Photo by Amanda Mills, USCDCP
Anytime we’re talking about safety — especially the safety of babies and children — it’s so, so important to be sure you’re getting your information from a reliable source.
I had a ton of questions about car seat safety because we’re about to transition, and this is one area where I didn’t want to trust random internet sources.
So I interviewed Joe Colella, the Director of Child Passenger Safety for the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association. He was just the nicest guy and spent forever on the phone with me answering every question I could think of so that I could make sure to give you guys the most up-to-date information!
Rear-Facing Infant Seat vs. Convertible Car Seat
Which type of seat should you use, and when?
I think this was the first question I asked Joe because I was trying to figure out when we needed to switch Cricket’s seat. For newborns and babies, you basically have infant seats (rear-facing only) or convertible seats (that can grow and adjust with the child).
What is an infant seat?
An infant car seat can be used from birth through approximately 22-30 pounds or 29-32 inches, depending on the particular model. They’re exclusively rear-facing and typically consist of a base that remains clipped into the car and a detachable seat that you can remove with the baby in it to keep from having to unbuckle a sleeping baby. If you have one that’s part of a travel system, the car seat component clips into a stroller base for a seamless transition from the car to Target or the zoo or nine more laps around the neighborhood…
We started off with the Chico Bravo travel system, and we have absolutely loved it. It’s relatively lightweight and super easy to fold up. We were able to attach a car seat base to both our cars so that either of us could pick Cricket up from daycare after work.
What is a convertible car seat?
A convertible car seat, like an infant seat, can be used from birth. And, like an infant seat, it’s rear-facing at birth. But unlike an infant seat, it grows with your child, switching to front-facing when your child is ready.
When should you switch from an infant seat to a convertible car seat?
Like I said, we’ve loved our infant seat. But now that Lady Baby is getting bigger — she was 19 pounds and 28 inches at her nine-month visit — it’s getting harder for me to pick the car seat up from the middle of the car with her in it. My back is bad news, so I’ve been just unhooking from the seat to pull her out anyway.
I mentioned the limits on infant seats earlier. Here’s a resource that lists capacity on some of the most popular ones.
When I asked Joe about the best time to switch, he said that it really depends on how you’re using the infant seat. Once your baby is so heavy that you’re not snapping the seat in and out anymore, you might as well switch. But you should definitely switch before your baby reaches the weight or height limit for their seat.
What to Look for in a Car Seat
Most modern car seats will have the same safety features. Generally, the more you pay, the more bells and whistles you can expect. Whether you choose an infant seat or a convertible car seat, there are a few things you should look for:
- Five-point harness: Straps go across each side of the chest, across the lap, and between the legs.
- Side-impact protection: Look for foam or air pads that go on either side of the baby’s head.
- LATCH-compatibility: LATCH = Lowers Anchors and Tethers for Children, a system designed to make it easier to correctly install car seats without using seat belts
How long should your child be rear-facing?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all infants ride rear-facing starting with their first ride home from the hospital. All infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing seat until they are at least two years of age or, preferably, until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by their car safety seat manufacturer.
Here’s a great article (with video!!) about the physics of a rear-facing car seat in a crash. If you need any convincing to keep your little one rear-facing as long as possible, this should do the trick.
In a collision, a rear-facing car seat will keep your child’s head, neck, and spine aligned the way they’re meant to be. And it will absorb the forces of the impact equally around the seat, rather than your little one’s tiny body taking all the impact.
Bottom line: Don’t turn a child forward-facing before two years of age.
What is extended rear-facing, and should you do it?
Extended rear-facing is means keeping children rear-facing in their car seats for a minimum of two years, but ideally, until they outgrow the rear-facing limits of their convertible car seat, typically around the age of four or so.
Common Concerns About Extended Rear-Facing
There are lots of reason parents justify switching from rear-facing to front-facing, and ultimately you have to make that decision for your family. But here are a few things to consider:
- They’ll be uncomfortable with their little legs bent like that. Babies and toddlers are insanely flexible. If a child is pushing against the back of the seat, they’re probably just exercising their legs.
- Their legs will break in an accident. Actually, according to Joe, the chance of lower extremity injury in a rear-facing child is less than 1 in 1,000. Leg injury is actually more frequent forward-facing because a child’s legs can hit the back of the front seat in a collision. Plus, leg injuries can be repaired. Head and neck injuries can’t be repaired so easily.
- I need to see them to make sure they’re okay. Children in car seats are in the ultimate contained environment. They can’t get away or get into trouble. So, for a healthy child that doesn’t require any sort of special monitoring, you can trust that they’re safe.
- They’ll be so bored. They’ve been rear-facing for literally their entire lives, so they don’t know any different anyway. It seems boring to us, so of course we assume they’ll be bored. Wouldn’t you rather they be a little bored but so much safer?
Some of the Most Common Car Seat Mistakes
Joe says that more than half — and possibly as many as 80-90% — of parents make car seat errors. Here are some of the most common ones to look out for. But you should have your car seat inspected by a certified inspection site to make sure. I’ve listed a resource at the end of the post so you can get inspected before baby arrives.
- Straps that are too loose: In a rear-facing seat, you want to cinch the harness straps down really tightly. You shouldn’t be able to pinch any strap fabric between your fingers.
- Adding extra accessories: You shouldn’t add anything to the car seat that isn’t approved by the manufacturer of your specific seat. This includes pads that go around the straps or any sort of insert that goes behind the baby. If it didn’t come in the box with the car seat, make sure it’s approved by the manufacturer. I know all the headrests and cushions on Etsy and in the baby stores are adorable, but the car seats are at their safest when we don’t add any of that stuff.
- Chest clip in the wrong spot: The hard plastic clip that goes across the baby’s chest and hooks the two straps together should be across the baby’s nipples and level with their armpits.
- Shoulder harnesses at wrong height: Joe says that for a rear-facing baby, the shoulder straps should be at or slightly below the shoulders — not above them. Again, you want them to be snug enough that you can’t pinch any harness between your fingers. Think of the tightness of bra strap to give you an idea.
- Bulky/thick clothing: Bulky clothing, including winter coats and snowsuits, can compress in a crash and leave the straps too loose to restrain your child, leading to increased risk of injury. Ideally, dress your baby in thinner layers and wrap a coat or blanket around your baby over the buckled harness straps if needed. (source)
- Using an expired car seat: All car seats are marked with an expiration date — typically between 6-12 years from when it was manufactured. This is because car seats keep getting safer, and a car seat that was made to meet standards ten years ago may not meet today’s standards. Plus, being exposed to sun and temperature fluctuation can cause it to deteriorate over time. So don’t take the risk of using an expired seat. Don’t donate it to a thrift shop and risk somebody else using it either. Turn it in at a car seat trade-in event, or toss it if you can’t find one.
- Using a car seat after an accident: Like a bike helmet, a car seat is a one-time protection item. If you’re in a crash, you should replace it immediately. Some manufacturers recommend replacing it even if you’ve been in a minor fender-bender because of potential hairline fractures or unseen damage.
Car Seat Safety Resources
- Car Seat Inspection: Child passenger safety technicians all over the country can help you make sure your seat is installed correctly and that your child is seated correctly, and it’s typically at no charge to you. You should take it in while you’re still pregnant so that you know your baby is as safe as can be on the ride home from the hospital!
- National Highway Transportation Safety Administration Car Seats and Booster Seats
- Baby Safety Zone
- HealthyChildren.org by the American Academy of Pediatrics
- The Car Seat Lady
Leave a comment with any questions, and I’ll see if I know or can find out the answer.
Thanks so much to Joe Colella at JPMA for letting me pick his brain and sharing all this super important information so that we can all keep our little ones as safe as possible in the car!