If you’re about to hit the road with young kids in tow, listen up. It’s extremely likely that you either have the wrong child safety seat in your car or that your seat is not installed incorrectly. As a matter of fact, nearly three out of every four child seats in U.S. cars show an obvious mistake in selection or installation that could pose a risk to the child’s safety.
Of course, with a barrage of different child seat options, safety regulations and complex installation instructions, it’s no wonder parents often get confused. However, one tiny child seat blunder could result in tragic consequences. So before you strap in your precious cargo and get motoring, take a closer look at that child safety seat.
Here are a few things every parent or caregiver should know about child safety seats:
The right seat
Countless parents make their first child safety seat misstep in the store simply by purchasing the wrong type of seat. Here’s a quick guide on what type of seat you should buy your child:
- Rear-facing seats: Infants should ride in rear-facing child safety seats for as long possible, according to pediatricians and safety experts. You should not switch your child to a forward-facing seat until she is both one year old and weighs 20 pounds or more.
- Forward-facing seats: Once your child has his first birthday and reaches the 20-pound mark, you can switch him to a forward-facing seat. Your child can continue to ride in a forward-facing seat until he grows tall enough that his ears are level with the top of the seatback, his shoulders go beyond the top-most harness slots or he reaches the seat’s weight limit, as specified by the seat’s manufacturer. (Refer to the seat’s manual or look on the back of the seat for the weigh limit.) Forward-facing seats typically have a weight limit of 40 pounds.
- Booster seat: Once your child is too big for a forward-facing seat, you should switch him to a booster seat. (The average child typically moves into a booster seat around the age of four.) According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, your child should continue riding in a booster seat until they are 8 years old or 4’ 9” tall. Here’s another way to test whether your child still needs a booster: if he can bend her knees comfortably at a 90-degree angle when he sits with his spine flat against the seatback, your car’s shoulder belt straps across his chest (as opposed to his throat), and the car lap belt fits across his hips (not his stomach), then he is probably ready to ride without a booster seat.
- Back seat: Once your child is big enough to stop riding in a booster seat, he should ride in the back seat of the car until he is at least 13 years old. Of course, he should wear a lap and shoulder seat belt at all times, as should everyone in the car.
Some states have passed specific child safety seat laws, so make sure you know and abide by the law in your state.
The perfect fit
Another child seat mistake many parents make is the way the harness fits on their child. Experts say many parents do not pull the harnesses snugly enough on the child.
To ensure that your child’s harness fits properly, try the “pinch test.” If you pinch the car seat strap lengthwise and there is a loop of any size between your thumb and forefinger, the harness is not tight enough.
Of course, the biggest challenge with child safety seats is installing them correctly. Because every car and child seat is different and installation manuals are often incredibly confusing, parents are bound to make mistakes when installing their child’s seat.
Luckily, in 2002, the federal government mandated LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children). This system improves child safety by eliminating the need to use seat belts to install a child safety seat in a car, and it also makes the installation process a little easier. Cars with the LATCH system have anchors located in the back seat where child safety seats can easily be fastened. Nearly all vehicles and child safety seats manufactured on or after September 2002 include the LATCH system. However, if you have an older car or child seat, you will still need to use the seat belt to install the seat.
To ensure that your child’s safety seat is installed correctly, find a child safety seat expert in your area. You can find a list of certified CPS (Child Passenger Safety) Technicians and Child Seat Fitting Stations at www.nhatsa.gov or seatcheck.org. You can also call 866-SEAT-CHECK or the NHTSA hotline at 888-327-4236.