It’s a statistic that no parent wants to think about: Car crashes are one of the leading causes of death for children ages 1 to 13, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). It’s no surprise that keeping your child buckled in a car seat or booster seat is the best way to keep them safe while traveling, but choosing the right seat and installing it properly is easier said than done.
In fact, experts say nearly half of car seats and booster seats in the United States are not used correctly—putting children unnecessarily at risk.
Make sure you avoid common pitfalls by following this advice from Chris Morris, UNC Health child passenger safety technician. Morris estimates he’s installed between 150,000 and 200,000 car seats since 1983.
1. Choose the right type of car seat for your family.
It can be overwhelming to research car seats. To narrow down the search, first choose which type of car seat you want. Morris says car seats can be broken down into four main categories:
- Infant-only car seat: Made to carry newborns or babies in the rear-facing position only.
- Convertible car seat: Made for children of various sizes, including newborns (most fit children up to 65 pounds). Can be installed rear- and forward-facing.
- Forward-facing-only car seat: For preschoolers who meet the height and weight requirements to face the front. These most often come with booster seats. Children should ride in a front-facing car seat until they outgrow the harness on the car seat.
- Booster seat only: For children who have outgrown the forward-facing car seat. The booster seat raises the child up so that the shoulder and lap part of the seat belt fits properly. Children should remain in the back seat through age 12.
There are some all-in-one car seats that combine the four categories into one seat, but Morris recommends against skipping over the infant-only seat.
“The infant carrier makes it easier to transport the baby if they fall asleep in the car,” he says. “Then you can look into a convertible or all-in-one seat after they outgrow that.”
2. Understand that the right seat is the one that fits.
Car seats are always changing as companies roll out new models and features. But don’t think that the most expensive one is the safest.
“All car seats pass the same federal crash tests,” Morris says. “Often the middle-of-the-road car seat performs just as well or better as the expensive ones.”
What matters most is that the seat fits your vehicle and your child. Many baby product stores will let you take a store model out to your car to make sure it fits before purchasing, Morris says. Be sure to install it in the car prior to baby’s arrival, so you have time to adjust if it doesn’t work for you.
3. Read the manual.
The car seat manual will tell you how to safely install the car seat and how much weight it will hold in various positions. Make sure you keep it somewhere where you can continue to refer to it as your child grows. (If you lose it, you can likely find a copy online.) It’s also a good idea to read your vehicle’s manual for information about car seat installation.
4. Know the installation lingo.
Car seats and vehicles come equipped with various features to help you install them, but first you have to understand the lingo. See below for two of the most common terms when it comes to car seat installation, and check here for more definitions, if needed.
- LATCH system: Stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children and was developed to allow caregivers to install the car seat without using the vehicle’s seat belts. The system includes a top tether (strap), two lower tethers and tether anchors (the hooks in the vehicle that the tether attaches to). Most child safety seats and vehicles made after 2002 are required to have LATCH systems.
- Lockoff: If you’re not using the LATCH system, you’ll need to secure the child safety seat with the seat belt. A lockoff helps keep the seat belt in place and can make the seat easier to install.
It’s important to note that most car seats are designed to use either the LATCH system or the seat belt to install them—NOT both at the same time. Check your car seat manual for details.
5. Have the car seat checked by a child passenger safety technician.
To avoid mistakes, it’s best to have your car seat installed or checked by a certified child passenger safety technician.
“It’s not always easy to match up what you see on the page to what it actually looks like in your personal vehicle,” Morris says.
Here are the most common mistakes he sees:
- Car seat too loose. Most car seats specify that you should only be able to move the seat about one inch in all directions when it’s snapped into the base. If it’s too loose (or too tight, for that matter), it’s less likely to stabilize your child in a crash.
- Car seat installed in the wrong place. The car seat should always be installed in the back seat (generally out of the air bags’ reach). The safest place is the back left or right passenger’s seat. Some cars will support middle-seat latching. This is OK if the car seat fits, but don’t use two latch attachments to the same anchor.
- Straps not in the correct position. If your child is rear-facing, you want both straps crossing their body at or just below shoulder level. If they are forward-facing, you want them at or just above shoulder level. The fit should be snug on the shoulder (the shoulder fit is more important than the chest strap fit). Often, the straps are uneven, too tight or too loose.
- Top tether anchor not used in the forward-facing position. When you turn the car seat forward-facing, you must attach the top of the car seat to the corresponding tether to help keep it in place. The tether decreases how much your child’s head will move in a crash, so making sure it’s secured reduces the risk of serious head and neck injuries.
- Level indicators do not show proper levels. Check the level on the side of the seat to make sure it is in the proper range depending on whether it’s rear- or forward-facing. Always install on a level ground, not a hill.
- Moving the child to the next position too soon. It’s best to wait to turn your child front-facing or move them to a booster seat until they meet the weight and height requirements laid out in the manual. Read more on this in No. 7 and 8 below.
If your car seat is in a crash, take it to a car safety technician for an inspection before using it again. There could be flaws you can’t see.
6. Don’t use an expired car seat or base.
Every car seat has an expiration date, typically on a sticker on the seat itself and also in the manual. Car seats typically last between six and 10 years, Morris says.
“The plastic in car seats deteriorates over time,” Morris says. “If the plastic is worn out or it has a hairline crack that you can’t see, it won’t hold up in a crash.”
Discontinue use if the car seat is expired. If you’re buying a used car seat, it’s best to know the history of the seat—if it’s been in a collision, you don’t want it. Morris recommends steering clear of consignment stores, yard sales and online marketplaces; buy from someone you know and trust whenever possible.
7. Keep your child rear-facing as long as possible.
Don’t rush to turn your child to face the front. Keep them rear-facing until at least age 2, and longer if the seat’s height and weight requirement allow. Turning them too soon can make them susceptible to serious back and neck injuries.
“If a child is forward-facing during a crash, their body will surge forward and they won’t be able to control their weight,” Morris says. “If they are rear-facing, they are a little more protected because the seat cradles them and they bounce off the back of the seat.”
Morris says don’t worry if your child’s legs bend. It’s more important to protect their neck and spine.
8. Transition to the forward-facing position, booster seat and seat belt at the right time.
Keeping a child rear-facing too long can also be dangerous. Below are guidelines for transitioning to the forward-facing position and into and out of the booster seat.
Forward-facing: Check the car seat manual for the height and weight requirements to ride forward-facing. If your child meets them and it’s time to turn the seat, make sure you don’t keep the seat in the recline angle, Morris says. And don’t forget to use the top tether and adjust the harness straps so they are at or above the shoulders with a snug fit.
Booster seat: Usually children can safely sit in a booster seat at 4 years old or 40 pounds. Always use a lap and shoulder seat belt with the booster seat. Never use a lap belt only.
Seat belt only: North Carolina law states that children can stay in a forward-facing car seat until they are age 8 (regardless of weight) or 80 pounds (regardless of age). However, the American Academy of Pediatrics urges more caution than the law, saying that seat belts typically fit properly when children have reached 4 feet 9 inches in height and are between 8 and 12 years of age. So even if your child is 8, if the seat belt does not fit properly, wait until it does. NHTSA says the lap belt must fit snugly across the upper thighs, and the shoulder belt should lie snug across the shoulder and chest. Children should always use lap-and-shoulder seat belts—never a lap belt only—and children younger than 13 should not sit in the front seat.
“Keep your child in a car seat that fits them as long as possible,” Morris says.
Need help installing your car seat? UNC Rex Women’s Center offers free inspections. To learn more, call (919) 784-1802. If you don’t live in the Raleigh area, you can find a technician near you at Safe Kids.