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To See or Not to See (Your Cute Commute Companion). That’s the Question.
So, you’ve checked a big item off your list and found the right car seat for your growing family. Or maybe you’re still trying to decide which seat to get based on safety guidelines as your mini becomes a big kid. (If you need help choosing the best fit for your little one, see our car seat comparison guide). Whether you’re a first-time parent or welcoming the last of your squad, car seat safety requires doing your homework. Knowing when to switch your pint-sized co-pilot from rear to forward-facing, then into a booster, and riding like the grownups with the car’s seatbelt is important. Parenting is complicated enough, so let us save you some time by summing up the current guidelines. Then you’ll be ready to make the change when your little one is.
A Few Years of the Rear View
Basic guidance keeps your precious cargo in a rear-facing car seat as long as possible, and until they reach the top height or weight limit allowed by your car seat’s manufacturer. The policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) includes the following recommendations for optimal safety:
- All infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing car safety seat as long as possible until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by the seat's manufacturer.
- All children who have outgrown the rear-facing weight or height limit for their car safety seat should use a forward-facing car safety seat with a harness for as long as possible, up to the highest weight or height allowed by the seat's manufacturer.
The reasoning behind extending the age requirement (that used to be until one year old) is that as scientists study travel safety for kids, they’ve determined that infants and toddlers are at greater risk for head and spinal cord injuries if they’re in a forward-facing car seat. During an accident, the car seat provides better support for their head and neck when in the rear-facing position. (Some states require toddlers to remain rear-facing until two YO. Check out your state’s requirements at www.safekids.org).
Guidance for Infant Car Seats
The infant car seat always remains rear-facing and is safe until LO reaches the height or weight limit given by the manufacturer, which will keep baby comfy and secure until anywhere from nine months to two years old, and 22-35 pounds. Tots typically outgrow the seat by hitting the height limit first. You’ll know they’re ready to move to a convertible car seat when the top of their head is less than an inch from the top of the seat when buckled in.
Guidance for Convertible Car Seats
If you skipped the infant car seat and started your tiny traveler in a convertible model, your LO will be spending more time in their versatile seat. Even though your seat is made to convert from rear to forward-facing, keep in mind that safety regulations are the same when it comes to keeping baby with a rear view. It’s considered safest for them to stay rear-facing as long as possible. And some states don’t allow you to have baby facing the same direction as you until age two (unless they’re reached either the height or weight specified by the manufacturer).
Once baby has reached the height or weight limitations for rear-facing of your convertible car seat model, you can install the seat forward-facing. If they haven’t hit one of the height or weight maximums for their seat, staying rear-facing as long as possible is considered the safest.
Once your toddler is forward-facing, they’ll stay that way for a while. Check the height and weight limits of your seat, but again, they’re safest on the road with you until they outgrow the car seat. They’re too tall when:
- the tops of their ears are at or above the top of the car seat’s shell or head restraint
- or when the harness straps can’t be positioned at or above their shoulders
Most forward-facing weight limits are 65 pounds when used with harness straps and up to 120 pounds for belt positioning.
Give Baby A Boost
All children whose weight or height exceeds the forward-facing limit for their convertible car safety seat should use a belt-positioning booster seat until your car’s seatbelt fits properly. This is usually when they have reached 4 feet 9 inches in height, and are eight to twelve YO.
Before moving your big kid to a high-back booster, they should:
- weigh 40 pounds (minimum), according to many state laws, but this also depends on the seat manufacturer’s recommendations
- be four years old (minimum)
- remain in a booster car seat until they reach the maximum weight or height limit allowed by the car seat instruction manual.
- For a belt-positioning booster, the tops of their ears should not be above the top of the booster seat’s head restraint.
- For a backless booster, the tops of the ears should not be above the vehicle’s seatback or head restraint.
- For maximum weight: some belt-positioning booster seats go up to 120 pounds, just like the convertibles and combination seats.
When Is Your Big Kid Big Enough?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that most kids are ready to switch from a booster seat to sitting directly on the back seat of your car and strapped in with the seatbelt somewhere between 8 and 12 years old, and if they’ve reached the height requirement. You may not be able to grasp the idea of your tiny boss as a teen, but you’ll still be doing everything you can to protect them, even if they’re taller than you. So, it’s good to know that even when they’re big enough to ditch the booster seat, the AAP recommends that all kids younger than thirteen remain buckled up in the back seat.
To help you determine if your not-so-little passenger is ready to travel without a booster, we suggest you ask yourself these five questions:
- Can they keep their back against the vehicle seat without slouching?
- Can they keep their knees naturally bent over the edge of the vehicle’s seat?
- Can they keep their feet flat on the floor?
- Does the lap belt lie snugly across their upper thighs, low on hips, not the stomach?
- Does the shoulder belt lie snugly across the shoulder and chest, and not on their neck or face?
If you answer NO to any of these questions, then they need to remain in a booster seat in that vehicle.
It’s a lot to remember. So here’s a tip to leave you with. Bookmark the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to stay up-to-date on recommendations based on the current age, weight, and height of your kid. Knowing you’re following state regulations and safety requirements allows you to relax a little because cruisin’ with your LO is a trip. As their babbling turns to kindergarten humor, and full-blown conversations, you’ll discover that some of the most memorable moments will happen when you’re on the road. So settle back and enjoy the ride.