neck and spinal cord.
When they are turned forward facing the body is being restrained by the harness strap and the neck and head are unrestrained. The child’s body is dependent on the strength of his spine to handle the stress of a crash. An average nine month old child’s head makes up 25% of his body weight; while an adult’s head only makes up 6% of its body weight. This difference in proportion only adds to the need to protect the spinal column.
A toddler’s bones have not fully ossified, and cartilage is connecting a toddler’s vertebrae rather than ossified bone. The longer a child is kept rear facing, the better the chance the spinal column will have strengthened over time.
Types of seats to use:
- Infant seat: A portable seat with base designed for newborns and small babies. These seats can only be used in a rear facing position.
- Convertible seat in rear-facing position: This is a full size car seat that can transfer from a rear-facing seat to a forward-facing seat and will allow a child to remain rear facing longer. As some fit a newborn this could be the first seat.
- All-in-one seat in rear-facing position: This type of seat can go from rear facing to forward facing to belt positioning as the child grows.
Stage 2: Forward Facing
From the time they outgrow their rear-facing car seat (at the very least age 2, preferably age 3 or 4) to when they outgrow their forward-facing car seat (depends on the child and seat but typically about 5 or 6).
The purpose of having a 5-point harness is to contact more of the strongest points of the body to distribute the crash forces and help the child better “ride down” a crash.
It’s recommended to always use the tether with a forward-facing car seat as it limits the child’s forward head movement (called head excursion). Also make sure the harness straps are snug enough on the child that you cannot pinch the strap material at the shoulders.
Use this seat until your child’s:
- Height or weight exceeds the car seat’s limits,
- Shoulders are above the car seat’s top harness slots (the harness strap should be at or above the shoulder for forward facing children),
- Ears reach the top of the car seat (the child’s head no longer has proper “head rest”).
Types of seats to use:
- Convertible seat in forward facing position: This is a full size car seat that can transfer from a rear-facing seat to a forward-facing seat.
- All-in-one seat in forward facing position with the harness: This type of seat can go from rear facing to forward facing to belt positioning as the child grows.
- Combination seat with the harness: This seat goes from forward facing to a belt positioning booster when the child has reach the harness limits. (Some companies call this a “harness booster” but really it’s used either as a harness seat or as a booster seat.)
- RideSafer travel vest: A vest worn by the child with seat belt guides to properly position the seat belt, at this age particularly useful as a travel car seat or secondary seat for other cars.
Download our report: Common Car Seat Mistakes and How to Fix Them
Stage 3: Belt Positioning
(Many say belt positioning booster but there are other appropriate belt-positioning products, like the RideSafer.)
From when the child outgrows their forward-facing car seat (approximately 5 or 6) to when the child passes the 5-step seat belt fit test (approximately somewhere between 8 to 12 years of age).
Types of seats to use:
- Booster seat: Either a high-back booster or no-back booster which lifts the child up.
- RideSafer travel vest: A vest worn by the child with seat belt guides to properly position the seat belt.
- All-in-one seat in forward facing position without the harness: This type of seat can go from rear facing to forward facing to belt positioning as the child grows.
- Combination seat without the harness: This seat goes from forward facing to a belt positioning booster when the child has reach the harness limits.
Stage 4: Seat belt only
When the child can pass the 5-step test (below); typically when a child is 4’9″ (57″) tall which doesn’t usually happen until a child is 9 to 12 years old.
The child must pass all of the 5 steps below to be able to use just the seat belt. Many state laws go up to age 8 but most children do not fit properly at that age. Proper fit can vary by car — even by sitting position — so check each position and car your child rides in.
Can your child?
- Sit with his lower back against the seat and feet on the floor,
- Keep his knees naturally bent at the edge of the seat,
- Have the lap belt on his thighs,
- Have the shoulder belt cross midshoulder/midchest,
- Sit like this for the entire ride.
Remember, children under 13 should always ride in the back seat.
What to look for when selecting the right car seat
As you may recall, the right car seat is the car seat that fits your car, fits your child and you can install correctly every time. And for many parents it also has to fit their budget.
Car seats come in a wide range of prices. More expensive seats may not necessarily perform better; sometimes they just have more bells and whistles.
Remember, all legal car seats have to pass the same crash tests and safety standards. (Watch out for knockoff car seats which are infiltrating online marketplaces like Amazon. These seats are illegal and not safe. Learn what to look for to verify if it is a legitimate car seat.)
When selecting the right car seat, first read the labeling — required on all car seats — to decide which car seat your child will fit in based on stage, weight and height. Your child needs to be within all the limits for the seat to be a proper fit.
Check it before you buy it
Remember part of selecting the right car seat is the right car seat fits your car. Unfortunately not all car seats fit well in every vehicle. (If only it would be that easy!)
Most in-store retailers will allow you to test out a car seat in your car. Some request you either have an employee present or leave an ID in exchange. You want to test the car seat in your car not only to make sure it will fit in the car but also to make sure you can easily and properly install it.
Many people are buying car seats online. Be sure to check the return policy in case you are unable to get a proper install in your car.
Even if you feel like you did a great job with the install, we suggest having a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician check it just to make sure or to get extra little tips for a better install.
To Buy or Not to Buy Used
Car seat experts do not recommend buying a used car seat from a stranger or a consignment shop. You don’t know if it has ever been in a crash or if the seat was maintained according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Whether you choosing to save money or save the environment, remember when you buy a used seat, you are trusting the previous user’s answers with your child’s life. If you still choose to, first:
- Make sure the seat still has the manufacturer’s label.
- Check for any recalls.
- Make sure it’s not passed it’s expiration date.
- Check for cracks and ask about crash history of the seat as crash damage may not always be visible. If the store or owner doesn’t know the full history of the seat, pass on the purchase.
- Make sure all parts are included.
If funds are tight, you may be tempted to buy used. And buying used may be better than not using on at all (depending on the condition of the seat, of course.) But first see if you qualify for free or low-cost seats that may be available through various programs in your town.
We want to know, what stage of car seat is your child in? Share your comments below.
By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004
Copyright 2022 Safe Ride 4 Kids. All rights reserved. You may not publish, broadcast, rewrite or redistribute this material without permission. You are welcome to link to Safe Ride 4 Kids or share on social media.
We originally published this post in January 2017. We updated the article for accuracy and comprehensiveness.