A safety guide for car seats

Child safety seats are important in protecting our children from harm. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death in children ages 3–14. Proper use of child safety seats reduces the risk of death for infants by 71 percent and for toddlers by 54 percent. 

But up to 80 percent of child safety seats are installed or used incorrectly. Here are tips to ensure that your child is protected.

Choosing a car seat

Experts recommend that all children—starting in infancy—be fastened in a car seat until the vehicle’s restraints fit properly, typically at a weight of at least 40 pounds, a height of at least 4 feet 9 inches, and 8–12 years of age. Safety recommendations change as children grow, and there are a variety of seats suited to a child’s age and size:

  • Rear-facing seats. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends that infants and toddlers remain in a rear-facing car seat until they’ve reached the maximum size recommendations of the car seat manufacturer. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children stay in a rear-facing seat until age 2, depending on their height and weight.
  • Forward-facing seats. When your child has outgrown the rear-facing seat—exceeding the height and weight requirements set by the car seat manufacturer—she should use a forward-facing seat with a full harness.
  • Booster seats. Booster seats are recommended for children ages 4–8 who have outgrown their forward-facing car safety seats by height or weight.

Checking your car seat after installation

After you install your car seat, have it checked by a NHTSA-certified Child Passenger Safety Technician. Use NHTSA’s online child safety seat inspection locator or call your local police station or AAA office to find out more.

Using your car seat

Always read the manual for your child’s car seat so that you understand what ages and sizes it is suitable for and how it’s designed to be used. Some tips:

  • Be cautious about used car seats. If you don’t know whether a car seat has been in an accident, don’t use it with your child. And don’t use a car seat that’s too old—look for a sticker, check the manual, or call the manufacturer for details about how long it should be used.
  • Check for recalls by searching the NHTSA recalls database or the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recalls database.
  • Register your car seat—you’ll want to be notified if it’s recalled.
  • Keep kids in back. Children younger than age 13 shouldn’t ride in the front seat.
  • Place the car seat in the middle seat, when possible. Never place a rear-facing seat in the front seat of a vehicle with air bags. 
  • Make sure the seat is installed tightly—it shouldn’t move when you wiggle it.
  • Check the angle. Your child’s head should not flop forward when he’s sitting in the seat. Most seats have indicators on the side to help you install them at the best angle. To adjust the angle, use a rolled towel or other firm padding under the base at the back.
  • Make sure straps are snug. Do the “pinch test”: with one finger under the harness, try to pinch the harness strap. If you can pinch at all, the strap is too loose. And teach children in booster seats to give their seat belts an extra tug, reducing looseness in the straps.
  • Make sure harness straps are positioned correctly. 
  • For booster seats, check the positioning of lap and shoulder belts. Educate your child about the proper way to position her belts.
  • Take off bulky outerwear. For most outerwear, you’ll want to buckle your child into his seat and then place the coat on him backwards. Nothing should come between your infant and his seat harness.  
  • Grown-ups should buckle up too. Reinforce that car safety matters for everyone by wearing a seat belt every time.

Complying with local laws. There’s no uniform car seat law for U.S. children—if you’re concerned with meeting the minimum legal requirements, review the NHTSA’s Child Passenger Safety website which lists safety seat criteria by state, or check with a local police department.

Wait till your child has reached the upper limit of your current car seat before you move him to the next one, since each progressive step brings with it a little less protection.

You can review the AAP’s current policy statement on child passenger safety and NHTSA’s current guidelines

Last updated December 27, 2020

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