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The car seat is an essential piece of child safety equipment. Find out everything you need to know about car safety seats for your child.
The lowdown on car safety seats
If you plan to take your baby home from the hospital in a car, you'll need a car seat from day one. All 50 states have laws requiring your child to be properly restrained in a car seat, usually until he's at least 7 years old. Also, most states now require children to ride in booster seats until they weigh 60 pounds or more, or are a certain age or height.
If you need more convincing, consider these sobering statistics: In 2014, 167,000 children were injured in auto accidents and more than 1,000 died.
In fact, car crash injuries are a leading cause of death for children under age 9 in the United States. The reason? Many children aren't properly restrained. Proper use of car seats could prevent deaths of many children.
And while you may assume that most of these tragedies resulted from fiery, high-speed collisions, the truth is that 75 percent of car accidents happen on local roads or undivided highways, and half of the accidents involving children happen on streets where the speed limit is 44 mph or less.
So this is one piece of baby gear you'll want to buy long before your water breaks. In fact, it's a good idea to start shopping for a car seat around your sixth to eighth month of pregnancy. That should give you plenty of time to select the right seat.
Choosing a safety seat
All car seats currently on the market meet the U.S. government's stringent crash- and fire-safety standards, so any car seat you buy new is technically safe. (The same isn't true for secondhand car seats or car seats purchased more than a few years ago, which may have been designed to meet outdated standards or may have been damaged in an accident or recalled for safety violations.)
But even if a car seat itself meets the federal government's standards, it can still present safety problems if it's installed or used incorrectly. The safest car seat, therefore, is the one that best fits your child and your car and is easiest for you to use.
There are three basic types of car seats to choose from:
- Baby (or infant-only) car seats: These should always face the rear of the car. They have a weight limit of between 22 and 35 pounds. When your baby reaches the weight or height limits for her infant seat, move her to a rear-facing convertible car seat.
- Convertible (or infant-toddler) car seats: These function as both rear-facing seats for babies and toddlers and forward-facing seats for older children. Many new ones are designed to hold a child of up to 40 pounds rear-facing and up to 70 pounds forward-facing. It's safest to leave your child rear-facing as long as possible – in fact, the latest guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) say to keep your child in a rear-facing car seat until he reaches the seat's maximum rear-facing height and weight limits, usually around the age of 4. Once you turn your child forward-facing, the AAP also recommends keeping them in this position until they exceed the height and weight limits (usually 60 pounds or more).
- Belt-positioning booster seats: Once your child outgrows the convertible seat, you can use a belt-positioning booster seat. Use the regular car lap and shoulder belts to secure your child when she's sitting on the booster. Backless boosters are fine as long as the automobile seat provides head support.
To get more details about choosing a car seat, read our articles about infant-only seats, infant-toddler (convertible) seats, and booster seats. Or talk to other parents about in the our site Community.
You'll also find great information in the American Academy of Pediatrics' Family Shopping Guide to Car Seats and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's coverage of child passenger safety.
Correct installation is the key
Installing a car seat correctly can be harder than it sounds. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the most common mistakes people make with car seats include threading seat belts through the wrong slots, not using a locking clip when one is required, failing to buckle in the child, and installing the seat too loosely.
A correctly installed seat will not be able to be moved more than an inch forward or to either side. The NHTSA reports that 3 out of 4 car seats are installed or used incorrectly.
LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) is a standardized system for car seat installation that stabilizes the seat and reduces the potential for head injury. The LATCH system makes using your car seat easier since it allows you to install it without having to use your car's seat belts.
- All cars manufactured after 2002 are required to have two lower anchors in the backseat at the intersection of the seat back and cushion and several anchors at the top of the car's seat.
- All child safety seats manufactured after 2002 are required to have tethers or hooks that connect to the car's anchors.
- Front-facing infant and toddler seats must also have a top tether that secures the seat to a top anchor in the car.
- Booster seats sometimes have LATCH attachments underneath the seat, but LATCH isn't required since boosters are designed to be used with lap and shoulder belts.
For more details, read our article on installing a car seat.