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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Car Seat Confusion and Booster Boo Boos

Happy in her rear-facing seat!
Many parents are confused by car seat rules, regulations, and recommendations.  For many it is a rite of passage with the first birthday to turn kids around forward facing.  Then they move to a booster before kindergarten and they lose the booster on their 8th birthday.

What is magic about any age that allows a child to sit in the next level of seating?  Kids vary greatly in their size at these ages, yet age seems to determine seating for many kids.  We don't pick clothing based on age. Shoes are not worn based on age. Why don't we fit kids into cars as carefully as we fit them into clothing?

There is so much misinformation out there, it's no wonder people are confused!  And it's not only confusion, but parents make choices based on so many other factors.  For some it is convenience for themselves ~ it's easier to let a child self buckle in a booster.  Sometimes the numbers of kids combined with the size of the car simply don't allow rear facing for the tots.  Many parents simply want to give up the fight with kids as they fight to grow up into the next step.  So many temptations for parents to move onto the next level before kids are ready.  I understand, really! It was a fight to get my kids into car seats (forward and backwards) as infants and toddlers.  They would arch their back and I felt like I would break them as I pushed on their middle to force them back while I pulled on arms and buckles to force them in.  I can't tell you how many times my daughter at 10 years/5th grade complained that she was "the only one still in a booster!"  She just recently (finally) can fit into some seats without a booster, but the seat needs to be narrow.  Thank you, growth spurt!

Because there is often mention in the car seat instruction manual that kids can turn around at 1 year and 20 pounds, many parents think kids must turn around at that age/size. This is not true per car seat safety testing (unless the seat is older and has lower size restrictions- and then it should be replaced).  It is not required by law in any state or safe by safety standards to turn around at this age/size.  The head size of toddlers is still very large compared to their body. The force on the spinal cord is much greater for a toddler in a forward facing crash due to the larger head and lower muscle strength compared to older children and adults.

The two biggest concerns I hear from parents about rear facing seats:
  1. The kids hate being rear facing.
  2. The legs are too long.
I find that many kids are perfectly happy rear facing. Others are not happy being strapped in period.  Either way, sometimes what kids like isn't what's best for them. I just want kids to be the safest they can be!

Parents worry that once the legs can reach past the seat that rear facing is not safe.  That sounds reasonable: the long legs would be squished or uncomfortable for kids.  While it is true that most kids will outgrow the rear-facing seat due to height before weight, it is okay to remain rear facing as long as  they fit the limits posted on the side of the car seat.  Read your manual.  If you can't find it, look online.  Studies have shown that kids are 5 times safer rear facing! Even if they kick the back of the seat.  In Sweden they keep kids rear facing until 4 years of age!

There are many sources of confusion with car seats and boosters.  The law does not equal the recommendations by safety experts and it differs from state to state.  The law is the minimum requirement for buckling kids in car seats. The law does not necessarily mean the safest way to buckle the kids up.  Car seats and boosters vary by age and size limitations, there is no standard.  Cars vary in the size and angles of their seats, making the car seat or booster fit differently in every model of car.

The law often does not support the best safety standards:
  • Most states (29) do not require kids to wear helmets on bicycles, yet we know that they save lives. 
  • Only 20 states require all motorcyclists to wear helmets.
  • Only two states prohibit children under 1 year from riding on a bicycle/carrier.
  • Three states have no booster seat laws.
  • Only 5 states have seat belt requirements in school buses.
  • Kansas law allows tots to turn forward facing at 1 year and 20 pounds and allows kids over 4 years to ride in booster seats.
My recommendations:
  • Keep kids rear facing until they are at the maximum height and weight of their rear-facing car seat. If the car seat does not allow rear facing until at least 2 years and 30 pounds, buy another seat.  
  • Kids can be forward facing in a 5 point harness from 2 years/30 pounds (or bigger if your seat allows rear facing longer) until they are at least 40 pounds and 4 years of age (many seats will harness larger children).  The harness is always safer, but when a child can sit still, not unbuckle self inappropriately, sit without leaning forward/to the side, and the shoulder and lap belts fit them appropriately, then they can sit in a booster with the seat belt.
  • Kids can sit without a booster when they can pass the 5 Step Test.  For more on why they shouldn't graduate out of a booster too soon, check out this great page on The Car Seat Lady.
  • Kids should never sit in the front seat until they are teenagers (or the size of a teen).  
  • Never turn off the air bag to allow kids to sit up front. Think for a minute: why are airbags there in the first place? To save lives! People in the front seat are MUCH more likely to be injured/killed in a crash. If the child is too short and the airbag will hit them in the face instead of the chest, they need to be in back!  
  • Never buy a used car seat or booster seat from someone you don't know well. You cannot guarantee it has not been in an accident and you should not use a seat after an accident.
  • Do not use expired car seats.  They expire in 5-8 years due to breakdown of the materials of the seat, older technology, and unavailability of replacement parts. Check the labels on the seat for expiration date or use 6 years from date of manufacture.
  • NEW addition based on a reader's Facebook comment: Do not use bulky clothing or padding under the seatbelt. Kids are much safer if they are buckled in snugly, then a blanket or cover can be placed over the belt if needed for warmth. Don't believe me? Buckle your child in with the coat and/or sweaters on, then take them out without changing the seatbelt tightness. Put them back in and buckle, again without changing the belt tightness. See how much extra belt there is? With the force of an accident they can move too much!
I wonder how long it will be before the safety recommendations are even stricter:  rear facing until 4 years like Sweden?

I always joke that the babies born today will drive backwards by joystick by the time they can drive!

Don't let your kids take the lead with decisions. Don't do what the neighbors do. Do what you know is safest for your children.  Their lives may depend on it!

For more information and state specific laws:

The Importance of Rear-Facing video with crash test views forward vs backward