Most parents are now aware that all infants must be in a rear facing car seat, but many turn their toddlers around too early or let older kids move to the next level too soon.
I tell kids all the time that the state law is the bare minimum, but it isn't necessarily the safest way to ride. I use the example that in my state an adult can ride a motorcycle without a helmet, but that's not safe. They usually agree, and I think it helps them understand that just because it's legal to do something, it doesn't make it safe to do.
Kids learn from the behaviors they see their parents display, so all parents should buckle up for safety!
When looking for a car seat or booster seat, don't assume spending more money will buy a better seat. You need to be sure it fits your vehicle and your child.
Infants and children under 2 years should ride rear facing unless they are bigger than the height or weight maximum for the seat. Children over 2 years who still fit in the height and weight requirements of the rear facing car seat can still ride rear facing safely. Young children often fall asleep in the car. If sleep deprived (no parent is ever really well rested) and in a hurry, even the best parent can be distracted and forget about the sleeping baby. There are many tips to follow to be sure you don't leave your baby unattended in the car.
Children who are 2 years old or older (and those less than 2 years but larger than the rear facing car seat maximum height or weight) should use a forward facing car seat with a 5 point harness until they are capable of staying seated during the duration of the drive and meet the minimum height and weight requirements for a booster seat. Learn to use the tether properly with your forward facing car seat.
Children should remain in a booster seat until the vehicle's lap and shoulder seat belt fits them properly. This is generally between 10 and 12 years of age and about 4 foot 9 inches, but varies based on the size of the vehicle's seat. Everyone should always use the vehicle's seat belt (or car seat harness) when riding. Have your kids take the 5 Step Test to see if kids can safely ride without a booster.
Only teens and adults should sit in the front seat. It's always safer in the back seat. If you look at the sticker on the passenger side visor, it will say something to the effect that children 12 and under are safer in the back seat. That means wait until 13 years of age to sit up front. Airbags can be dangerous if a passenger is too short for it to hit properly in the chest. The force of the airbag can cause significant injury to the face or neck. If the airbag is turned off, the passenger is at risk of hitting the dashboard or being ejected from the car. Even big kids don't have the muscle or bone strength to be safe up front. They aren't mini-adults.
In the winter months it's important to avoid over bundling infants and children in car seats. The added layers and padding of clothing can increase the amount a child can move in the force of a crash or sudden stop. The Car Seat Lady has great tips to keep kids warm and safe in the cold weather.
Don't use car seat attachments and accessories that were not sold with the seat. They may look cute or seem to make your child more comfortable, but if they haven't been tested with the seat they may not be safe - even if they claim to be safety tested. This includes neck rolls, shoulder pads, winter covers that go between the child and the seat, dangling toys, and more. If you're in an accident and have these additions they might void the warranty of the seat.
Do you have a Houdini? If your toddler or preschooler is able to weasel out of the car seat harness, try this button down shirt trick.
Take your kids to a certified car seat installer to see if they're buckled in properly. Car Seats for the Littles has information about how to find an installer near you.
Register your car seats so you can be alerted if they are recalled.
Car Seat Stickers are a great way to notify first responders who to call if you've been in an accident and aren't able to communicate. I recommend putting them under the cloth part of infant seats so they aren't visible when you're carrying the seat in public. You can put a small sticker on the handle to let emergency personnel know to look under the padding for emergency contact information. Once kids are out of the infant seat you can put the sticker on the outside of the seat, just not over any important information (such as the height/weight max information). My office gives stickers from the W.H.A.L.E. Program to patients, but you can print your own at home and attach them to your seat with wide clear tape. Information to include would be:
- Child's name, birth date, address, allergies, important health history, medications
- Parent's names and phone numbers (cell and work)
- One emergency contact name and phone number (not a parent)
- Doctor's name and number
- Childcare provider name and number if applicable
Remember that if you're in an accident, your car seats might need to be replaced. Talk to your insurance company.
Used and borrowed seats cautions:
- Be sure to know when your seats expire. The seats typically expire about 6 years after manufacturing due to unseen breakdown in the materials used to make the seat.
- Never buy a used seat from someone you do not know. A friend or family member should verify that it hasn't been in an accident and it's not expired before you use it.
- Don't just throw your old car seat away. Someone might try to use it past its expiration date. You can break it down into pieces to make it unusable or you can see if you can recycle it.
For more information:
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
- The Car Seat Lady
- Car Seats for the Littles
- Safe Kids Car Seat Information
- Safe Kids Booster Seat Information
- LATCH information from The Car Seat Lady, Safe Kids, and Car Seats for the Littles
- Car seats for obese children
- 2017 Car Seat List