Basics of Car-Seat Safety

Find out why car seats are critically important for keeping your children safe.
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Basics of Car-Seat Safety

Although there's a lot to know about the proper use of car seats, the most important things to remember are:

Safety Savvy

To receive free materials on child passenger safety from the National SAFE KIDS Campaign, call 800-441-1888.

  • Never put an infant in the front seat of a vehicle that has a passenger-side airbag.
  • All children 12 and under should sit in a rear seat, which, if there should be a collision, is much safer than the front seat.
  • Never hold your baby in your arms in a moving vehicle.
  • Until they are 1 year old and weigh at least 20 pounds, babies should ride in a rear-facing infant or convertible seat.
  • Children 1 and older and who weigh between 20 and 40 pounds can ride in a forward-facing convertible seat.
  • Children between 40 and 80 pounds (usually 4 to 8 years old), should ride in booster car seats.

The last point is especially important because 95 percent of kids who should be in car boosters aren't. After they've outgrown the safety seat, they still aren't tall enough to be safely restrained merely by the car's seat belts.

Watch Out!

If you have a crash, replace your child safety seat with a new one even if you can't see any obvious damage. The stresses on the seat's parts could have caused structural weaknesses. This is why you should steer clear of seats sold at yard sales unless you know and trust the seller.

Buying a Safe Car Seat

Plan on spending some serious shopping time, because there are many decisions to make and a lot of choices available. After you've determined what type of seat your child needs, you'll find within that category models with a variety of features. From a safety standpoint, the three most important questions to consider are:

  • Does it fit your child?
  • Do you find it easy enough to use that you'll do so every time?
  • Does it fit your vehicle?

All seats sold today should carry labels certifying they meet or exceed Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213. Those made before January 1, 1981, do not meet this standard and should not be used. You can call the NHTSA auto safety hotline (800-424-9393) or check the Web site to see if your used seat has been recalled.

Infant-Only Seats

These must be used facing the rear of the car (as opposed to convertible seats, which can be turned to the forward position when the baby reaches the right height and age).

Infant-only seats are for babies up to 1 year of age and generally up to 20 pounds. (A few models accommodate 22-pound babies.) Both criteria must be met before the baby can be switched to a forward-facing convertible seat. The American Academy of Pediatrics says it's especially important for a baby to reach her first birthday before the position switch, because younger babies run the risk of neck and spinal injuries in the forward, more upright position.

Watch Out!

Infant-only car seats can double as infant seats in the home, but the reverse is not true. Never use anything to restrain a baby in a car other than a certified child safety seat.

Some infants become too tall for their infant seats before they reach the weight limit. The baby's head should be no more than one inch above the top of the seat.

Infant-only seats are light and portable and provide a better fit for a newborn than a convertible seat. Many come with handles made so you can carry your baby around when she's not in the car. Some infant seats have detachable bases that stay in the vehicle for easy installation. A few models can be converted to strollers.

The downside to an infant-only seat is that you can use it only for a year; then you have to buy a bigger car seat.