Infant seats. Convertible seats. Front-facing. Rear-facing. With so many options, choosing a car seat can be a daunting experience. What are the car seat guidelines for your child? Three certified experts weigh in to help you find just the right seat for now and for what you’ll need as your child grows!
Car Seat Guidelines From Birth to 2 Years: Rear-Facing Car Seat
When looking for car seat recommendations, know that there are different kinds of rear-facing car seats: infant-only seats, and convertible or all-in-one seats, which often have higher weight and height limits. But no matter which type you choose, be sure to keep your baby or toddler rear-facing for as long as possible. “Rear-facing is five times safer because the child’s head, neck and back are all being supported during a crash,” says Amie Durocher, a certified child passenger safety tech since 2004 and the creative director at Safe Ride 4 Kids.
What if your little one meets only part of the guideline — tall but skinny, big but young? The American Academy of Pediatrics changed its guidelines in 2011 to recommend keeping a child rear-facing up to age 2. If your child outgrows his infant seat before age 1, there are ways to keep him rear-facing longer.
“Fortunately, these days, there are many convertible or 3-in-1 car seats that will accommodate larger children,” says Allana Pinkerton, a child passenger safety technician at car seat manufacturer Diono. “This means that a ‘linebacker’ 1-year-old can remain rear-facing up to the maximum height and weight of the car seat.” This usually means around 40 to 50 pounds, and up to 44 to 49 inches tall, depending on the make and model. “Legs bending or pushing on vehicle seats is not a safety concern or a reason to turn forward facing,” Durocher says.
If your infant arrives early, how do you safely accommodate a premature baby in a car seat? “Many infant car seats start at four pounds, and have support cushions to help the baby fit properly in the harness,” Pinkerton says. “Installation of the actual car seat remains the same whether a child is premature or full-term.” Before installing a car seat, keep in mind the government guidelines from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as well as checking your seat’s manual and/or its label for weight and height limits.
Car Seat Guidelines From 2 Years to At Least 5 Years: Forward-Facing Car Seat
Keep your child in a rear-facing car seat until he or she reaches the top height or weight limit allowed by the seat’s manufacturer. “Once your child outgrows the rear-facing car seat, your child is ready to travel in a forward-facing car seat with a harness and tether,” says Grainne Kelly, a child passenger safety technician and the founder of the BubbleBum booster seat company.
“Forward-facing is for toddlers from the time they grow out of the rear-facing seat until they grow into a belt positioning device,” says Durocher. “Harness straps should be at or above the shoulders for forward-facing children.” When children outgrow rear-facing seats, they should be buckled into a forward-facing car seat until at least age 5, or when they reach the upper weight or height limit of their particular seat.
Keep your child in a forward-facing car seat with a harness and tether until he or she reaches the top height or weight limit allowed by your seat’s manufacturer. Kelly says, “Once your child outgrows the forward-facing car seat with a harness, it’s time to travel in a booster seat, but still in the back seat.”
Don’t Rush It
Although your son or daughter is growing every day, it’s important not to rush into the next seat too soon. According to Kelly, moving to the next stage too early could compromise your child’s safety. If you’re driving with a child, every state requires that parents and caregivers always use safety seats. How long they must be in a safety seat varies by location, but most states say that, by law, you need to protect kids with a car seat until at least age 5.
And read about Car Seat Expiration Dates.
Nancy J Price is an Arizona-based mother of four, as well as a writer, editor and web developer. One of the original co-founders of SheKnows.com, she now writes for several websites, including Myria and ClickAmericana.