My friend Emma is a Child Passenger Safety Technician which is fancy-talk for saying that she is certified in installing car seats correctly and safely into vehicles. In our circle of friends she's known as the Car Seat Goddess. What this means in application is that she is approached, a lot, with car seat questions.
Car seat safety has become something Emma is passionate about and her passion is pretty contagious because I am now pretty obsessed with it myself. Whenever I observe someone putting their baby into a car seat, I review the lessons Emma has taught me and make sure they're doing it as safely as possible (and if they aren't I'm not shy about (tactfully) speaking up a bit - hey this stuff can save a life!). And needless to say, anytime I strap Henry into a seat I review the list as well.
So with all of the preamble said, here is that magical, informative and comprehensive post: The Car Seat Blog!
Key: I am RL and we will refer to Emma as CSG (for either Car Seat Goddess or Car Seat Guru, take your pick)
Rhian Lockard: So what is the most important thing people should know when it comes to choosing a car seat?
Car Seat Goddess: The most important part of choosing a car seat is choosing one that fits the child properly, and that the parent can install correctly and buckle the child correctly into EVERY time.
RL: Tell me more about installation. If you could only give one piece of installation advice what would it be?
CSG: Make sure to thoroughly read the car seat owner's manual AND the vehicle owner's manual! Different cars and different car seats all have different rules!
RL: So there might be specific things to know about installing a car seat in your vehicle that you wouldn't find in just the car seat manual?
CSG: Yes. That's why it's important to consult both manuals.
RL: What is the LATCH system? Do all cars have it?
CSG: LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren, and refers to the metal hooks in the crevice of the seat (lower anchors) and anchors behind the seat (top tether). All cars manufacturered after September 2002 are required to be equipped with LATCH. Some vehicles as early as 2000 have LATCH, it just wasn't required until 2002.
RL: Is LATCH better than just using a seatbelt to install the seat?
CSG: No, LATCH and a seat belt are equally safe. LATCH is sometimes easier to use, but one is not safer than the other. LATCH also carries a weight limit - depending on the vehicle, when the child reaches somewhere between 40-50 pounds LATCH can no longer be used and you must switch to the seat belt.
It's also important to note that many vehicles do not allow LATCH to be used in the center seating position. It's a very common mistake parents make by installing a seat with LATCH in the center of a lot of sedans and small SUVs. Check your vehicle owner's manual to determine if your car has LATCH in all seating positions
RL: How do I know if my car seat is tight enough?
CSG: The car seat should move less than an inch at the belt path (where the seat belt or LATCH strap runs through the car seat)
RL: How do I know if my child's straps are tight enough?
CSG: Pinch the harness straps vertically at the collarbone, if you can grab any material, they are too loose and the straps should be tightened.
RL: What is the chest clip for?
CSG: The chest clip is designed to keep the straps even and parallel over the body. To do so, it is important that it is positioned at the child's armpit level. If the chest clip is too low, the child can be ejected from the seat in a crash. Always line the chest clip up with your child's armpits.
RL: Okay so I've taken your advice, I've read my manuals and have put my seat into my car. But how do i know if my car seat is installed correctly?
CSG: The best option is to go through a seat check with a Child Passenger Safety Technician like me! You can find someone in your area here: http://www.nhtsa.gov/cps/cpsfitting/Index.cfm
RL: Recently the rules have changed about keeping a child rear-facing. What is the new rule? How long should a child stay in a rear-facing car seat?
CSG: Kids should be in a rear-facing car seat from birth until they max out the limits of a convertible car seat. The AAP and NHTSA recommendations are that kids stay rear facing at least until age two, however most convertible seats on the market will allow a child to easily stay rear facing even longer than that, with 35-45 pound weight limits to accomodate toddlers and preschoolers.
RL: So you're saying that even if the child is 2 years old but hasn't met the weight-limit that they should still stay rear-facing?
CSG: Remaining rear-facing is safest until the child is at the maxium weight limit in a convertable car seat.
RL: These are the new recommended guidelines but are they the laws?
CSG: The law in most states is that kids are allowed to be forward facing when they are one year and twenty pounds, however the law is not the best practice safest option. 1 and 2 year olds are FIVE times more likely to be killed in a crash if they are in a forward facing position than if they are in a rear facing position. Toddlers still have a very immature neck and spine, and in a forward facing position their neck and spine take all the force of an impact in an accident which often results in seperation of the spine and death. Keeping your child rear-facing allows all that force to be absorbed by the seat rather than their neck and spine. Wouldn't you want the seat to absorb that impact and not your kid? Whether the law says so or not?
RL: Wow. That's so scary. So why don't all parents keep their kids rear-facing all the time? I don't get why anyone would be resistant to keeping a child rear-facing while it's the safer option.
CSG: It's because they aren't knowledgable about the risk and they let smaller inconveniences dictate when they turn the seat around. For example: the biggest concern I hear from parents about keeping their child rear-facing are the child's legs. This is because as kids get older there isn't much leg room in a rear facing seat, and most kids prop their legs on the vehicle seat back or cross them.
The child's legs really shouldn't be a concern though and I'll tell you why: as far as comfort goes - most of the time it's actually more comfortable for a child's legs in a rear-facing seat because they have someplace to rest them rather than dangling them from a forward facing seat. Also, just think for a second of all the weird positions kids sit in at home on the couch - our perception of discomfort is very different from theirs - they are way more flexible than us! And in terms of safety - there are very few instances of leg injuries to rear-facing children after a crash. The way that force is applied in a crash, it just isn't in the direction that would cause a leg injury to a rear facing child. And it's easy to fix a broken leg - not so easy to fix a broken neck.
RL: Good point.
CSG: I mean, I understand where parents are coming from but keeping a child rear-facing makes such a huge difference that it is entirely worth a little bit of annoyance. Is it a little bit more inconvenient to put a 2 or 3 year old into a rear facing seat? Absolutely. But parenting isn't about convenience! It's not exactly convenient to wake up in the middle of the night to feed an infant, or sit down in a restaurant and try to eat a meal with a toddler. Parenting isn't about doing what's easiest; it's about making the best possible choices for the safety and well-being of your kids. And I'll take a few minutes of inconvenience every day over losing a child in an accident every single time.
RL: I've heard people say there should be "no projectiles" around or near your child in a car seat, what does this mean?
CSG: In the force of a crash, things go flying! If you hand something to your kid in the backseat, that item will become a projectile in a crash. It's a good rule of thumb that if you wouldn't want it flying at you at 50 mph, secure it somewhere or leave it home. Stick to soft toys and paperback books to keep kids entertained, think carefully about heavy toys with batteries and lights, etc.
RL: Is it safe for a child to wear coats and be in a car seat? What about those Bundle Me things?
CSG: I'm glad you asked this because this is one of the biggest mistakes parents make. In short, the answer to your question is: No. It is not safe for a child to wear a coat or to have on a Bundle Me on their seat. Anything thick like a bundleme or a coat that goes behind the straps (regardless of whether it's behind the child or directly between the child and the straps) will compress instantly in a crash. That means there is extra distance that the child's body will travel in a crash and extra force will be applied to their neck and spine.
Babies are also susceptible to overheating easily, and those bundles can easily overheat an infant. It is far better to stick with a blanket placed over the child once they are already strapped in. Or choose an infant seat that comes with a cold weather boot that keeps the child covered when outdoors.
When you are transporting a toddler or older baby in the winter, have him or her wear their coat to the car, get into their seat and then strap them in safely and cover them with a blanket. They can put their coat on again when they get unstrapped. Again, is it slightly less convenient? Yes. But can it save their life or a lifetime of disability? Yes. Definitely worth it.
RL: Okay so no projectiles and no coats. What about toys hanging from the bar on an infant seat?
CSG: Some seat manufactures require the handle to be down, so those are absolutely out. And some manufactures prohibit attaching anything to the bar. It's another thing that could be a projectile, so if you must attach something and the manufactuer allows it, stick with something soft and short enough that the child can't be hit with it.
RL: I see a lot of car seats for sale on craigslist or at yard sales. You've told me that it's not safe to buy those in the event that they could be expired. Why do car seats expire? How long are they good for?
CSG: Most seats expire somewhere between 6-8 years from the date they were manufactured. You can find the specifics either stamped on the seat somewhere or in the instruction manual. Car seats are made out of plastic, and that plastic degrades over time and can become brittle. Often in crash tests, expired seats crack and break and the harness rips through, ejecting the child from the seat.
RL: In the event that I am in a car accident, do i have to replace my car seat? What about the base? What if the accident is really minor?
CSG: Most car seat manufactures state that the car seat needs to be replaced after ANY accident. A few allow the seat to continue to be used if the crash meets very specific requirements of a minor crash. All parts of the seat that were in the crashed vehicle need to be replaced, and insurance will almost always cover seat replacement as part of the claim.
RL: Kids are messy as you know so the car seat gets pretty messy too. I'm afraid of "messing it up" somehow though if I clean it so can you give me some advice on that? How often should I clean the car seat? Is there a good way to do it?
CSG: Sure! Most covers can be removed fairly easy and machine washed on gentle, and then air dried. Don't put a cover in the drier to avoid shrinkage that may interfere with the harness straps. Harness straps should be spot cleaned with a damp cloth only, don't use any kind of cleaner or submerge them in water as it can interfere with the strength of the straps and may interfere with their performance in a crash.
RL: Thanks! So let's talk about the position of the seat in the car. Is it better to have a car seat in the center seat or behind the driver or behind the passenger? Basically, where is the best spot to put the car seat?
CSG: If the center seat is available, it is statistically the safest, as it will likely have the furthest proximity from any impact. It is completely acceptable to put a car seat behind the passenger or driver, as long as it is installed correctly. Proper installation and proper use are the most important factor, seat position is just icing on the cake!
RL: Okay, so what about older kids, how do they fit into this? When my child passes the weigh limit on a convertible seat, what do we move to next?
CSG: A rear facing convertible seat is outgrown when the child's head is within one inch of the top of the shell or when they have reached the weight limit.A forward facing convertible seat is outgrown when the top of the child's ears are over the top of the shell, their shoulders are over the top harness slot, or they have reached the weight limit.
If the child has outgrown the seat rear facing, hopefully they are somewhere between 2-4 years old, and it is acceptable to turn them forward facing in the convertible seat, however rear facing as long as possible is preferred if another seat is available that would allow more rear facing time.
If the child has outgrown the convertible seat forward facing, the next step is a belt positioning booster that properly positions the adult seat belt over a child. There are two very important factors to consider when moving to a booster seat: the child's physical size and the child's maturity level. They need to be physically large enough that when sitting in the booster, the lap belt is low on the hips/high on the thighs, and the shoulder belt is across the collarbone and not cutting into the neck. Typically 40 pounds is the minimum. The child also needs to be mature enough that they can sit in the seat for the entire ride without leaning out of the seat, moving the seat belt, unbuckling, bothering their siblings, etc. The proper level of maturity isn't there with most kids until 5 or 6, so if they have outgrown their convertible seat before they are ready for a booster, there are many forward facing seats that will keep an older child harnessed long enough to achieve both the physical and behavioral maturity.
RL: What comes after that? What criteria does my child need to meet in order to sit in the front seat?
CSG: Well, a lot of kids won't like this but again, this is about safety and longevity of life. In order to safely sit in the front a child has to be at least 13 years old. Yep. 13 years old. This is truly about safety here. Airbags deploy at an alarming rate of speed, and by 13 the child has entered puberty and their skeletal system has strengthened considerably compared to pre-teens so they are able to withstand the force of an airbag. You don't want to be in the awful situtation of having a child survive a crash only to be permanently disabled because of the airbag. 13 years old is safest.
RL: Okay so no front seat until the age of 13 but what about getting out of the booster seat and sitting in the back? When can that happen?
CSG: Kids need to pass the five step test, and while most states only require a booster until 6 or 8 years old, most children are much older (9-11) before they are large enough to actually be out of the booster seat. Here's the test:
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?
they need to meet all of those criteria before being safe to sit on the seat without the booster.
RL: Okay and here's my last question: why are some car seats more expensive than others, does that mean they're safer?
CSG: All car seats meet the same federal standards for crash performance, and any car seat will protect your child in a crash if it is used properly. Some of the more expensive car seats have nicer features that make it easier for the parents to use, which is the most important factor of all. There are some great, very easy to use $50 and $100 car seats, and there are also some $300 seats that are a huge pain in the neck. So the most important factor is making sure it fits your child, fits your car, and you understand how it works!
RL: Thanks so much for doing this with me, Car Seat Goddess Emma! I really hope we're able to make a difference and help other parents install their seats correctly.
CSG: Me too, you'd be amazed how much of a difference it makes to have your child in the seat safely and correctly. You can literally safe the life of your baby this way.