8 car seat safety tips for all ages and sizes

It’s a statistic no parent wants to think about: Car accidents are a leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 13, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). It’s no surprise that keeping your child buckled up in a car seat or booster seat is the best way to keep them safe while traveling, but choosing the right seat and installing it correctly is easier said than done.

In fact, experts say nearly half of car seats and booster seats in the United States are not used properly, putting children at unnecessary risk.

Be sure to avoid common mistakes by following this tip from Chris Morris, UNC Health Child Passenger Safety Technician. Morris estimates that he has installed between 150,000 and 200,000 car seats since 1983.

1. Choose the right type of car seat for your family.

Researching car seats can be overwhelming. To narrow your search, first choose what type of car seat you want. Morris says that car seats can be divided into four main categories:

  • Infant-Only Car Seat – Made to transport newborns or infants only in the rear-facing position.
  • Convertible Car Seat – Made for children of various sizes, including newborns (most fit children up to 65 pounds). It can be installed facing backwards and forwards.
  • Forward-Facing Only Car Seat: For preschool-age children who meet the height and weight requirements for forward-facing. These usually come with booster seats. Children should ride in a forward-facing car seat until the car seat harness outgrows them.
  • Booster Seat Only: For children who have outgrown the size of the forward-facing car seat. The booster seat raises the child so that the lap and shoulder portions of the seat belt fit properly. Children must stay in the back seat until they are 12 years old.

There are some all-in-one car seats that combine all four categories into one seat, but Morris recommends not skipping the infant-only seat.

“The baby carrier makes it easy to transport the baby if he falls asleep in the car,” he says. “Then he can look for a convertible or all-in-one seat after they get over that.”

2. Understand that the correct seat is the one that fits.

Car seats are always changing as companies release new models and features. But do not think that the most expensive is the safest.

“All car seats pass the same federal crash tests,” says Morris. “Often the middle of the road car seat works as well or better than the expensive ones.”

The most important thing is that the seat fits your vehicle and your child. Many baby supply stores will let you take a model from the store to your car to make sure it fits before you buy it, says Morris. Be sure to install it in the car before your baby arrives, so you have time to adjust it if it doesn’t work for you.

3. Read the manual.

Your car seat manual will tell you how to install it safely and how much weight it will support in various positions. Be sure to keep it somewhere you can continue to refer to it as your child grows. (If you lose it, you can probably find a copy online.) It’s also a good idea to read your vehicle manual for information on car seat installation.

4. Know the installation jargon.

Car seats and vehicles come equipped with several features to help you install them, but first you need to understand the jargon. See below for two of the most common terms when it comes to car seat installation, and see here for more definitionsif required.
  • LATCH System – Mounts for lower anchors and tethers for children and was developed to allow caregivers to install the car seat without using the vehicle seat belts. The system includes a top tether (strap), two bottom tethers, and tether anchors (the hooks on the vehicle that the tether attaches to). Most child safety seats and vehicles made after 2002 are required to have LATCH systems.
  • Locking – If you are not using the LATCH system, you will need to secure the child safety seat with the seat belt. A lock helps keep the seat belt in place and can make installing the seat easier.

It is important to note that most car seats are designed to use either the LATCH system or the seat belt to install them, NOT both at the same time. Check your car seat manual for more details.

5. Have a child passenger safety technician check the car seat.

To avoid mistakes, it’s best to have your car seat installed or checked by a certified child passenger safety technician.

“It’s not always easy to match what you see on the page to what you actually see in your personal vehicle,” says Morris.

These are the most common errors you see:

  • Car seat too loose. Most car seats specify that you should only be able to move the seat about an inch in all directions when it is snapped into the base. If it’s too loose (or too tight), it’s less likely to stabilize your child in a crash.
  • Car seat installed in the wrong place. The car seat must always be installed in the back seat (generally out of reach of the airbags). The safest place is the left or right rear passenger seat. Some cars will support center seat locking. This is fine if the car seat fits, but do not use two latch attachments on the same anchor.
  • The straps are not in the correct position. If your child is rear-facing, you want both straps to cross their body at or just below shoulder level. If they’re facing forward, she’ll want them at or just above shoulder level. Fit should be snug on the shoulder (shoulder fit is more important than chest strap fit). Straps are often uneven, too tight, or too loose.
  • Top tether anchor not used in the forward-facing position. When you turn the Car Seat forward facing, you must attach the top of the Car Seat to the Car Seat Strap to help keep it in place. The strap reduces how much your child’s head will move in a crash, so making sure it’s secure reduces the risk of serious head and neck injuries.
  • The level indicators do not show the proper levels. Check the level on the side of the seat to make sure it is in the proper range depending on whether it is rear-facing or forward-facing. Always install it on level ground, not on a hill.
  • Move the child to the next position too soon. It’s best to wait to put your child forward-facing or move him to a booster seat until he meets the weight and height requirements stated in the manual. Read more about this in issues 7 and 8 below.

If your car seat is in an accident, take it to an auto safety technician for inspection before using it again. There may be flaws that you cannot see.

6. Do not use an expired base or car seat.

Every car seat has an expiration date, usually on a sticker on the seat and also in the manual. Car seats typically last six to 10 years, says Morris.

“Plastic in car seats deteriorates over time,” says Morris. “If the plastic is worn or has a small crack that you can’t see, it won’t withstand a crash.”

Discontinue use if car seat is expired. If you’re buying a used car seat, it’s best to know the history of the seat: if it’s been in a crash, you don’t want it. Morris recommends staying away from consignment stores, garage sales, and online marketplaces; buy from someone you know and trust whenever possible.

7. Keep your child facing the rear as much as possible.

Don’t be too quick to turn your child to face forward. Keep them rear-facing until at least 2 years of age, and longer if the height and weight of the seat allow. Turning them too early can make them susceptible to serious back and neck injuries.

“If a child is facing forward during a crash, their body will move forward and they won’t be able to control their weight,” says Morris. “If they’re facing the rear, they’re a little bit more protected because the seat cradles them and they bounce off the back of the seat.”

Morris says don’t worry if your son’s legs buckle. It is more important to protect the neck and spine from it.

8. Transition to forward-facing position, booster seat, and seat belt at the right time.

Keeping a child facing the rear for too long can also be dangerous. Below are guidelines for transitioning to the forward-facing position and getting in and out of the booster seat.

With output forward: Check the car seat manual for forward-facing height and weight requirements. If your child finds them and it’s time to turn the seat, make sure you’re not holding the seat in the recline angle, says Morris. And don’t forget to use the top tether and adjust the harness straps so they sit at or above your shoulders for a snug fit.

booster seat: Children can usually sit safely in a booster seat at 4 years or 40 pounds. Always wear a lap and shoulder belt with a booster seat. Never use a lap belt only.

Seat belt only: North Carolina Law states that children can stay in a forward-facing car seat until they are 8 years old (regardless of weight) or 80 pounds (regardless of age). However, the American Academy of Pediatrics urges more caution than the law, saying seat belts generally fit properly when children are 4 feet 9 inches tall and between 8 and 12 years of age . So even if your child is 8 years old, if the seat belt doesn’t fit, he waits until it fits. NHTSA says that the lap belt should fit snugly across the upper thighs, and the shoulder belt should fit snugly across the shoulder and chest. Children should always wear lap and shoulder belts, never just a lap belt, and children under the age of 13 should not sit in the front seat.

“Keep your child in a car seat that fits them well for as long as possible,” says Morris.

Need help installing your car seat? UNC Rex Women’s Center offers free inspections. For more information, call (919) 784-1802. If you don’t live in the Raleigh area, you can find a technician near you at Safe Kids.

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