How to Choose A Child Safety Seat

Buying a child safety seat can be a bewildering experience. The sheer number and configuration of these seats, lined up for inspection along the aisles of baby and toy stores everywhere, are enough to make the average buyer wonder where to begin. It seems natural to turn to shoppers nearby to inquire if they know more than you do about the advantages of one seat over another. As you stare at the vast array of child safety seats, you realize you must learn a whole new vocabulary before you can select the chair which best suits your child: child safety seat, infant-only child safety seat, convertible safety seat, rear facing seat, forward facing toddler seat, booster seat, special car bed for preemies, and five point harness, to list only a few.

Where do you begin? The goal is the same for every buyer. You want to find an affordable safety seat that fits and protects your child and that you can install properly in your motor vehicle. This can be a tall order because you face so many variables: your child's age, your child's height and weight, your child's shoulder height, and the location of harness slots on the chair, to give a few examples. The truth is you can't just walk into a store and buy an appropriate child safety seat without educating yourself in advance. Your state probably has child restraint device laws you must be familiar with and obey as well.

What basic steps should you take in selecting a child safety seat? First, make sure that any seat you buy carries a label stating that it meets federal motor vehicle safety standards. Second, consider your child's age and weight and compare it to the car seat's weight and age limit.

A child from birth to at least 1 year of age (and weighing at least 20 pounds) should be placed in a rear facing seat in the back seat of a vehicle.

Older toddlers from age 1 (and weighing 20 pounds or more) to age 4 (and 40 pounds) should sit in forward-facing toddler seats, also located in the back seat.

From age 4 to age 8, children must be seated in booster seats in the back of a vehicle. If a child is 8 years old or taller than 4'9" (check your state law to see if this height exception applies), he or she may use ordinary safety belts.

Always remember. You can buy the best child safety seat on the market today, but if you don't properly place and secure your child in the seat, and you don't install the seat itself correctly, your child will not be safe.

What are some do's and don'ts of child restraint and safety seat installation?

Do's for Baby

  • Do read and follow the instructions that come with your child safety seat. Also carefully review the vehicle owner's manual. It will contain important information regarding the installation of child safety restraints in your make and model vehicle.
  • Do dress the baby in pants or loose clothing so that his or her legs are free. Otherwise, it will be difficult to secure the crotch harness strap. Place blankets and other coverings over the baby only after you have fastened all baby seat buckles and have tightened all harness straps.
  • Do ensure the baby sits in a semi-reclined position in the safety seat. This helps baby's breathing. Ordinarily, you can adjust the base of the seat for this purpose. If you can't adjust your baby's safety seat, try putting a rolled towel under the front end of the baby's seat where the motor vehicle's seat and seat back join. Be warned. This is a delicate adjustment. Your baby could be ejected from the seat in the event of an accident or sudden stop if you tip the seat too far backwards.
  • Do take time to ensure the harness straps fit snugly and lie flat on the baby's shoulders, not on his arms. In an accident or near accident, a baby can be thrown out of his seat if the harness is loose.
  • Do use the lowest harness slot for a newborn and make sure the straps in the slots rest at or below the baby's shoulders.
  • Do check the location of the plastic harness retainer clip. Position it at the level of the baby's armpits so the harness straps will fall properly across the shoulders.
  • Do make sure the vehicle's seat belt is properly attached to the child safety seat and holds it securely and snugly in place inside your vehicle, if your vehicle does not have a LATCH child safety seat installation system. Under these circumstances, you should thread the vehicle's seat belt through a convertible child seat's seat belt path or slots designed to hold the belt. These slots are usually located in a lower position than the slots used to secure older toddlers.

Don'ts for Baby

  • Don't place thick padding under or behind a baby. He won't be as tightly restrained as he should be to travel safely.
  • If you need to support a baby, fill any empty spaces around his head and shoulders with rolled baby blankets. Rolled cloth diapers or small blankets can be placed between the baby's legs and behind the crotch strap.
  • Don't use a seat with a padded overhead shield/bar that drops down in front of baby. You may think the shield/bar is an extra safety feature. In actuality, it can injure your child if your baby's head or body strikes the shield/bar during a crash or sudden stop.

Do's for Toddlers and Pre-schoolers 1 to 4 years old:

  • Do read and follow the instructions enclosed with your child safety seat. In addition, read your vehicle owner's manual. It should contain important information regarding the installation of child safety restraints in your make and model vehicle.
  • Do keep your child in a full harness as long as you can beyond age 4. The harness protects his upper body and keeps him secure in his seat. Do use the appropriate (usually the top-most) slots for the harness straps when your child is at least one year old, weighs over 20 pounds, and starts riding in the forward facing position in a convertible seat. Comply with the manufacturer's instructions about placement of the harness straps.
  • Do check the placement of the harness retainer clips. They should be at armpit level.
  • Do make sure the vehicle's seat belt is properly attached to the child safety seat, if the vehicle does not have a LATCH child safety seat installation system. When using a seat belt, you must thread the vehicle's seat belt through a convertible child seat's correct seat belt path or slot. This may be a different slot from the one you used when your child was a baby and his convertible seat faced backwards.

Child Restraint Systems for children 4 to 8 years old:

When children are about age 4 and/or over 40 pounds they may graduate to booster seats. There are two types of booster seats appropriate for this age group: high-back belt-positioning booster seats and no-back belt- positioning booster seats. Both seats raise the child to a level where the vehicle's own lap/shoulder belt will fit properly across his thighs and shoulders. If the lap/shoulder belt does not cross the child's body in the proper locations, the child may suffer a severe crush injury to the abdomen in the event of an accident. This is one of the reasons you want to use a booster seat. After all, a vehicle's lap/shoulder belts are designed to restrain adults, not children.

Read and follow the installation instructions accompanying your child's booster seat. Your owner's manual will explain how to install the booster seat in your make and model vehicle. LATCH systems are not required for booster seats.

If you bought a combination child seat/booster for your child when he was younger, you may be able to convert this seat for use when he becomes older. Remove the harness and secure both the child and the seat itself with the vehicle's lap and shoulder belt. If you have a high-back belt positioning booster seat designed only for an older child, always use it with both lap and shoulder belt, not just the lap belt. If the child's torso is not restrained by a shoulder belt and he is thrown forward in a collision, the lap belt may strike his abdomen and damage his spinal cord. For this reason, you should always avoid putting a small child in the middle seat of a vehicle where there is no shoulder restraint. In addition, the no-back belt-positioning booster seat must always be used with a lap/shoulder belt in a vehicle with built-in head rests.

Register your new seat using the registration form supplied by the manufacturer. This way you will be notified in the event of a recall.

Installation of child safety seats in your vehicle

LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) is a child safety seat installation system used to connect and firmly secure the child safety seat to the motor vehicle. Seat belts are not used with the LATCH system. Instead, built into the child safety seat are (1) two attachments in the lower part of the seat and (2) a tether connected to the top of the seat. These features are designed to connect with anchors and a top tether which are built into the vehicle's back seat. This system has been required on most child safety seats and motor vehicles manufactured since September 1, 2002. Booster seats, car beds, and vests are not subject to the LATCH requirements.

Read and follow carefully the LATCH related instructions enclosed with your car safety seat as well as the LATCH installation instructions in your vehicle manual. On its website, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has a page which describes Transportation Safety Tips for Children. Look at the news tip article titled "Is the Child Safety Seat Secure in the Vehicle?" for more information.

If you have an older child safety seat which is not equipped with LATCH, you must install the seat using a vehicle seat belt regardless whether the vehicle itself is equipped with LATCH. Make sure the belt is pulled taut through the child seat's belt path. If you leave a seat belt slack or loose, your child can be injured.

If you are uncertain whether or not your child's safety seat is properly installed in your vehicle, visit a child safety seat inspection station and have it checked. Call 1-866-SEAT-CHECK or go to http://www.seatcheck.org for a list of stations near you.

Look to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration's website, www.nhtsa.dot.gov, for comprehensive guidance regarding child safety seats. There you will find general information and related research concerning child safety restraints. The site contains many illustrations and diagrams that will help you in the selection of a child restraint system as well as the proper use and installation of child safety seats. Of special interest are the following subject items: Child Restraint Recalls by Manufacturer;

NHTSA Dictionary of Child Safety Seat Terms; Child Safety Seat Inspection Locator; Chart on Correct Usage of Child Seats; Consumer Information & Services; and LATCH Child Restraint System.

Most, if not all states, have enacted laws regulating the use of child safety restraints. You must abide by these statutes. In Virginia, Virginia Code Sections 46.2-1095 through 1100 describe child restraint devices motorists must use when traveling on Virginia highways. Since 2007, under Virginia law, children up to age 8 must be properly secured in a child restraint device that meets U.S. Department of Transportation standards.

Virginia law codifies other common safety rules. Virginia drivers must place rear-facing child restraint devices in the back seat because babies may be injured when an airbag deploys during an accident. In the event a vehicle has no back seat, a driver may place the child safety seat in the front passenger seat, but only if the vehicle is not equipped with a passenger side airbag or the driver has deactivated the airbag.

The Virginia General Assembly has carved out a few exceptions to the law. See, Va. Code § 1100. A child between the ages of 4 and 8 may use a seat belt which is standard equipment on an automobile if the child is a least 4 years old, and the driver who transports the child carries with him a statement written and signed by a physician identifying the child and explaining why the use of a child restraint system is impractical because of the child's weight, physical fitness or other medical reason. Virginia law describes no specific weight exceptions or restrictions (described in number of pounds) regarding the use of child safety seats. Presumably, if a child's substantial weight makes a child restraint system impractical for that child, a doctor's opinion and statement may exempt the child from application of the law.

Some basic rules apply to all motorists traveling with children of any age.

  • Never allow children to sit unrestrained in the cargo area of a pickup truck, van, or station wagon. Of course, the same rule applies to adults as well. And maybe even your dog! Unrestrained drivers and passengers are much more likely to be ejected from a vehicle during a major accident than people who are properly restrained.
  • Children up to the age of 12 should ride in the back seat of a vehicle secured by a restraint appropriate for their age and size.
  • It is always dangerous to travel in a moving vehicle while holding a child in your lap. You are likely to lose hold of the child during an accident or sudden stop, and the child may be thrown around in the vehicle or ejected.
  • Never restrain two children in one safety belt. Placing one seat belt around both you and a child is also dangerous. The force of an adult body moving forward against the seat belt during a crash can crush the child caught in between.
  • Before turning the key in your ignition, make certain that every adult in your vehicle is properly belted and every child is restrained in a child safety seat, booster seat, or safety belt that is appropriate for his or her age and weight.

Over the past few decades, the federal government has strengthened its safety standards for the design, manufacture, and use of child safety seats and has encouraged development of the LATCH system. It is now up to parents to familiarize themselves with the safety features of these devices, ensure the child safety seats are properly installed in their vehicles, and, finally, make certain their children sit securely fastened in the seats. All of this takes time and patience. But your children are worth it!

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