A parent’s guide to car seats
What you need to know about ‘the right seat, the right size, the right use’
Remember those cute “Baby on Board” stickers of years back? The thought was sweet, but you can’t count on other drivers to avoid hitting your vehicle just to protect your little one. Your best defense against injury, or worse, in an accident is having your child tucked securely into an appropriate and correctly installed car seat.
“Car seats are absolutely vital, whether in your car, on a plane, in a grandparent’s car or Uber or rental car. Because kids who are not secured in car seats get thrown around in any collision, the American Academy of Pediatrics is very strong about this,” said Pamela Hofley, MD, MPH, Medical Director at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Manchester and a pediatrician.
“Improved vehicle crashworthiness and greater use of child restraint systems have significantly affected the safety of children in automobiles,” the AAP wrote in November 2018. Child safety seats reduce the risk of injury by 71% to 82%, their latest research shows, compared to child passengers using just seat belts.
Take a back seat for safety
One of the first things to know is that car seats belong in the back seat.
The same airbags in the driver and passenger seats that protect adults and save lives in a crash can be fatal to a child. The back seat is best because it is farther away in case of a head-on impact.
Also, the seat (or Child Restraint System, or CRS) should be installed with the baby facing the rear. These are a must, the American Academy of Pediatrics said, because the baby’s “head, neck, and spine are all supported by the hard shell of the car safety seat, allowing the car seat to absorb most of the crash forces, and protecting the most vulnerable parts of the body.”
Rear-facing seats should be used for as long as possible, according to www.safety.com. A baby in a front-facing car seat is “much more likely to sustain a head or spinal injury if the car stops short,” according to the Journal of Pediatrics.
Buying a car seat
Car seats can cost as little as $30 or as much as your first car. But you must use it every single time you have your child in a vehicle, any vehicle. So it’s vital to know how to install and remove the restraint as needed.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Their online car-seat finder rates seats on several criteria, including ease of use. When you are getting ready to buy take this into consideration as well as consumer reviews and safety ratings. Read all the information carefully because not all seats fit in all vehicles.
There are three types of car seats: one for infants, a convertible seat that can be changed to a forward-facing car seat as the child grows, and all-in-one seats that can go from rear-facing to front-facing to booster seats (there are also several types of booster seats).
Convertible and booster seats allow children to stay in a rear-facing position as they grow, which is safer.
The first child restraint system you need is a rear-facing seat for newborns to age 2, or when your toddler is at the upper weight and/or height limits for that seat. If there is a seat belt in the middle of the backseat, that’s the best place to install the rear-facing car seat, because it’s the farthest from areas of impact in a crash.
Some of the seats designed for infants have a base so you can slip the seat out and use it like a carrier without having to uninstall the whole contraption.
Next, it’s time for a forward-facing seat to be used until at least age 5, or again when the child has surpassed the limits of that particular car seat.
Booster seats follow, for kids anywhere from 30 to 120 pounds until you can fit a seat belt properly around your child. This means that the lap belt is across the upper thighs (not the abdomen) with the shoulder belt across the chest (not the neck).
And always wear your seat belt. Dr. Hofley said parents need to model safe, responsible behavior long before their kids get behind the wheel themselves.
There’s a tech for that
To ensure you have “the right seat, the right size, the right use” there are “inspection stations” across the state at police and fire stations, and AAA offices. Most of these operate by appointment. Go to www.safercar.gov or www.nhtsa.gov to find a Child Passenger Safety technician near you. And, of course, read the manufacturer’s directions.
“It’s important to know how to install your car seat properly,” said Dr. Hofley. “You should learn to do it yourself, because you’ll need to be able to take it out and put it back in correctly.” If you don’t have the manual it came with, check the manufacturer’s website.
For more tips regarding car seat safety, see this House Calls column written by Tom Leach, the Child Passenger Safety Coordinator for the Injury Prevention Program at the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock (CHaD).
Mary Ellen Hettinger, APR is an award-winning reporter, editor and writer, and accredited public relations professional.