Child Car Seat Requirements: Protect the Health and Safety of Your Children
Keep Your Children Safe with a Car Seat
Soon after a baby is born, he or she will likely be introduced to motor vehicle travel.
Simply transporting an infant home from the hospital will require use of a car seat. Errands, like trips to the grocery store, or travel to visit friends and relatives, will require that you have and use the right car seat for your infant or child.
But what does that entail?
Child car seat requirements have changed over time - even since my oldest was born 14 years ago. Standards are stricter and the design and proper installation of car seats better protect our kids as a result. Never, ever use a "second-hand" car seat for your child!
Infant and child car seats can be expensive, but well worth the peace of mind they can bring parents and guardians. Moreover, like adult drivers who fail to buckle their seat belt, you can be cited for not properly securing your child in a car seat.
You can keep your children safe with a car seat, provided you learn the basics of what types of seats are required for the age and/or size of your child, how to install the car seats, and consistently and properly position your child in the car seat, buckling them in whenever you get on the road.
Proper Use of Infant Car Seats
Specific requirements vary from state to state in the U.S., but in general, rear-facing infant car seats should be used for any baby that is less than 12 months old and/or less than 22 pounds, according to the American Acadamy of Pediatrics. The longer a child rides rear facing, the better. In fact, in Scandinavia, children ride facing backward until age 4!
The primary reason to keep children facing backward is for better protection of their head and neck in the case of a sudden stop or throwing the brakes on. It is also a safer riding position in the case of dangerous frontal collisions.
Infant carrier baby seats latch into a base that remains in your vehicle. The base is secured by a standard seat belt and sometimes requires an ISOFix fitting. When you reach your destination, you simply unlock the carrier from the base to transport your baby. One of the most convenient baby gear contraptions is a stroller base onto which you can lock the infant carrier, which allows you to avoid having to move the child into a separate stroller.
Infant car seats keep babies lying on their backs at an approximately 30% angle (not supine, but tilted up slightly, which is helpful if your baby spits up). A five-point safety harness goes over the baby's head and latches between their legs to secure them into the infant carrier.
Baby car seats should always be installed in the back seat of a vehicle. The fact that the seat is rear facing does not adequately protect a baby if installed in the front seat, particularly if there is a passenger side airbag that is not disabled.
Installation directions may vary, depending on manufacturer. Be sure to follow the printed instructions with your new car seat. It is highly recommended that you install your infant car seat before your baby is born, as well. Local fire departments often have workshops to assist new parents with proper car seat installation.
How to Install an Infant Car Seat
Proper Usage of Child Car Seats
Depending on the manufacturer, a child car seat is usually designed for children from 20-50 pounds that are between 1-6 years old. Some seats can be installed rear facing, although many parents prefer to turn their child around to face front as soon as safely possible.
As with infant car seats, these child restraint systems are a semi-permanent installation in the back seat of your car. You will have to help your child climb in and latch them into place. Never allow your child to ride in the front seat!
Some designs use a five-point harness to hold a toddler in place, while the base of the seat itself is fastened into the car using an adult seat belt. Other designs for older children (at least 4 years old) position the adult seat belt across the child to restrain them in place, without a harness.
If you are looking for additional space in the back seat (by the time you have a child in an "older" car seat, you may have another infant), some parents prefer to switch to a simple booster seat, rather than the more permanent child car seat. A booster seat does just what it says - boosts the child up several inches so that the adult seat belt is properly positioned across their shoulder and waist. The seat itself is not fastened into the car, which makes it easier to move and remove as needed.
As discussed below, booster seats are not recommended for children younger than 4 or less than 40 pounds. Forward facing car seats with five point harnesses are often the choice of parents until their child reaches kindergarten.
How to Install a Child Car Seat (Forward Facing)
When Should Child Booster Seats be Used?
As your child gets older, taller and heavier, you may wish to transition from a forward facing car seat to a booster seat. These help position an adult seat belt properly across a smaller body. Child booster seats should be used for kids no younger than 4, and up to age 10 and/or 90 pounds. Some smaller children may continue to use booster seats until 11 or 12.
Booster seats are used in the back seat of a vehicle only. No child should ride in the front seat until they are at least the size of a small adult (see additional directions below) and over 12 years old. Even if they are big enough to ride up front, the safest place for any child or teen is in the back seat.
How Old Must a Child Be to Ride Without a Car Seat?
The legal requirements for allowing a child to ride in a vehicle without a car seat varies from state to state. However, general guidelines are based on height (at least 4 feet, 6 inches) and weight (at least 80 pounds). Age varies, but kids should be at least 10 years old, in addition to meeting height and weight guidelines.
When it comes to riding in the front seat, when your child has outgrown a booster seat, most states allow you to use your discretion. Personally, I have a 14 year old who is taller than me who has been safely riding in the front seat for a couple of years. His 12 year old brother now matches me in height (5'4") but is less than 100 pounds. For that reason, we encourage him to continue riding in the back seat. This is because if the passenger side airbag was to deploy, his small frame could be injured.
Some auto manufacturers have switches that allow you to turn off the front airbag. Nonetheless, in a collision, any child or teen will be safer in the back seat of the vehicle.
Proper Use of Child Booster Seats
Five Tips to Remember About Child Car Seats
- Never purchase or use a car seat that is more than 6 years old, which is the safety limit set for manufacturers
- It is not advised to purchase a second-hand car seat - new is best and safest
- If you are in a car accident with your child restrained in a car seat, the seat should be replaced because they are only warranted for a single crash event
- Check to make sure the seat manufacturer has not issued any recalls before using
- If you are in doubt, opt for more safety features, rather than less. For example, rear-facing or front? Go with rear-facing. Five-point harness or shoulder strap? Go with the harness.
Other Ways to Protect the Health and Safety of Your Children When Driving
Placing your child in a proper car seat or booster is just the first step toward keeping them safe. Anyone who is driving with kids in the car must also follow the rules of the road in minimize the risk of accidents:
- Do not allow children to ride in the front seat, even if in a car seat
- Follow posted speed limits
- Leave adequate stopping distances between yourself and the vehicle in front of you
- Do not use cell phones without a hands-free device (probably best not to take or make any calls at all)
- Do not text and drive
- Do not get behind the wheel if you have had any alcoholic beverages
- Do not drive after taking over-the-counter or prescription medication that results in drowsiness or confusion
- Do not drive if you are too stressed, tired or upset
- Pull over for any emergency vehicles
- Slow down/stop at any railroad crossings