Choosing the right car seat for your child can be confusing, which is why we put together a list of guidelines to help parents decide what type of car seat is the right one for your child based on age, height and weight. Children’s Hospital Colorado recommends that parents always follow the manufacturer's instructions for installation and use, as this varies among different types of car seats.
When do I need to use a rear-facing car seat?
A rear-facing car seat can either be an infant- only car seat (usually with a carry handle) or a larger convertible car seat (that can also be used forward-facing). Babies and children should ride in a rear-facing car seat as long as possible for the first several years of life because they offer the best protection during a crash.
Why should babies be in rear-facing car seats?
Infants are less skeletally mature and have heavy heads and fragile necks, and their neck bones are soft and the ligaments are stretchy. Children who are rear-facing are less likely to be injured in a crash.
If a baby is facing forward in a frontal crash, the body is held back by the harness 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 paralysis or even death. This is true even for babies with strong neck muscles and good head control.
When a baby is riding in a rear-facing car seat, the whole body (head, neck and torso) is cradled by the back of the safety seat – providing much better protection. A rear-facing car 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?
- The American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents and caregivers to keep their child in a rear-facing car seat until she reaches the maximum height or weight for her seat.
- Your child has outgrown the infant carrier seat if she exceeds the manufacturer's height and weight limits. Once she has outgrown her infant carrier seat, she can remain rear-facing in a convertible seat.
- Many convertible seats can be used rear-facing until your child is 35-40 pounds. Make sure your child's head is at least 1 inch below the top of the safety seat and follow the car seat manufacturer's instructions for weight and height in the rear-facing position.
- Continue to use a seat with a five-point harness until your child exceeds the manufacturer's guidelines for weight or height.
When can I move my child into a booster seat?
- Once your child reaches the maximum weight and height limits for her forward-facing car seat, she should move into a booster seat that is used with a lap and shoulder seat belt.
- A booster seat adjusts the fit of the adult seat belt so that the lap belt is positioned low across the hips (touching the thighs) 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 your child to slouch or put the shoulder belt behind them. If your child is not mature enough to sit upright in her booster with the lap and shoulder belt in place, she should remain in a car seat with a harness.
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?
Your child is growing up fast, but don't rush her into using the regular seat belt 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. When a seat belt doesn’t fit properly, your child is at risk of "submarining," which happens when a passenger slides under the lap belt during a crash. For best protection, keep your child in a safety seat with a 5-point harness system for as long as the car seat manufacturer allows.
Colorado law requires the use of a child restraint until age 8. When your child reaches 4'9" (57") tall, usually between the ages of 8 and 12, she can start using 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 her back against the seat back
- Your child’s knees bend at the edge of the seat with her feet flat on the floor
- Your child can sit like this for the entire trip
When can my child sit in the front seat?
Children are safest in the back seat until they are 13 years old. If a child younger than 13 must sit in the front seat, move the seat back as far as possible.