Child safety seats
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Child safety seats are proven to save children’s lives in accidents.
In the United States, all states require children to be secured in a car seat or booster seat until they are 4' 9" tall. Most children grow to this height when they are between 8 and 12 years old.
To keep your child safe, bear these in mind when using a car safety seat.
- When your child is born, you must have a car seat to bring the baby home from the hospital.
- Always secure your child in a car seat whenever riding in a vehicle. Make sure the harness is fastened snugly.
- Read the car seat manufacturer's instructions for the proper way to use the seat. Read your vehicle owner's manual, too.
- Car seats and booster seats should always be used on the back seat of a vehicle. If there is no back seat, the car seat can be secured on the front passenger seat. This can ONLY be done when there is no front or side air bag, or the air bag has been switched off.
When you are selecting a child safety seat for the first time:
- The seat must fit your child's size and be able to be properly installed in your vehicle.
- It is best to use a new car seat. Used car seats often do not have instructions. They may have cracks or other problems that make the seat unsafe. For example, the seat may have been damaged during a car accident.
- Try the seat before buying it. Install the seat in your vehicle. Put your child in the car seat. Secure the harness and buckle. Check that the seat fits your vehicle and child.
- Do not use a car seat past its expiration date. The seat frame may no longer be strong enough to support your child safely. The expiration date is usually on the bottom of the seat.
- Do not use a seat that has been recalled. Fill out and send in the registration card that comes with the new car seat. The manufacturer can contact you if the seat is recalled. You can find out about recalls by contacting the manufacturer, or by looking up safety complaints records on your child’s safety seat at safercar.gov/SearchChildSeats.
The types of child safety seats and restraints include:
- Rear-facing seats
- Forward-facing seats
- Booster seats
- Car beds
- Built-in car seats
- Travel vests
A rear-facing seat is one in which your child faces the back of the vehicle. The seat should be installed on the back seat of your vehicle. The two types of rear-facing seats are the infant-only seat and the convertible seat.
Infant-only rear-facing seats. These seats are for babies who weigh up to 22 to 30 pounds, depending on the car seat. You will need a new seat when your child gets bigger. Infant-only seats have handles so you can carry the seat to and from the car. Some have a base you can leave installed in the car. This lets you click the car seat into place each time you use it. Follow manufacturer’s instructions on how the seat should be reclined so your baby’s head does not shift around while you’re driving.
Convertible seats. These seats are to be placed in the rear-facing position and are for infants and toddlers. When your child is older and bigger, the seat can be switched to the forward-facing position. Experts recommend keeping your child rear-facing until at least age 2 and until your child outgrows the weight or height allowed by the seat.
A forward-facing seat should be installed on the back seat of your vehicle, although it allows your child to face the front of the car. These seats are used only after your child is too big for a rear-facing seat.
A combination forward-facing booster seat may also be used. For younger children, the booster seat’s harness straps should be used. After your child reaches the upper height and weight limit for the harness (based on the seat’s instructions), the vehicle’s own lap and shoulder belts can be used to keep your child strapped in.
A booster seat raises your child up so the vehicle’s own lap and shoulder belts fit correctly. The lap belt should fall across your child's upper thighs. The shoulder belt should go across the middle of your child’s shoulder and chest.
Use booster seats for older children until they are 4' 9" tall and between 8 and 12 years old.
These seats are also called flat car seats. They are used for premature or other special-needs babies. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends having a health care provider look at how your preterm baby fits and breathes in a car seat before leaving the hospital.
Some vehicles have built-in car seats. Weight and height limits vary. You can get more details on these seats by reading the vehicle owner's manual or calling the vehicle manufacturer.
Special vests can be worn by older children who have outgrown forward-facing safety seats. The vests can be used instead of booster seats. The vests are used with the vehicle’s lap and seat belts. As with car seats, children should be sitting in the back seat when using the vest.
Installing a child safety seat
Use child car seats and restraints properly. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for installing and using your child's car seat. Also, read your vehicle's owner's manual to determine the safest place in your vehicle to install a car seat. If the instructions are unclear, call the car seat manufacturer.
A car seat should be snug and positioned at the proper angle. It should not move more than 1 inch forward or sideways.
Contact your local police or fire station for help installing your seat. Many have free programs that will show you how to install the seat. To find a certified child passenger safety technician in your area, visit SeatCheck.org.
Child safety seats come with safety straps called harnesses. These secure the child into position. Be sure all harnesses are secured snugly. Double check the buckle to ensure it is fastened.
The seat is secured into your vehicle using either the vehicle's seat belts or the LATCH system. LATCH stands for lower anchors and tethers for children. This system is designed to make car seat installation easier. A child safety seat that comes with a LATCH system attaches to anchors in the back seat where the cushions meet. A strap called a tether connects the top of the safety seat to the vehicle's frame. The vehicle's seat belts are not used. All child safety seats and vehicles made after September 1, 2002 come with LATCH systems.
For more information on how to install child safety seats, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration online.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Committee on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention. Child passenger safety.Pediatrics. 2011; 127(4):e1050-e1066.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Car seats. Accessed March 29, 2013.
- Last reviewed on 3/26/2013
- Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.
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