Parenting

7 essential car seat safety tips, according to experts

Choose a seat that's right for your baby and your lifestyle.

Boy in car seat riding in car Credit: Getty Images / Onfokus

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You may be tempted to grab that hand-me-down car seat that’s been sitting in your cousin’s garage for the past few years, but think again. If there is one kids’ item you should always invest in, it’s a good car seat.

Now, keep in mind that just because we said “invest” that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to pay top dollar to get the safest car seat, but there are considerations to keep in mind when car seat shopping. Here we break down what you need to know for every age and stage of your precious cargo.

1. Read the owner’s manual of your car

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Credit: Getty Images / SDI Productions

Get to know your car before you purchase a car seat.

Before you even embark on your search for the right car seat, get to know your car. Read your owner’s manual and find out how car seats can most safely be installed in your specific make and model. Older cars tend to require a seat belt, while newer cars use the Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) system.

If your car has a LATCH system and it’s something you want to use, keep in mind that the middle seat is the safest spot for a car seat. Make sure your car has a middle seat LATCH before you assume and buy a car seat that requires one.

Ben Hoffman, professor of pediatrics at Oregon Health and Science University​ and medical director of the Tom Sargent Safety Center says you should also make sure that there is ample space for the seat once it’s installed. Take out some measuring tape and make sure there is room enough in your back seat for the car seat to properly and safely fit. “Once installed in a rear-facing position, the seat shouldn’t be touching the backs of the two front seats,” says Hoffman.

2. Choose your type

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Credit: Getty Images / Youngoldman

Stop! This child is too little to be turned around. Children should be riding rear-facing car seat for as long as possible.

There are three basic types of car seats: rear-facing; forward-facing; and convertible, which converts from rear to forward-facing. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, most children should be kept rear-facing until they are at least 2 years old, and some longer. If you are buying for a child 2 years old or younger, you should be looking for a rear-facing or convertible car seat. "A lot of families worry that a child might be uncomfortable or they might hurt their legs in an accident if they are rear-facing. Those are two things they shouldn't worry about," says Hoffman.

It’s recommended that children ride in rear-facing car seats as long as possible, and up to the length and weight limits of their car safety seat. The reason for this is a rear-facing car seat will absorb the force of a crash and support the head, neck and spine. When children—especially toddlers—ride forward-facing, their heads may jolt forward during the force of the crash, making the child more susceptible to serious head, neck, and spinal injuries.

“Milestones are exciting, but if there is one milestone I wouldn’t push it’s turning a car-seat forward-facing too soon,” says Hoffman. “For infants and toddlers you should only be looking at rear-facing or convertible car seats.”

3. Size is everything

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Weight and height are important considerations for finding the perfect fit.

It may be tempting to search for seats based on age recommendations, but, as they say, age is just a number. Weight and height are really the most dependable factors for determining if the seat you are buying is the right fit, and if it will continue to be the right fit for years to come.

Hoffman says that while weight and height are equally important when determining if your child has sized out of a seat, he always recommends height as the main determining factor for finding a car seat that will adequately grow with your child.

“Most kids will outgrow the length of their car seat before the weight limit,” says Hoffman. Because a growth spurt may be cause for a new seat purchase or for turning the seat to be forward-facing prematurely, look for seats that have a substantial height limit that will keep them rear-facing as long as possible.

4. Pricier doesn’t necessarily mean better

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Credit: Getty Images / zer05

An expensive car seat doesn't mean it's any safer than a more affordable one.

Just because a car seat is the most expensive on the market, doesn’t mean that its safety features exceed some of the more affordable models. Many times the higher price point may be for higher quality fabric, or certain bells and whistles that make installation easier, like a button anchor attachment system as opposed to a fully manual one. Every child is different and every car is different, so while we do recommend researching newer models and asking around for suggestions, know that the cost of a car seat in no way translates to the safety of one.

Both Hoffman and Wes Bender, Safe Kids Worldwide child passenger safety technician and instructor, say you should look more at how a car seat functions in your daily life than at whether or not it comes in fashionable colors or high end fabrics.

“Even though there are many different models with a wide range of prices and features, in order to be sold in the United States, all car seats must meet or exceed the Federal Motor Vehicles Safety Standards established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,” says Bender.

He goes on to explain that the manufacturer sticker on a car seat will say if the seat meets the federal standard (FMVSS 213). “Whether a car seat or booster seat costs $80, $180, or $380, it meets the same federal safety standards and will keep kids safe if used correctly. The best car seat or booster seat is the one that fits the child, fits the car, fits the family's budget, and that will be used correctly every time,” says Bender.

5. Focus on the safety features

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According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a child should be in a five-point harness until they are 4 to 7 years old.

Be sure you purchase a seat with a five-point harness, which features two connected shoulder straps that clip into a strap between the legs. According to Safe Kids, the “NHTSA recommends children 4 to 7 to remain in a forward-facing car seat with a five-point harness until the child reaches the top height or weight limit allowed by the seat. At which time, the child can move into a belt positioning booster.” A five-point harness is essential for keeping a child who may not know how to properly sit—or who may slump or fall asleep in the car—safe in any collision.

Additional safety features that we recommend are side-impact protection, and LATCH system compatibility—the latter of which can help anchor and stabilize your child’s car seat with minimal movement.

6. Find the perfect fit

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Credit: Getty Images / martin-dm

Find car seats that fit your family and your lifestyle.

While finding a seat that comfortably accommodates the size of your child is of the utmost importance, that’s not the only fit you need to consider when buying a car seat. Hoffman and Bender say you also need to determine if the seat is a good fit for your vehicle and the needs of your family.

“You may invest in the most highly ranked car seat on the market but it won’t ultimately be the safest if it doesn’t fit in your car or fit your family’s needs,” says Hoffman.

Hoffman says to consider if you have more than one child riding in a car seat at one time. Check to see if your seat’s tethers attach on the sides or from the top, and which type of tether works best in your car. Consider the make and model of your car and how the seat positions itself when fully installed.

“Vehicle manufacturers don’t think of car seats—a seat that fits really well in one car or SUV might not fit very well in another, and it’s always important to consider how many people will be in the car at a given time,” says Hoffman. “I recommend you really think about your lifestyle and what your family's needs are before buying.”

He also recommends you visit a brick-and-mortar store to test how a seat may fit in your car before purchasing, or only buy from an online retailer that will take car seat returns. “It really is so important to test out a seat before you buy. Don’t exclusively rely on reviews,” says Hoffman.

7. Get some help

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Credit: Getty Images / RichLegg

If you're feeling overwhelmed, an expert can help.

If you feel at all overwhelmed or confused about purchasing a seat, Hoffman says to consult a professional to advise you—and then have that professional help you properly install the seat to ensure you've selected the best one. But, he cautions, don’t assume that just because someone is a public safety officer they are the right person to ask for help. Oftentimes it’s assumed that firefighters or police officers are the go-tos for this type of expertise, but Hoffman says that’s not always the best option.

“Make sure that whomever is helping you is properly certified,” Hoffman says, recommending that you look for someone with certification from Safe Kids and NITSA. "The details are so important. You really need to work with people who are trained and know exactly what to look for," he says.

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