These days, choosing the right car seat for your child can be confusing. Use these guidelines to know what type of seat is appropriate for your child based on their age, height and weight. Always follow the manufacturer's instructions for installation and use as this varies from car seat to car seat.
What type of car seat is right for my infant?
- Infants and children under the age of one (1) should be rear-facing, i.e., they are looking out the back window of the car.
- They can be restrained in an infant carrier seat (there is a base that the seat clicks in and out of) or a convertible seat (a seat that can be positioned rear-facing OR forward-facing for older babies)
- Your child has outgrown the infant carrier seat if she exceeds the manufacturer's weight limit (usually 20 lbs.) or if her head is within an inch of the top edge of the seat. Once she has outgrown her carrier seat, she can sit rear-facing in a convertible seat.
- Many convertible seats can be used rear-facing until your child is 35 lbs. Make sure your child's head is below the top of the safety seat.
Babies should ride rear-facing for as long as possible because this offers the best protection during a crash. Infants take a long time to skeletally mature and have heavy heads and fragile necks. The neck bones are soft and the ligaments are stretchy. If the baby is facing-forward in a frontal crash, the body is held back by the straps, but the head is not. The head is thrust forward, stretching the neck. Because a baby's neck bones are soft, they can separate during a crash and the spinal cord can tear or stretch causing paralyzation or even death. This is true even for babies who have strong neck muscles and good head control.
In contrast, when a baby rides rear-facing, the whole body (head, neck, and torso) is cradled by the back of the safety seat in a frontal crash providing much better protection. A rear-facing seat also protects the baby better in other types of crashes, particularly side impact crashes.
When is my child ready to face forward in a car seat?
- When he is at least one year old and at least 20 lbs.
- Your child will be safest if you wait until he is 30 lbs. to turn the seat so that is faces forward or switch to a forward-facing seat
- Contine to use a seat with a 5 point harness until your child exceeds the manufacturer's guideline; usually about 40 lbs.
Your child is growing up fast, but don't rush her into using the regular seat belt with her car seat. If it doesn't fit properly, it won't protect her in a crash and could actually cause serious injuries or result in being thrown from the vehicle. A five point harness can prevent "submarining"; this is when a passenger slides under the lap belt during a crash. For best protection, keep your child in a safety seat with a harness system.
When can I move my child into a booster seat?
- Once your child exceeds weight and height limits for her forward-facing car seat, she should move into a booster seat that is used with the rear seat belt.
- This is usually when her head reaches the top of the car seat or she weighs 40 lbs. For many children this is around age 4.
- In Colorado, children are required by law to be restrained in a booster seat until age 8.
A booster seat raises your child higher so that the lap belt is positioned safely across the hips, and the shoulder belt rests flat across the collar bone (crossing the middle of your child's shoulder, not her neck). Make sure the lap belt is positioned across your child's hips, not the soft tissue of her abdomen.
Boosters also make the seat belt more comfortable, making it less likely for them to slouch or put the shoulder belt behind them.
There are backless, high back, and removable-back boosters. In general, use a high-back booster for smaller children or if your car does not have rear headrests. A backless booster may be more appropriate for an older child or can be used if your car has headrests. Let your child help choose the seat so they will be comfortable and happy to sit in it.
Learn how tell if your child is the right size for a booster seat.
Can my child sit in the backseat with just a seatbelt?
When your child is 4'9" tall usually between the ages of 8 and 12, she can start using just the rear seatbelt once it fits properly. The rear seat belt fits properly when:
- the shoulder belt lies across the chest, not the neck or face
- the lap belt lies low across the thighs, not the stomach
- your child can sit with their back against the seat back and her knees bend at the edge of the seat and her feet dangle down
When can my child sit in the front seat?
Children are safest in the back seat until they are 13 years old. If an 8 to 12 year old child must sit in the front seat, make sure to move the seat back as far as possible.