According to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ HealthyChildren.org website, thousands of children are killed each year in car accidents, making car seat safety an important priority in the lives of parents. But standing in the aisle of the retail store and trying to figure out what car seat your child needs when — not to mention, trying to install the car seat correctly — can seem to be an overwhelming task.
Infants and Toddlers
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children be in a rear-facing car seat until age 2. A rear, facing-only seat, convertible car seat, or a 3-in-1 seat will do the trick. Make sure the seat is installed correctly and securely, and does not budge an inch when you try to move it, which can be difficult to do. If your vehicle has a Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) system, you can use the lower anchors in this system rather than a seat belt to install the lower part of the seat. If you use your vehicle’s seat belt to secure the car seat, be sure to check your vehicle’s owner’s manual to see if you need a locking clip, which will come with the car seat, to lock the seat belt into position. If this sounds too confusing, take a trip to your local fire station and have the firefighters install the seat for you. Once your child reaches the age of 2 years, or exceeds the maximum weight and height by your car seat manufacturer, the AAP gives the okay to move the seat to a forward-facing position.
Toddlers and Preschoolers
When your little one reaches his second birthday, the AAP says you can flip the car seat around at last — if it’s a convertible seat — or purchase a forward-facing car seat with a harness. Move the shoulder straps up so that they are at or above your child’s shoulders, and adjust the angle of the seat according to the manufacturer’s directions, securing it tightly to the seat with the seat belt or LATCH system. Since September 2000, all vehicles are required to have tethers — a strap that anchors the top of the car seat to the seat back — so be sure to secure the tether to the seat, when applicable. The AAP recommends that you keep your child in the convertible or forward-facing car seat as long as possible — until he reaches the maximum height and weight allowed by the car seat’s manufacturer.
Now that your days of high chairs, strollers and diapers are behind you, it might seem as though the car seats should be, too — but not just yet. Once your child outgrows a forward-facing seat with a harness, which the AAP says happens when he reaches the maximum allowable height and weight according to the manufacturer’s safety guide or his shoulders are above the top harness slots — he can graduate to a belt-positioning booster seat. A booster seat will raise your child’s body so that the seat belt system in your car will be able to keep him safe, in the event of an accident. Boosters are easier to move from vehicle to vehicle, as they don’t need to be secured to the car, but do make sure you only use them in vehicles that have a lap and a shoulder belt.
When your child reaches age a height of 4 feet 9 inches — typically between ages 8 and 12 — the AAP says he is finally ready to use a regular seat belt. Don’t get too excited — he still needs to sit in the back seat until 13 years of age. When your child finally reaches this stage, make sure he wears the belt correctly — with the shoulder belt lying snuggly across his shoulders and chest and not tucked under an arm or behind his back.