Car Safety Seats: Age Guidelines and Proper Installation

Rear-Facing Seats Are Safer; Help's at Hand for Seat Fit

In an effort to further reduce risks to young passengers, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2011 issued new child safety seat guidelines. The revised guidelines advise parents to keep children in rear-facing seats until they are 2 years old or until they are at the maximum height and weight for the seat, based on manufacturers' instructions.

The academy's previous policy suggested a child could be turned around to a forward-facing seat at 12 months old and 20 pounds.

The academy also said most children will need to ride in a belt-positioning booster seat until they reach 4 feet, 9 inches tall and are between ages 8 and 12. Children should remain in the backseat until they are 13, experts say.

Research on passenger safety triggered the advice. For instance, a 2007 study in the journal Injury Prevention found that children under age 2 are 75 percent less likely to die or be severely injured if they ride in a rear-facing seat. The recommendation to keep children facing the rear while seated until they reach their second birthday is not a hard-and-fast rule, the academy notes. Some children will benefit by staying in the rear-facing seat even longer, while others might outgrow that position earlier.

In addition to recommending that children stay in rear-facing seats as long as possible, NHTSA and other organizations continue reminding parents that for child safety seats to be effective, they must be installed correctly. A 2009 NHTSA study found that this is easier said than done.

What's Your Installation IQ?

According to the study, just 26.9 percent of parents installed a child car seat correctly. This means that three out of four parents could use some help.

Installation is not as complicated as it may seem, says Julie Vallese, a consumer safety expert for Dorel Juvenile Group, a manufacturer of car seats. Vallese also is certified as a child passenger safety technician (CPST). "It only feels like parents need a Ph.D. in car seat-ology in order to get it right," she says.

The first thing about car seats any parent should know, she said, is that "the right car seat for them to use is the one that fits their child and their car — and the one they will use correctly each time."

There are two types of child car safety seat systems. The first is LATCH, which stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. The second is the seatbelt system. In the U.S., you can use either system, Vallese said.

While some experts prefer one over the other, the two systems are generally considered equally effective.

"Both the LATCH system and the seatbelt system work equally well," said Lorrie Walker, the training manager and technical advisor for Safe Kids Worldwide, which certifies child passenger safety technicians. NHTSA agrees.

"LATCH was introduced as a way to make it easier to get it right," Vallese said. But people make mistakes with both systems, she said.

How To Install a Car Seat With the LATCH System

Here is information from NHTSA and Vallese about the way to install a car seat with a separate base and the LATCH system for an infant. For instructional videos for older children, visit NHTSA's site or the Web site of your car seat manufacturer. This car seat installation story with videos from Edmunds also is helpful.

  • For seat location, choose the backseat spot that has a LATCH connection. The middle seat is safest, provided it has LATCH, Vallese said.
  • If you are carrying an infant and a toddler, place the toddler seat in the LATCH-equipped middle seat and place the infant seat in one of the outboard seats, Vallese said. That is considered safest because of how the shell of the infant seat is constructed, she adds.
  • Identify the two anchors in the seat bight (where the seat front and back come together).
  • Pick up the car seat. Attach the straps on the car seat to the anchors.
  • Tighten the belt to secure the base to the car. Test it to be sure it's secure. It should move no more than an inch, side to side or front to back.
  • Position the harness, referring to the car seat manual. Adjust it until snug.
  • Place the chest clip at the child's armpit level.
  • Be sure the seat is rear-facing for an infant, and the seat is at a 35-45-degree angle. This is considered the best angle to prevent "head drop."
  • For older children, you'll use the tether with this system. Visit the NHTSA Web page and click the photo corresponding to your child's age. Then refer to the instructional video.

How To Install a Car Seat With the Seatbelt System

Here are the steps for installing a car seat that uses the seatbelt system for use by an infant, according to NHTSA and Vallese.

  • For one child, choose the middle seat in the backseat.
  • Pull out your seatbelt so it is fully extended. Feed the seatbelt through the belt path and put it into the locking mechanism.
  • Tighten the seatbelt system as far as it will go.
  • It might help at this point to put your weight on the car seat — such as placing your knee on the seat where the child would be sitting and then bearing down. This helps ensure the seat is tightly pressed against the vehicle seat.
  • At the same time, pull the seatbelt to make it as tight and taut as possible.
  • Then do the 1-inch test. The seat should move no more than 1 inch, side to side or back to back, when you try to move it.
  • Next, be sure the harness strap is adjusted correctly. When you're done, the harness should come out of the car seat as close to shoulder level as possible. Once you strap in your child, the harness clip should be at armpit level.
  • For older children, visit the NHTSA Web site and click the photo corresponding to your child's age. Then refer to the instructional video.

Do It Yourself or Hire Someone?

Assistance choices abound. Plenty of help, much of it free, is available to make the installation process easier, to guide parents through it, or simply to check their work.

Whatever route you choose, know that a session with a professional is meant to be instructional. The expert you select is not installing the seat for you. Rather, he or she is teaching you how to do it, so you can reinstall it if need be and know the specifics of safety.

"You not only have to read the car seat instruction book, you have to know your car," says Cindy Crothers, a child passenger safety technician. Take the car owner's manual and the car seat instructions along to the training.

You should seek someone who is certified as a child passenger safety technician. The program is run by NHTSA, the National Child Passenger Safety Board, State Farm and Safe Kids USA. Ask to see the technician's proof of current certification.

If you're a first-time parent, you should have a plan for how you're going to install the car seat (either by yourself or with a professional's help) by about the seventh month of pregnancy, Crothers said. This allows time for you to troubleshoot the installation. If you know you are having twins (or more), push that back to the sixth month, as multiples have a reputation for arriving early.

Among the options for assistance:

Hire a CPST: Some child passenger safety technicians (CPST) are in ''private practice." In general, a training session costs about $50-$150, according to Crothers' estimates. Safe Kids Worldwide, which certifies technicians, offers a locator service on its site. You can search by location, language or special-needs training. The site also lists NHTSA inspection stations. You can go to these inspection stations and have a trained expert there check to be sure you've done the installation correctly.

Get online help: Many manufacturers have installation videos on their Web sites. Once you have the car seat you're going to use, check out the company Web site and you are likely to find a video for your particular car seat model.

Get help in choosing an easy-to-use car seat: As any parent or parent-to-be who's shopped for car seats knows, the choices can be overwhelming. Before choosing a new seat, you may want to check out the Ease of Use ratings for various child seats provided by NHTSA. It has a five-star ease-of-use rating system that will allow parents to evaluate car seat features before making a decision.

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