What car seat should your child be sitting in? How do you know when is the right time to switch seats? Here’s a complete guide.
Hi! I’m Lani Harrison. I live in Scottsdale Arizona and I’m a mom of 3. I’ve been a CPST (Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician) since 2015. I get questions almost daily on what type of car seats or boosters are appropriate for what ages. It is confusing! Manufacturers of course want to sell their seats, so they put the widest age range possible on the box. The same goes for the signs on the displays at stores like Target. But marketing is of course not always based on safety or science. I’d like to review what we call “ages and stages” in the car seat world.
Birth – about 15 months: A rear facing infant seat. Children of this age can also use a rear facing convertible (“toddler”) seat if it fits them correctly and positions the head correctly. Pay close attention to when the infant seat is outgrown. They each have a height limit, a weight limit, and a torso height limit and are outgrown when any of those is reached. Virtually every infant seat, including the Doona, must be discontinued when the top of the baby’s head is less than an inch from the top of the seat.
Until age 2, but ideally until 3 or 4: A rear facing convertible seat. This is a seat that starts rear facing and then can turn forward facing. It is very dangerous for the child’s neck and spine to forward face before age 2. Most convertible seats on the market today can easily rear face a child until age 3. It’s fine if the feet touch the vehicle seat! Many states including New York, New Jersey and California have a law that a child must rear face until at least age 2.
Minimum of age 2 – at least age 5: A seat that is forward facing and has straps. Make sure the seat is installed correctly, which includes the top tether strap that goes over the top of the vehicle seat and hooks onto a special bar. It’s an essential part of the forward facing installation. Some cars do not have these for every seat; in that case the car seat would need to go in a different seat in the vehicle. Make sure the straps are tight and adjusted correctly to the child.
Minimum of age 5 and 40 lbs: A high back booster. The disadvantage of a booster is that the child can move about freely or slump over if asleep. This would put them in a position where the booster and seatbelt cannot protect them. Because of this, a booster should not be used until a child can sit still and stay awake for the entire car ride. For most kids, this is not true even at age 5!
A no back booster can be used when a child has been in a high back booster for about 2 years according to the criteria above and will sit straight up without the back. Be sure to use the shoulder belt clip that comes with the booster if the shoulder belt is not touching the collarbone.
A child needs to use a booster until the belt fits correctly. That means the lap belt lies horizontally flat on the tops of the thighs, and the shoulder belt touches the collarbone halfway between the shoulder and the neck. For most kids, this occurs somewhere between 10 and 12.
The maximum age of the state law represents at what age the state wants to stop legislating about your child. Look at it this way – in Georgia, a child must be in a booster until 8. In Florida, the law is until age 5. If someone drives from Atlanta to Miami, is it safe to pull over and take the child out of the booster at the state line? Of course not!
A child should not sit in the front until age 13. This is written in every vehicle owner’s manual. The airbag is calibrated to hit the chest of an adult, not G-d forbid the head or chest of a child. If the child is 13 and the belt does not fit correctly in the front, that child should remain in the back until it does.