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.
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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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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