A child car seat is an important investment in your child’s safety and comfort, and appropriately securing a child in a car is legally required in most countries around the world.
In the United States, the requirements differ from state to state. When buying a new car seat, it is important to review both your local laws as well as recommendations from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), so that you are aware of both what is required and what is recommended for the safety and protection of your child.
What to avoid
Generally speaking, you should avoid child car seats if:
- They do not have a label and instructions that show the date and model number
- That model of car seat has been recalled
- The car seat is more than 6 years old
- It has visible damage or missing parts
- It has been involved in a moderate or severe crash
Car seats have expiration dates, usually 6 years after their manufacture, due to the degradation of materials over time, and also due to a rapidly changing regulatory environment. Like motorcycle helmets, child safety seats are tested for just a single crash. This means that if the car seat has been involved in a crash, the structure and safety may be compromised for further use.
The NHTSA says that a car seat is safe to keep using after a crash if:
- Careful inspection reveals no cracks or deformations on the car seat
- The vehicle involved in the crash was able to be driven from the scene of the accident
- The car door nearest the safety seat was undamaged
- No vehicle occupants were injured
- The airbags did not deploy
Following these guidelines will help you buy a new or used child safety seat, or determine whether your existing seat should be replaced. If you cannot determine the expiration date, recall status, or crash history of a used seat, it is best not to purchase it.
Age-appropriate child safety seats
As your child grows, their changing bodies will require different child safety seats.
Infancy (0-2 years old)
Infants should be placed in a rear-facing child safety seat, secured in the center of the back seat. Studies show that the center position is safer than being placed on either side of the vehicle.
The law generally requires children to remain in rear-facing child safety seats until they are at least one year old and weigh at least 20 pounds. Safety recommendations, however, are to keep the child in a rear-facing seat until they are two years old, or exceed the highest weight recommended for that model car seat (usually 35 pounds).
Babies (2-4 years old)
After 2 years of age or 35 pounds, the child can begin to face forward in the back seat of the car. Many child safety seats are convertible and will make this transition along with your child, but it’s a good idea to check safety recommendations and recall notices again at this time. It’s a natural time to re-evaluate whether you have the right child safety seat for your needs.
Children (4-8 years old)
After your child has grown to exceed the height or weight limitations (usually 40-60 pounds) of their car seat, but are still shorter than 4’9”, it’s good to transition them to a booster seat.
Booster seats allow a child to be positioned in the car and still have the proper protection of conventional shoulder and lap belts. Booster seats should be installed according to the manufacturer’s instructions in the back seat of the vehicle, and then the child can use conventional lap and shoulder belts for safety.
Children (9-12 years old)
While some states require that children under 12 always ride in the back seat, eventually they will outgrow their booster seat and ride as any other passenger. A child no longer requires a booster seat when they are able to sit with their back against the back of the seat, and have their knees bend naturally at the edge of the seat, with no stretching or slouching. At that size, conventional lap and shoulder belts are correctly proportioned to protect them.