As those of you who either know me in person or read this blog regularly know, I am passionate about car seat safety, and I am a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician. I have prepared this car seat primer, which I update periodically, to provide basic information and clear up some misconceptions. If you have questions after reading this information, please feel free to ask in the comments section or e-mail me privately at bookmama1 at gmail dot com.
• The number one thing you can to do is to read your car seat manual. You should also read the child restraints portion of your vehicle manual. If you no longer have the manual for your car seat, visit the manufacturer’s web site – most make their manuals available online.
• The child seat’s harness should be snug enough that you can’t pinch any slack at the top of the child’s shoulders. For rear-facing children, the harness should be threaded through the highest slots that are below the child’s shoulders. For front-facing children, the harness should be threaded through the lowest slots that are above the child’s shoulders.
• It’s a chest clip, not a belly clip. The harness retainer clip should be even with the child’s armpits.
• The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends rear-facing until age 2 or longer. The old “front facing at 20 lbs AND 1 year” guideline was truly just the bare minimum. The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) actually says it’s best to leave a child rear-facing until the maximum weight allowable by the seat. For most current seats, that’s at least 35 lbs., and there are many that can accomodate a rear-facing child up to 40 lbs or more. (On a budget? The Cosco Scenera accomodates children rear-facing until 40 lbs. and can be found for around $40. So rear-facing can truly fit in any budget.) Allie gladly rear-faced until shortly after her fourth birthday, and I anticipate that Jenny will rear-face just as long. Most children can happily and comfortably rear-face until age 2 or longer.
• Never, EVER put a rear-facing car seat in front of an air bag unless you have an actual on/off switch for the air bag. An airbag that deploys into a rear-facing car seat will cause severe injuries and will very likely be fatal.
• There are many seats available that will keep kids harnessed beyond the former standard of about 40 lbs. Adam had a Britax Regent and a Graco Nautilus; he fit in the harness of the Nautilus until right around his ninth birthday (and would have probably still fit in the Regent at age 10.5). Allie has used a Radian and a Graco My Ride, which both have high rear-facing weight limits and 65-lb. forward-facing limits. The Graco Nautilus harnesses to 65 lbs and then turns into a good booster. Other higher-weight harnessed seats include the Sunshine Kids Radian and the True Fit. For the child who’s not likely to reach 50 lbs until 5 or 6, seats like the Evenflo Maestro have nice high harness slots and then turn into decent boosters.
• Car seats expire. Yes, it’s true that car seats expire. Most expire after 6 years. It makes sense when you think about all the use these things get, the extreme hot/cold temps, etc. Just think what a plastic toy would look like after 6 years of that much use!
• The 3-in-1 seats are NOT “the last seat you’ll ever need” even though that’s how the manufacturer markets them. These seats are great for rear-facing because they have a 35 lb limit, but most kids outgrow the harness by height around age 3 – far too early to use the seat in booster mode. And the seat doesn’t make a very good booster, because the closed belt loops don’t allow the car’s belt to retract easily and the shape of the seat holds the belt too far from the child, often positioning it on their belly instead of over their thighs, which is the correct position. I actually had the Alpha Omega for Allie (I was seduced by a great price) and had such a hard time with it (could never get a tight install in any spot in my car) that we replaced it with a Fisher Price Safe Voyage Deluxe.
• Puffy coats are a no-no because in an accident, they can compress, causing the child to move more or potentially even slip out. A good rule of thumb – if the harness fits snugly without the coat and you have to loosen it to buckle up with the coat, it’s too puffy. We made Adam take his coat off, buckle him in, and then he put his coat on backwards. He thought it was hilarious and it kept him just as warm. Another good trick is to put the child in the car seat with the coat unzipped, pull the sides of the coat out to the sides of the car seat, and then buckle up. We dress Allie and Jenny in polar fleece jackets, buckle them in, and then cover them with thick fleece blanket for warmth if needed.
• The 30 lbs minimum weight listed on most belt-positioning booster seats allows kids who are WAY too young to sit properly in a booster to do so. Kids should be in a harnessed seat until they are least 4 years and 40 lbs., longer if possible. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that children should use a harnessed seat until they outgrow it by height or weight, and then they should stay in a booster until they’re 4’9″, usually between 8 and 12 years old. See below for further details on when you can safely move your child out of a booster seat.
When is my child old enough/big enough to use just the vehicle seat belt? There is no magic age, height, or weight. NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) has developed a set of guidelines to help parents and caretakers determine when a child can safely use the vehicle seat belt. If your child meets ALL of these guidelines, then he or she can safely use the vehicle seat belt. If one or more of these guidelines is not met, your child should continue to use a belt-positioning booster (such as the Graco TurboBooster or the Britax Parkway) or a harnessed seat.
- Does the child sit all the way back against the auto seat?
- Do the child’s knees bend comfortably at the edge of the auto seat?
- Does the shoulder portion of the seat belt cross the shoulder between the neck and arm?
- Is the lap portion of the seat belt as low as possible, touching the thighs?
- Will the child stay seated like this for the whole trip?