Checklist for choosing and using the right car seat for your child
Did you know three out of four car seats aren’t used properly? If you’re unsure about when your child is ready for a new seat, you’re not alone.
“Although it’s not fun to think or talk about, vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death for infants and kids up to age 13. The right car seat or booster seat will help keep your child as safe as possible,” said Corri Miller-Hobbs, RN, program coordinator for Safe Kids Virginia. “There are a lot of options on the market today. What’s most important is finding a seat that fits your child and vehicle – and using it correctly on every ride.”
Choosing the right car seat for your child
With so many options, it’s understandable that caregivers can be overwhelmed when it comes to selecting the right seat.
General safety tips
- Children should be rear facing as long as possible.
- Keep your child in a 5-point harness as long as possible too.
- Ensure that your car seat is purchased from a reliable, well-known company (also avoid third-party vendors, even on major sites). Every seat sold in the U.S. should have a sticker stating that it meets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213 (FVMSS 213).
- Your car seat should come with an instruction manual, labels and stickers on the seat with height/weight requirements, and a sticker with an expiration date.
- Car seats with unknown histories, such as those purchased at yard sales, can be damaged and unsafe if they have previously been involved in a vehicle accident, even if they look fine.
Consider convenience and cost for your family
- Does your child have siblings who will use the seat after them? It can be a bit of a puzzle to figure out the right combination of seats for a family, but if you can get more than one use out of a car seat, this can be helpful.
- Many families choose to use an infant carrier for their newborn for convenience, but this is an additional seat needed in the lifetime of the child. Starting instead with a convertible seat that can later switch to forward facing may be a more affordable option. As long as your baby meets the height and weight requirements and the seat is used correctly, the seat is safe.
- Car seats are available in varying price ranges. As long as a seat meets U.S. safety standards (FMVSS 213), it is safe to use, regardless of cost.
A look at the types of car seats in order of progression.
Many parents look forward to “moving up a phase” when it comes to car seats, but don’t rush it. Every step forward reduces safety just a bit.
Rear-facing car seat
- Virginia law requires rear-facing safety seats until the age of 2 or the child reaches the minimum weight for a forward-facing safety seat as stated by the manufacturer.
- Rear-facing seats absorb most of the force in the event of a front-end crash (the most common type of crash) by supporting a child’s head, neck and spine to move together in the car seat.
- If your child outgrows their rear-facing infant seat (most do by the time they turn 1) you can switch to a larger convertible seat, but your child should remain rear facing. The convertible seat can be turned forward facing when the time is right.
- Never place a rear-facing safety seat in the front seat of a vehicle with an active passenger airbag.
Forward-facing car seat
- Once a child outgrows the rear-facing set-up, they should switch to be forward facing, still with a 5-point harness. The harness attaches to the seat at the hips and shoulders, and clips snugly at the chest and between the legs. This limits forward movement in the event of a crash.
- If you’re using a convertible car seat, make sure to move the harness straps to a forward-facing harness slot, make the seat upright and attach the top tether (to secure the seat) when turning it from rear to forward facing.
- Children should remain in a seat with the 5-point harness until they reach the upper weight or height limit.
- A booster seat is the next step once a child outgrows the forward-facing car seat. The booster seat is used to position your child so the car’s shoulder belt rests properly across their chest midway between the shoulder and neck, and the lap belt fits snugly across the hips/upper thighs. It’s important that the belt is not positioned at the neck or abdomen, as this can cause serious injury in the event of a crash.
- Some booster seats have high backs, which provide a shoulder belt guide as well as head and neck support. A high back booster is necessary if a high seat back or head rest is not present in the vehicle.
- Backless booster seats give extra height for the proper seat belt positioning, but do not offer head and neck support. Backless boosters come with a shoulder belt guide to assist with proper belt positioning.
- If your child doesn’t stay in the seat without the harness, it’s a sign they’re not ready for a booster seat quite yet.
- Virginia law states that children must be in a safety seat until age 8, but age alone doesn’t mean they’re ready to forego the booster.
- Kids should continue using a booster seat until the car’s adult seat belts fit properly across the chest and hips/thighs when sitting with their back against the seat, knees bending over the seat cushion and feet resting flat on the floor. This usually occurs when they’re about 4’9” tall.
Using your child’s car seat correctly
Choosing the right seat is only the first step. You also want to make sure you’re using it correctly to provide proper safety.
Consistency and fit
- Car seats should be used on every ride, no matter the distance.
- Straps should fit snugly against the chest. If you can pinch the straps of the car seat harness, they’re too loose.
- An important note as the weather turns colder – blankets, jackets and bulky clothing should not be worn under the harness. This padding will flatten in a crash, leaving extra space and allowing a child to move or slip through the straps.
- Keep in mind that the back seat of the car is the safest place for kids.
Your child’s weight, height, age and ability to sit safely – not pressure from friends, relatives or your child – should determine when you transition to the next seat. If you have questions, your pediatrician can answer them and provide additional guidance.
Read more about keeping kids safe in cars in this Q&A