Car seat safety tips

Use a rear-facing car seat for babies under 2

  • For the best possible protection, keep your baby in a rear-facing child safety seat in a back seat for as long as possible—up to the height or weight limit of the particular seat. Recent recommendations (March 2011) by the American Academy of Pediatrics urge parents to keep their babies rear-facing up to the second birthday. The old rule "12-months-and-20-pounds" that many parents cite when turning their child forward in the car is actually the minimum size and age requirement.
  • Keep babies rear-facing in a convertible seat until they reach age 2 and the maximum height or weight allowed by the manufacturer. For many children that will be 30, 35 or even 40 pounds.Rear-facing occupants are safest.

When using an infant or convertible seat

  • Use your baby’s car seat rear-facing and semi-reclined no more than 45 degrees, so the baby’s head stays in contact with the seat and the baby’s airway stays open. Read the car seat instructions.
  • Make sure the buckled harness straps that keep your baby properly positioned and secured in the car seat fit snug. Loose harness straps don’t provide maximum protection.Be sure the harness is tight, so you cannot pinch extra webbing at the shoulder.
  • Position the shoulder straps through the slots at or below your rear-facing baby’s shoulders.
  • Adjust the chest clip to armpit level.
  • Use either the car’s seat belt or LATCH system to lock the car seat into the car. Do not use both systems at the same time.
  • Your car seat should not move more than one inch side to side or front to back. Grab the car seat at the safety belt path or LATCH path to test it.
  • All car seats have an expiration date. Generally, it is six years, but contact the manufacturer of the seat to find out what the expiration date is for your specific seat.
  • Never buy a used car seat if you do not know its full history and never use a car seat that has been in a crash.
  • Do not use any products in the car seat that did not come from the manufacturer. Car seat fabrics meet strict fire safety codes. Add-on toys can injure your child in a crash.
  • Find where the frontal airbags are in your vehicle by checking the owner’s manual. Never put a rear-facing car seat in front of an active airbag. Children are always safest in a back seat.
  • Have your car seat checked by a currently certified child passenger safety technician to make sure it is properly installed.
  • Never leave children alone in a car.

Take the next step

Take the next step to a forward-facing car seat when your child is 2 and has outgrown the height or weight limit of his or her rear-facing convertible car seat and you answer “yes” to either question.

  • Does your child exceed the car seat’s rear-facing height or weight limits?
  • Is your child’s head within one inch of the car seat top?

Properly installing and using forward-facing car seats

  • Use a forward-facing car seat correctly and until the harness no longer fits (convertible or combo seat) in a back seat every time your toddler rides in a car. Many harnesses today serve kids to 50, 60, 80 or even 100 pounds.
  • Use the right car seat with a harness for your toddler’s weight and height. Toddlers are weighed and measured at every doctor visit, so be sure to keep track.
  • Put harnesses through the slots so they are even with or above the forward-facing child’s shoulders. Some seats require use of the top slots when the seat is forward-facing, so check instructions.
  • Be sure the buckled harness is tight, so you cannot pinch extra webbing at the shoulder.
  • Adjust the chest clip to armpit level.
  • Use the car’s safety belt or LATCH system to lock the car seat into the car. Do not use both at the same time.  Be sure to use the top tether
  • Your car seat should not move more than one inch side to side or front to back. Grab the car seat at the safety belt path or LATCH path to test it.
  • Use a top tether if your vehicle and car seat are both so equipped. Tethers limit the forward motion of your child’s head in a crash.
  • Have your car seat checked by a currently certified child passenger safety technician to make sure it’s properly installed.
  • Do not allow children to play with unused seat belts. Treat them as you would any rope or cord.
  • Be sure all occupants wear seat belts correctly every time. Children learn from adult role models.
  • If you have a heavier or taller child,find a car seat with a harness that fits larger children. Some seats hold children up to 80 or even 100 pounds.
  • Restrain all children in the age- and weight-appropriate child restraint when in a car with the motor running.That will limit access to power windows. Never leave children unattended.

Take the next step

Take the next step to a booster seat when you answer “yes” to any of these questions.

  • Does your child exceed the car seat’s height or weight limits?
  • Are your child’s shoulders above the car seat’s top harness slots?
  • Are the tops of your child’s ears above the top of the car seat?

Booster seats

For older and bigger kids

  • Use a booster seat with the vehicle lap AND shoulder safety belts until your child passes the Safety Belt Fit Test.
  • Vehicle seat belts are designed to fit an average-sized adult. Children usually need a car seat or booster seat until they are about 4 feet 9 inches tall and weigh between 80 and 100 pounds to get the best protection from a seat belt. Many children will be between 8 and 12 years of age before they meet these heights and weights.

Tips on using booster seats

  • Use a car seat or booster seat correctly in a back seat every time your child rides in a car.
  • Older kids get weighed and measured less often than babies, so check your child’s growth a few times a year. Generally kids will need to use a booster until they are about 4 feet 9 inches tall and weigh between 80 and 100 pounds. They may be 8-12 years of age before this occurs.
  • Booster seats are not installed the same way car seats are, a booster seat uses no harness. They sit on the vehicle seat and are used to properly position the adult seat belt for an older child.
  • Never place the shoulder belt under the child’s arm or behind the child’s back.
  • Be sure all occupants wear safety belts correctly every time. Children learn from adult role models.
  • Tell all drivers who transport your bigger child that booster seat or car seat use is a must when your child is in their vehicle.
  • Never leave children alone in a vehicle.

Seat belts

The Safety Belt Fit test

When your child reaches 4 feet 9 inches and 80 to 100 pounds, use the Safety Belt Fit Test to determine if the child is big enough to use the adult seat belt without a booster. Use the Safety Belt Fit Test on every child under 13.

  • Have your child sit in a back seat with their bottom and back against the vehicle’s seat back. Do the child’s knees bend at the seat’s edge? If yes, go on. If not, the child must stay in a booster seat.
  • Buckle the seat belt. Does the lap belt stay low on the hips?  If yes, go on.  If it rests on the soft part of the stomach, the child must stay in a booster seat.
  • Look at the shoulder belt. Does it lay on the collarbone and shoulder? If yes, go on.If it is on the face or neck, the child must remain in a booster seat.
  • Never put the shoulder belt under the child’s arm or behind the child’s back. Do not allow children to play with the shoulder portion of a seat belt. Treat it like any cord.
  • Can the child maintain the correct seating position with the shoulder belt on the shoulder and the lap belt low across the hips? If yes, the child has passed the Safety Belt Fit Test. If no, the child should return to a booster seat and re-test in a month.

Ways to stay safe with seat belts

Once your child passes the Safety Belt Fit Test, require him or her to use seat belts in a back seat on every ride, whether or not you are there. A lap AND shoulder belt provides the best protection to your child and must be used on every ride.

  • Move children from booster seats to seat belts in a back seat only after the child passes the Safety Belt Fit Test in every vehicle. Return your child to a booster seat if the safety belt does not fit perfectly.
  • Use the Safety Belt Fit Test on any child you transport in your car.
  • Make sure that everyone sits upright when using seat belts. Never let them lean against windows or car doors or lie down. Never put the shoulder belt under the arm or behind the back.
  • Tell every driver who transports your child that seat belt use is a must when your child is in their vehicle.
  • Teach your child to use a seat belt in a back seat in every vehicle he or she uses. This is an important habit to establish when the child rides in vehicles unsupervised by you.
  • All children underage 13 should ride properly restrained in a back seat.
  • Wear your seat belt correctly every time you are in a car. Children learn from adult role models.

Safe Kids USA resources

Infant Car Seats


Booster Seats and Seat Belts


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