In this post, I'm refering solely to 5 point harnessed seats .. I don't think others like a 3 point harness, t-shield or tray shields are made anymore and if you own one of these check to see if it's expired before using it. Also .. I'm not an expert by any means .. just a mom that's gone though this whole self education process and hopes to share what I can. I'll include some links to the experts though ;)
A few basics for all seat-riders:
- Car seats expire. Just like milk and yogurt. All seats are stamped with a date on the bottom that has the date of manufacture and the date it expires. Most seats have a life of 6 years .. check your seat to be sure. The reason for this is the plastic deteriorates over time and becomes less effective at preventing injury.
- Use extreme caution when using a used seat! Things like collisions, dropping the seat on a hard surface, storing in a garage in extreme heat or cold can effect the stability of the plastic and render it unsafe. This damage is often undetectable to the eye. I would never buy or accept a used seat from anyone I didn't know or trust with my child's life. Period.
- There must be at least 1 inch of hard plastic "shell" between the top of the child's head and the top of the seat. There are more specifics for different types of seats, boosters for instance, have a different set of guidelines .. but the one inch rule works well!
- For Rear Facing kids, the shoulder straps of the harness must positioned at or below the shoulder of the child. Forward Facing riders need the harness to be positioned at or above the shoulder of the child.
- Heavy coats and snowsuits should not be worn while buckled up! The bulkiness of the materials cause the harness to not be as tight as possible and in an impact the material will compress and the child could slip out of the harness. In the winter we wear a light fleece jacket or sweater and the kids have car blankets or use their heavy jacket as a blanket.
- The chest clip, the little part that clips the shoulder straps of the harness together, should be even with the armpits of the child. Too high and it's way uncomfortable .. too low and the baby could slingshot out the top of the harness in an impact.
- Only use the accessories that come with or are produced by the manufacturer for your car seat. Things like neck supports, toys and liners that aren't made for your seat aren't tested with your seat and can impact the overall safety performance. My general rule is not to add anything between the seatbelt and the harness .. except the kid!
First, the best seat fits your child:
Newborns: Newborns can ride in a rear-facing infant seat (generally rated for use up to 20 or 22 lbs) or in a Convertible seat (rated rear-facing for children up to 30-35 lbs and then used forward facing to around 40 lbs.). While a convertible seat may sound ideal, not all models fit small babies well. Look for seats that have a nice range of adjustments for strap height and at least 2 positions for the crotch strap.
Babies: All babies MUST ride rear facing until the age of 1 and 20 lbs. It's preferable that babies ride rear facing as long as possible to protect the fragile neck and spine. Its been proven that riding foward facing, in a frontal collision the ligaments in baby's neck can streach up to 2 inches, however, the spinal cord can rupture with movement of more than a 1/4 of an inch! Around one year of age, the bones start to harden and are less likely to become injured. Our girls were rear facing until the point where we could no longer get them to sit down rear facing. They were both sitting cross-legged and were uncomfortable .. this was around 20 months for both girls. With Maddy she'd grown to need the top strap adjustment in her seat which was meant for only forward facing, so we made the change then. Most car seat experts recommend keeping kids rear facing as long as possible, within the range of the car seat itself, again most are rated to 30-35 lbs before needing to be turn forward. This doesn't always work for everyone .. I would love to still have 2 kids rear facing but it didn't happen for us.
Children over 1 and up to 40lbs: Again most experts agree that kids should stay rear facing as long as possible .. but it doesn't happen for all of us. I felt horrible turning my kids around before they turned 2 until they got into their seats without complaint and car rides had become a whine free time. That said .. options for toddlers include the convertible seat mentioned above, either rear or foward facing .. before turning the seat around haul out the owners manual and check out the directions for installing and using the seat facing forward. There are some slight differences. Another option for toddlers is the combination harness and booster. As a harnessed seat, this is much like the convertible seat .. near identical in fact, except that is this seat is only forward facing. Most seats are rated between 20 and 40 lbs for the harness .. after 40 lbs the harness is removed and the seat is used as a booster.
Children over 40 lbs: At this point kids have out grown most of the harnessed seats on the market (there are a few that have high weight limits) and are ready for a belt-positioning booster or BPB. These are basically a booster seat that helps position the child so a regular lap/shoulder seat belt fits them properly. Lap/shoulder seat belts that you and I use are designed to fit adults 5' to 6' .. most kids aren't that big! Most BPBs are rated for kids up to 100 lbs and will be the end of the car seat line for your child. There are models for younger children as small as 30lbs with back rests (called highback boosters) and look like a giant carseat without the harness. These are more of a routing device for the lap/shoulder seat belt. There are also the backless models for older kids and a combo of the two called a removable back booster. The biggest concern with the transition of children into a BPB, other than size of the child and fit, is making sure the child is mature enough to handle riding in a seat without a harness. They can not play or move the lap shoulder belt while buckled up so while some 3 year olds are big enough for a booster they may not be mature enough to handle it. Most kids will need some sort of a booster until the age of 10 or 12 depending on the size of the child and car in which they are riding. There's a nice simple 5 step test to see if your child is ready to ride without the booster. This test should be done every time the child is riding in a new car! According to these I probably would have need a booster all though high school!
If you can answer yes to ALL of these questions then your child is ready to be booster free!
The 5-Step Test.1. Does the child sit all the way back against the auto seat?
2. Do the child's knees bend comfortably at the edge of the auto seat?
3. Does the belt cross the shoulder between the neck and arm?
4. Is the lap belt as low as possible, touching the thighs?
5. Can the child stay seated like this for the whole trip?
Part two to come!
Some helpful links:
- SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A - Super reference site for all things related to car seats for kids of all ages. Great resource!
- Car Seat Message Board at iVillage - Great message board filled with wonderfully helpful people that know what they're talking about and are willing to help. This board was great when I first started researching car seats.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Adminstration - Info on lots of government studies and good general guidelines for Child Passenger Safety
- CarSeatData.Org - Another good general car seat info site. Great database for specific carseat and specific car compatibility.