Baby Car Seats to Buckling Up: Child Car Safety at Every Age

Happy Family In Car wearing seatbelts

Family road trip | Source: iStock

Keeping yourself safe when hitting the road largely comes down staying alert, wearing your seat belt, and picking the right vehicle. When it comes to kids, things are a lot more complicated. Young children require special gear since they aren’t large enough to safely fit in the seats, and even teens can be tricky.

Because your little ones will go through a lot of mental and physical changes between the time they’re born and the time they get behind the wheel, the rules for car safety also change. This means trying to figure out best practices for your child can be overwhelming, not to mention the added complication of multiple kids at different ages.

Since barring your kids from accompanying you in the car is both unreasonable and impractical, it’s time to do a little bit of studying. We’ve made it easy by breaking down what you need to know for kids at every age. If only broaching the topic of high school dating were this simple.

1. Babies

Father Putting his Baby on Car Seat

Father putting baby in a car seat | Source: iStock

When you bring a baby in the car for the first time, you obviously need to have a car seat. According to The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, rear-facing seats are the only way to go. The story explained that the position helps cradle a baby’s spine and neck in a way that drastically reduces the risk of serious injury in case of an accident. And always keep it in the back seat because deployed airbags can seriously injure or even kill, small children.

Before you buy a seat, make sure you do plenty of research in advance. Quality car seats can be pricey, so used ones are often an appealing option. According to Mayo Clinic, you should never buy one without a full knowledge of its history. Prior crashes may have damaged the seat or it could have been subject to a recall due to a faulty part.

The actual age of the seat also matters. NBC Chicago explained seat materials degrade over time, rendering them unsafe. Some come with an expiration date stamped on them, but others will require you to know the manufacture date and serial number. If you can’t find this information, it’s better to pass on a used seat.

Whether you’re going used or new, you have a lot to consider with car seats. For starters, some use a system called Lower Anchors and Tethers For Children (LATCH), which have been required in all vehicles made after September 2002, while others use a regular seat belt. BabyCenter Blog said both are equally safe when used correctly, so the choice is up to you.

Even if you know your LATCH versus seat belt preference, there are still tons of models to sort through. DMV shared a helpful checklist of what to do when weighing options, including checking a seat’s height and weight restrictions, analyzing the warranty, and going over the instruction manual. And, again, keep a record of the seat’s model, serial number, and manufacture date. Without this information, it’s very difficult to keep track of recalls. Lastly, give the seat a once-over before you install it in your vehicle to make sure there are no signs of cracks or other damage.

Most manuals contain all the information you need to install the seat, but that doesn’t mean they’re always clear. If you’re in any way nervous about installation, get some assistance. You can always ask another parent who’s been through the process or sign up for one of the car seat events hosted by Safe Kids, which are held across the country.

2. Toddlers

smiling toddler sitting in a front-facing car seat

Toddler in a car seat | Source: iStock

The exact time you switch to a forward-facing seat depends on how much your child weighs. This depends on your specific seat, so make sure you know the exact weight and height restrictions for your first car seat. According to Parents Central, this will happen anytime between the age of 1 and 3. Because rear-facing models are the safest, you aren’t doing your child any favors by switching him or her to a forward-facing one earlier than necessary.

If you purchased a convertible seat, which transforms from rear-facing to forward-facing with some adjustments, you won’t have to buy a new seat at all. But be aware that they can be bulky and may not accommodate your child prior to the next stage of switching to a booster seat. Some seats double as forward-facing and boosters, so those can be a good option for children who’ve outgrown their convertible seat. For more information on different types, head to the Indiana University School of Medicine’s Automotive Safety Program.

Toddlers require some special considerations as well. No matter how much your kids wine about being bored, keeping toys in and around the car seat just isn’t a good idea. Consumer Reports explained these objects can become hazardous projectiles during a collision. This is the time to enlist those goofy playlists designed specifically for kids.

Fit also matters a great deal. No seat will keep your child as safe as it could if the straps aren’t adjusted properly. According to WhatToExpect, removing bulky winter clothes is also a must to ensure a snug fit. You can always keep kids warm by laying their coat or a blanket over the top.

Even though toddlers are becoming relatively self-sufficient, leaving them alone in the vehicle is a bad idea and illegal in some states. Even if your state laws allow it, know there are dangers. Check out these questions to consider from The Stir.

3. Kids up to age 13

boy wearing sunglasses and sitting in a booster seat

Boy sitting in a booster seat in the back of a car | Source: iStock

For most kids, age 4 is about the time it’s safe to switch from a car seat to a booster seat. But once again, it depends on how much your child weighs and the particulars of your car seat. Boosters do exactly what the name implies: Boost your child up to a height that ensures the seat belt properly fits across his or her lap and shoulder. SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. designed a handout to show just how much of a difference these devices make, reporting boosters decrease the risk of a crash injury by 45%.

As with car seats, you have a number of options for booster seats. They come with or without backs and some are part of a combination car seat. For more guidance on choosing the right one, head to the Washington State Booster Seat Coalition.

Though it might seem excessive, most parents should expect to keep their children booster-seat bound until age 8. More important than how old your child is, though, is how tall he or she is. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), seat belts don’t fit properly until a child is 57 inches tall.

We chose to include kids over the age of 8 in this category as well because, like younger children, they should still be restricted to sitting in the back seat. Sorry guys, no exceptions. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) explained that studies have found those younger than 13 are more at risk of injury from airbags. Some sources say 12 is alright, but it’s probably better to be conservative.

4. Teenagers

Young man fastening seat belt

Young man buckling a seat belt | Source: iStock

Once your kids are old enough to sit in the front seat, the real battle is often getting them to wear their seat belt. Riding in the back of the school bus, forgoing the use of a seat belt (or wearing one, but tucking the shoulder strap behind your back) just seems cooler to teens. We don’t have to tell you how dangerous this is, so a zero-tolerance policy is best here.

The good news is seat belt usage is growing every year. According to the latest report on the topic from the National Highway Safety Traffic Association (NHSTA), 88.5% of Americans used seat belts in 2015. The best way to make sure your kid is among them? Lead by example.

Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec

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