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Online resources for parents and caregivers



Resources from the U.S. Department of Transportation's distracted driving Web site

Is your child riding safe and secure?

Child passenger safety week - Sept. 19-25, 2010Some of the information on this page was adapted from Car Safety Seats: A Guide for Families 2010 (Copyright © 2010 American Academy of Pediatrics)

One of the most important jobs you have as a parent is keeping your child safe when riding in a vehicle. Each year thousands of young children are killed or injured in car crashes. Proper use of car safety seats helps keep children safe. But with so many different car safety seats on the market, it is no wonder many parents find this overwhelming.

The type of seat your child needs depends on several things, including your child’s size and the type of vehicle you have. To be sure your child is using the most appropriate seat, read on.

Important reminders

  • Be a good role model. Make sure you always wear your seat belt. This will help your child form a lifelong habit of buckling up.
  • Never leave your child alone in or around cars.
  • Always read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Types of car safety seats at a glance



Age group Type of seat General guidelines

Infants
image for step 1 seating

Infant seats and rear-facing convertible seats Infants should ride rear-facing until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by their car safety seat’s manufacturer. At a minimum, children should ride rear-facing until they have reached at least 1 year of age and weigh at least 20 pounds. When children reach the highest weight or length allowed by the manufacturer of their infant-only seat, they should continue to ride rear-facing in a convertible seat.

Toddlers and preschoolers
image for step 2 seating

Convertible seats and forward-facing seats with harnesses It is best for children to ride rear-facing as long as possible to the highest weight and height allowed by the manufacturer of their convertible seat. When they have outgrown the rear-facing seat, they should use a forward-facing seat with a full harness for as long as they fit.

School-aged children
image for step 3 seating

Booster seats Booster seats are for older children who have outgrown their forward-facing car safety seats. Children should stay in a booster seat until adult belts fit correctly (usually when a child reaches about 4' 9" in height and is between 8 and 12 years of age).

Older children
image for step 4 seating

Seat belts Children who have outgrown their booster seats should ride in a lap and shoulder seat belt in the back seat until age 13.

Iowa law requires that children up to age 18 use seat belts.


The right car safety seat

Infants, rear-facing


The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all infants should ride rear-facing starting with their first ride home from the hospital. They should remain rear-facing until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by their car safety seat’s manufacturer. At a minimum, children should ride rear-facing until they have reached at least one year of age and weigh at least 20 pounds.

There are two types of rear-facing car safety seats: (1) infant-only seats; and (2) convertible seats.

When children reach the highest weight or length allowed by the manufacturer of their infant-only seat, they should continue to ride rear-facing in a convertible seat.

image of a baby in a rear-facing car seat
Photograph courtesy of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Infant-Only Car Safety Seat

Infant-only seats are:

  • Small and have carrying handles (and sometimes come as part of a stroller system).
  • Used only for travel (not for positioning outside the vehicle).
  • Used for infants up to 22 to 35 pounds, depending on the model.
  • Sometimes equipped with a base that can be left in the car. The seat clicks into and out of the base so you do not have to install the seat each time you use it. Parents can buy more than one base for additional vehicles.


Convertible seats (used rear-facing):

  • Can be used rear-facing, then converted to forward-facing for older children. This means the seat can be used longer by your child. They are bulkier than infant seats, however, and do not come with carrying handles or a separate base.
  • Have higher rear-facing weight and height limits than infant-only seats, which make them ideal for bigger babies.
  • Have two types of harnesses.
Five-point harness — attach at the shoulders,
at the hips, and between the legs
five-point harness safety seat
Overhead shield —- a padded tray-like shield that
swings down over the child
five-point harness safety seat

Installation tips for rear-facing seats

When using a rear-facing seat, keep the following in mind.
  • Place the harnesses in your rear-facing seat in slots that are at or below your baby’s shoulders.
  • Ensure that the harness is snug and harness clip is positioned at the mid-chest level.
  • Make sure the car safety seat is installed tightly in the vehicle.
  • Never place a rear-facing car safety seat in the front seat of a vehicle that has an active front passenger air bag. If the air bag inflates, it will hit the back of the car safety seat, right where your baby’s head is, and could cause serious injury or death.
  • Be sure you know what kind of seat belts are in your vehicle. Some seat belts need locking clips to keep the belt locked into position. Locking clips come with most new car safety seats. If you are not sure, check the vehicle owner’s manual. Locking clips are not needed in most newer vehicles, and some seats have built-in lock-offs to lock the belt.
  • If you are using a convertible seat in the rear-facing position, make sure the seat belt is routed through the correct belt path. Check the instructions that came with the car safety seat to be sure.
  • If your vehicle was made after 2002, it may come with the LATCH system, which is used to secure car safety seats. See below for information on using LATCH.
  • Make sure the seat is at the correct angle so your infant’s head does not flop forward. Many seats have angle indicators or adjusters that can help prevent this. If your seat does not have an angle adjuster, tilt the car safety seat back by putting a rolled towel or other firm padding (such as a pool noodle) under the base near the point where the back and bottom of the vehicle seat meet.
  • Be sure the car safety seat is installed tightly. If you can move the seat at the belt path more than an inch side to side or front to back, it is not tight enough.
  • Still having trouble? There may be a certified Child Passenger Safety (CPS) technician in your area who can help. If you need installation help, see information below to locate a CPS technician.

Toddlers and preschoolers—forward-facing


Once your child has reached the highest weight or height allowed by the manufacturer of the seat for rear-facing, she/he can ride forward-facing in a convertible seat. She/he should ride in a forward-facing seat with a harness until she/he outgrows it (usually at around age four and about 40–80 pounds).

There are five types of car safety restraints that can be used forward-facing.
  • Convertible seats — these convert from rear-facing to forward-facing seats.
  • Forward-facing only — can be used forward-facing with a harness for children who weigh up to 40 to 80 pounds (depending on the model).
  • Combination seat with harness — can be used forward-facing with a harness for children who weigh up to 40 to 80 pounds (depending on the model) or without the harness as a booster (up to 80–100 pounds).
  • Built-in seats — some vehicles come with forward-facing seats built in. Weight and height limits vary. Read your vehicle owner’s manual or contact the manufacturer for details about how to use these seats.
  • Travel vests — these can be worn by children between 20 and 168 pounds and can be an alternative to traditional forward-facing seats. They are useful for when a vehicle has lap-only seat belts in the rear or for children whose weight has exceeded that allowed by car safety seats. These vests may require use of a top tether.
image of child in a forward-facing child seat
Photograph courtesy of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Installation tips for forward-facing seats

Make sure the car safety seat is installed tightly in the vehicle and that the harness fits the child snugly.

To switch a convertible seat from rear-facing to forward-facing
  • Move the shoulder straps to the slots that are at or above your child’s shoulders. On some convertible seats, the top harness slots must be used when facing forward. Check the instructions that came with the seat to be sure.
  • You may have to adjust the recline angle of the seat. Check the instructions to be sure.
  • Make sure the seat belt runs through the forward-facing belt path. When making these changes, always follow the car safety seat instructions.
  • If your vehicle was made after 2002, it should come with the LATCH system, which is used to secure car safety seats. See below for information on using LATCH.

A tether is a strap that attaches to the top of a car safety seat and to an anchor point in your vehicle (see your vehicle owner’s manual to find where the tether anchors are in your vehicle). Tethers give important extra protection by keeping the car safety seat and the child’s head from moving too far forward in a crash or sudden stop. All new cars, minivans and light trucks have been required to have tether anchors since September 2000. New forward-facing car safety seats come with tethers. For older seats, or if your tether is missing, tether kits are available. Check with the car safety seat manufacturer to find out how you can get a tether if your seat does not have one.

School-aged children—booster seats


image of child in a booster seat
Photo courtesy Washington State Booster Seat Coalition

Booster seats are for older children who have outgrown their forward-facing car safety seats. It is best for children to ride in a seat with a harness as long as possible, at least to four years of age. If your child outgrows the seat before reaching age four, consider using a seat with a harness approved for higher weights and heights. A child has outgrown their forward-facing seat when any one of the following is true.
  • He/she reaches the top weight or height allowed for his/her seat with a harness. (These limits are listed on the seat and are included in the instruction booklet.)
  • His/her shoulders are above the top harness slots.
  • His/her ears have reached the top of the seat.

image of child car seat
Photo courtesy of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Booster seats are designed to raise the child up so that the lap and shoulder seat belts fit properly. High-back and backless booster seats are available. They do not come with harness straps, but are used with the lap and shoulder seat belts in your vehicle — the same way an adult rides.

Booster seats should be used until your child can correctly fit in lap and shoulder seat belts. Booster seats typically include a plastic clip or guide to help ensure the correct use of the vehicle lap and shoulder belts. See the instruction booklet that came with the booster seat for directions on how to use the guide or clip.


Installation tips for booster seats

Booster seats must be used with a lap and shoulder belt. When using a booster seat make sure:
  • The lap belt lies low and snug across your child’s upper thighs.
  • The shoulder belt crosses the middle of your child’s chest and shoulder.


Older children—seat belts


image of child using seat belt
Photo courtesy Transport Canada
Seat belts are made for adults. Your child should stay in a booster seat until adult seat belts fit correctly (usually when the child reaches about 4' 9" in height and is between 8 and 12 years of age). This means:
  • The shoulder belt lies across the middle of the chest and shoulder, not the neck or throat.
  • The lap belt is low and snug across the upper thighs, not the belly.
  • Your child is tall enough to sit against the vehicle seat back with his/her knees bent without slouching and can stay in this position comfortably throughout the trip.
Other points to keep in mind when using seat belts include the following.
  • Make sure your child does not tuck the shoulder belt under his/her arm or behind his/her back. This leaves the upper body unprotected, putting your child at risk of severe injury in a crash or with sudden braking.
  • Never allow anyone to "share" seat belts. All passengers must have their own car safety seats or seat belts.



More information

Shopping for car safety seats


When shopping for a car safety seat, keep the following tips in mind.
  • No one seat is the best or safest. The best seat is the one that fits your child’s size, is correctly installed, fits well in your vehicle, and is used properly every time you drive.
  • Do not decide by price alone. A higher price does not mean the seat is safer or easier to use.
  • Avoid used seats if you do not know the seat’s history. Never use a car safety seat that:
    • Is too old. Look on the label for the date it was made. Check with the manufacturer to find out how long it recommends using the seat.
    • Has any visible cracks.
    • Does not have a label with the date of manufacture and model number. Without these, you cannot check to see if the seat has been recalled.
    • Does not come with instructions. You need them to know how to use the seat.
    • Is missing parts. Used car safety seats often come without important parts. Check with the manufacturer to make sure you can get the right parts.
    • Was recalled. You can find out by calling the manufacturer or contacting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Vehicle Safety Hotline at 888-327-4236. You can also visit the NHTSA's Web site at www.odi-nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/problems/recalls/childseat.cfm.
  • Do not use seats that have been in a moderate or severe crash. Seats that were in a minor crash may still be safe to use. The NHTSA considers a crash minor if all of the following are true.
    • The vehicle could be driven away from the crash.
    • The vehicle door closest to the car safety seat was not damaged.
    • No one in the vehicle was injured.
    • The air bags did not go off.
    • You cannot see any damage to the car safety seat.
If you are unsure, call the manufacturer of the seat. See "Manufacturer phone numbers and Web sites" in Car Safety Seats: Product listing for manufacturer contact information.

Installing car safety seats correctly


About front air bags

All new cars come with front air bags. When used with seat belts, air bags work very well to protect teenagers and adults. However, air bags can be very dangerous to children, particularly those riding in rear-facing car safety seats and preschool and young school-aged children who are not properly restrained. If your vehicle has a front passenger air bag, infants in rear-facing seats must ride in the back seat. Even in a relatively low-speed crash, the air bag can inflate, strike the car safety seat, and cause serious brain and neck injury and death.

Vehicles with no back seat or a back seat that is not made for passengers are not the best choice for traveling with small children. However, the air bag can be turned off in some of these vehicles if the front seat is needed for a child passenger. See your vehicle owner’s manual for more information.

About side air bags

Side air bags improve safety for adults in side-impact crashes. Read your vehicle owner’s manual for more information about the air bags in your vehicle. Read your car safety seat manual for guidance on placing the seat next to a side air bag.

LATCH

Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) is an attachment system for car safety seats. Lower anchors can be used instead of the seat belt to install the seat and may be easier to use in some cars. The top tether improves the safety provided by the seat and is important to use for all forward-facing seats.

Vehicles with the LATCH system have anchors located in the back seat. Car safety seats that come with LATCH have attachments that fasten to these anchors. Nearly all passenger vehicles and car safety seats made on or after Sept. 1, 2002, come with LATCH. However, unless both your vehicle and the car safety seat have the lower anchor system, you will still need to use seat belts to install the car safety seat.

If you need installation help

If you have questions or need help installing your car safety seat, find a certified CPS Technician. Lists of certified CPS technicians and child seat fitting stations are available on the NHTSA's Web site at www.nhtsa.gov or www.seatcheck.org. You can also get this information by calling 866/SEATCHECK (866-732-8243) or the NHTSA vehicle safety hotline at 888-327-4236.