How Long is a Car Seat Good For? Everything You Need to Know About Car Seat Expiration Dates
Have you ever grabbed a gallon of milk from the grocery store, and poured yourself a glass when you get home, only to be overwhelmed … Read more
Last Updated: March 29, 2022 / By Lauren Rand MSN, RN, CPN, CPST
Car seat safety can be such an overwhelming and confusing topic for experienced and expecting parents alike. It can be hard to weed through and keep track of each rule in a constantly evolving world of child passenger safety.
As uncomfortable as it is for a parent to read statistics regarding child deaths and injuries in vehicles, I would be remiss if I did not call attention to it. It is the very reason that car seat safety is so critically important. Many sobering statistics could be cited, but first, I would like to mention that a car seat is indeed a safety device. It is not a containment device or confinement container. Its purpose is to provide safe restraint in a vehicle and to mitigate crash forces away from the child, should there be a vehicular crash.
While The Journal of Pediatrics published study from above was a small study of fewer than 300 families, the results illustrate how easily and how frequently car seat misuse can occur. As a Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST), it is my job to help parents weed through misinformation and to make the best safety decisions for their families. Let’s look at my top car seat safety tips!
Selecting and purchasing the right car seat is a very individualized process. Many factors can come into play, including:
It is also worth noting that all legitimate car seats approved for use in the United States have been self-certified by the car seat manufacturer to conform to the dynamic test requirements of Federal Motor Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 213, Child Restraint System. This means that all approved car seats are considered “safe” as determined by the minimum criteria of FMVSS No. 213 and with proper use.
There are many different types of car seats on the market, but generally, they can be broken down into four safety options until your child can ride solely with the seat belt.
These include rear-facing-only seats, convertible seats, forward-facing-only seats, and booster seats.
Typically, rear-facing-only seats (also known as infant seats or bucket seats) are recommended for birth to 1 year of age.
The child can then be transitioned to a convertible seat (meaning the seat can be rear-facing or forward-facing) in rear-facing mode. This type of seat in rear-facing mode typically covers the 1- to 3-year-old age range, while the forward-facing mode of the seat covers the 4-7 age range.
Some car seats are true convertibles, which refers to rear- or forward-facing car seats with a harness. Some seats are marketed as 3-in-1, 4-in-1, or all-in-one, meaning that they will fit a child from rear-facing through high-back or no-back booster mode.
For forward-facing, there are true convertibles (for rear- and forward-facing) and combination seats (forward-facing only with a harness to a high-back booster mode).
Booster seats are generally used for ages 8 to 12 years or until a child can meet the criteria for proper seat belt fit. There are high-back boosters, no-back boosters, or 2-in-1 seats, which can convert to either.
A point of clarification as you may have noticed is that there is some overlap in minimum ages and weights in manufacturer limits on seats. For example, a seat may say a 22 pound child may be able to be forward-facing or a 4-year-old can sit in a booster seat if they meet the weight requirement. These examples illustrate absolute minimums and do not reflect best practice recommendations.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendation is to your child rear-facing for as long as possible and to maximize the height and weight limits on your seat. Do not use your child’s age to determine when you change seats or directions.
Correct installation of your car seat is essential for the seat to perform correctly in a vehicle crash and protect your child from injury. By practicing the 7 rights of car seat installation, it serves as an additional check for proper installation.
Select a seat designed specifically for your child’s age, weight, height, and developmental level.
Position your car seat facing the direction (forward-facing or rear-facing) that is approved by the seat manufacturer. Select a location within the vehicle to install the car seat that has been approved by the vehicle and car seat manufacturers. Consult your vehicle and car seat manuals for this information.
Select the method you prefer to install your car seat, ensuring it is also an approved method listed by the car seat and vehicle manufacturers. It is important to remember that both methods are safe, do not use them both at the same time. Once your child is forward-facing, it is important to use the top tether on your seat.
Depending upon the direction of your car seat (rear-facing vs forward-facing), select the appropriate belt path for the direction your seat will be installed.
The seat recline should be selected based upon the direction of the seat, the age of the child, and any other requirements stipulated by the manufacturer.
Once installed via LATCH or seatbelt, your car seat should not move more than 1 inch front to back and side to side.
Always follow all manufacturer directions as outlined by your car seat manual and the guidelines in your vehicle manual.
Just as proper installation is an important part of car seat safety, the other part of the equation is proper child positioning while the child is in the car seat. There are 6 steps we want to take when harnessing a child in their seat.
It may seem silly to fill out that little card that comes with your car seat or to take the time to go online and complete the process, but I promise that it’s worth it. Registering your seat allows the car seat manufacturer to have your direct contact information in the event of a recall, or for other information they need to get out to seat owners quickly.
They do not use your information to spam you but to provide critical information as well as solutions and potential fixes for a seat recall. While most seat recalls are communicated quickly to the masses via social media and news outlets, registering your seat will ensure that you receive this vital information quickly and directly.
Car seats are not considered a safe sleep surface. Per the American Academy of Pediatrics, car seats do not meet the safe sleep surface criteria. It is recommended to remove the child as soon as possible from the car seat and to a safe sleep surface.
While it is inevitable that your child will fall asleep in the car seat and short naps in the vehicle will happen, what is most important is what you do once you get to your destination. Never leave your child in the car seat because they are sleeping. Instead, remove them, and put them on a flat, firm, safe sleeping surface.
Other factors to consider making sleep the safest it can be in the car seat include maintaining the car seat at the correct recline. This appropriate recline allows for the correct angle to keep a child’s airway open and to prevent positional asphyxiation (causing the child to be unable to breathe).
Keeping your child tightly harnessed and fully buckled is imperative whether they are clipped into a stroller or in the vehicle. If you are clipping your infant carrier into a stroller, always keep the baby in your line of sight, properly buckled, and appropriately reclined. Using the stroller for short amounts of time is ideal, and it should not be used for long naps or extended amounts of time.
Cleaning your car seat is a highly individualized process that is dictated by your seat’s manufacturer. Some seat covers can be machine-washed and dried, while some can only be hand-washed and drip-dried or only spot cleaned.
The best way to know how to clean your seat is to consult and follow the directions in your manual. It is important that you use gentle and simple detergents. Chemicals such as sanitizing wipes, bleach, ammonia, or other harsh substances should not be used.
Teaming up with a Child Passenger Safety Technician is one of the best things you can do! There are many reasons you may need to reach out to a CPST for assistance, including:
If you are located in the United States, the best way to find a CPST is through the Safe Kids Worldwide directory. Remember, it is not a CPST’s job to install your car seat for you. It is our job to educate and teach you how and what you need to know to keep your child safe in the vehicle. CPSTs are a wealth of knowledge and want to help families keep their children as safe as possible. If you have a child with special needs or complex medical issues, CPSTs who have additional training and certification in special needs may be able to assist you further.
You need to know your seat’s replacement and vehicle crash policy information. This can typically be found in the fine print in your manual, typically in the first few pages. Most seats fall in one of two camps; they either must be replaced after any/every type of crash, or they follow the NHTSA crash guidelines for minor crashes.
For the manufacturers who require replacement of their seats after any crash, this means any type of severity (minor, moderate, or severe). At times, it can be difficult to determine what is considered a crash, and CPSTs always recommend contacting the manufacturer for further guidance.
For the manufacturers who follow the NHTSA crash guidelines for minor crashes, they do not require replacement of the seat if the crash data can comply with the guidelines. At any point, if the crash does not meet a guideline, it is deemed a moderate or severe crash, and the seat must be replaced. If the crash meets all criteria for a minor crash, the seat does not have to be replaced.
Some manufacturers require that caregivers contact them to determine if the seat needs to be replaced. Therefore, it is important that you understand the policy and what you need to do after a crash.
Per the NHTSA guidelines for minor crashes, all the following must apply:
Reading and understanding the manuals for your vehicle and your car seat is an important component for the proper installation and use of your seat. Understanding which seating positions are allowed and preferred by your vehicle manufacturer will assist in the selection of a seating position for your seat. The vehicle manual will also give you pertinent information regarding airbags, their use, and the routing of a top tether on a forward-facing car seat, in addition to vital functions of your vehicle.
As mentioned previously, your car seat manual is your guide to all the things you need to know about using and installing your seat correctly. Some manuals are easier to understand than others. If at any point you need clarification on the information in your manual, please reach out to a CPST or the seat manufacturer for assistance.
Potty training can be frustrating for parents and children alike. Throw in the car seat, especially if you have one that cannot be cleaned easily, and parents want to do anything in their power to keep the seat clean and dry.
Unfortunately, not all creative methods parents have come up with are approved or safe. This follows the same rule of aftermarket items (mentioned below) that placing anything between your child and the seat or your child and the harness is strictly not allowed. However, there are some alternatives to contain the leaks and avoid having to constantly clean your seat.
The first choice would be to use pull-ups while you are in the car. Some parents choose to use only pull-ups in the car or will simply place a pull-up over their child’s underwear instead.
Another option is to have your child wear underwear and place a cloth diaper cover or pocket diaper (without the insert) over their underwear. Unfortunately, the only piddle-pad type pads that are ok to use are manufacturer-specific brands that are permitted to be used with your seat.
For example, if you had a Britax seat, you could use their pad with their seat because they have completed the necessary testing to ensure that it is safe to be used with their seats. However, you would not be able to use that same pad with a different manufacturer’s seat.
While some adjustments might be needed for schedules and how you do things for vehicle travel, it is typically a short-term change. Some parents find it helpful to have a travel potty in the vehicle with them as well as extra clothes, underwear, and other changing necessities to help clean up after any accidents. Finally, knowing how and what you can use to clean your seat will also save you from many headaches in the future.
Bulky clothing in the car seat is a no-go. Very thick clothing, snowsuits, puffy coats, and ill-fitting clothing can cause the harness to appear artificially tightened, creating a loser-than-normal harness and the potential for your child to be ejected from their seat in a crash.
The best way to determine if an article of clothing is too bulky is to complete the harness test. Essentially, you just dress your child in the article of clothing in question and harness them appropriately in their seat. Then, without loosening the harness, remove the questionable clothing and harness them again in their seat. If the harness is still sufficiently tight when performing the pinch test, then the clothing item can be worn in the seat. If the harness is loose and needs to be tightened, the piece of clothing should not be worn in the car seat.
For the cooler months, dress your child in thin layers, thinner fleece clothing, and utilize blankets for warmth. Puffy jackets, snowsuits, and thick Halloween costumes should not be worn in the car seat. Some thinner jackets can be worn, but the harness test must be performed to know for sure.
Well-fitting hats are acceptable for infants, while thicker hats and beanies for older children are okay to use. Using blankets for swaddling (over the harness), car seat ponchos, or using winter coats backward (over the harness) can be great ways to keep your child warm in their seat.
Winter accessories that come with your seat, such as winter zip-up boots, are acceptable to use in the vehicle as they are approved by the car seat manufacturer. Be sure to unzip in the vehicle to prevent your child from overheating.
If you chose to use a winter accessory for your car seat that did not come with your seat, make sure it is a “shower cap” style that goes over the seat and does not interfere with the seat’s harness (see the aftermarket items tip below).
It is important to remove this type of accessory once in the vehicle and only use it for warmth while transferring in and out of the vehicle.
For some parents, a used seat is the only viable option for their child, whether by choice or due to budgetary constraints. Using a secondhand seat is not an unsafe option if the seat comes from a trustworthy source.
Knowing the history of the seat you are using is the best (and only) way to ensure its safety. I would never recommend purchasing or using a secondhand seat from a stranger. You must remember that you are entrusting this person and their previous use of the seat with your child’s safety on the road.
There are several things you will want to know about a secondhand seat you are considering using, including answers to these questions:
If you can answer these questions about the seat you are considering and trust that the seat has been cleaned appropriately, never been in a crash, has traveled on an airline appropriately, has all of the necessary labels, is in working order with all pieces, is not expired, and has not been recalled or has been remedied, then you have a strong reason to consider using a secondhand seat.
It is important to remember that a CPST will never certify a used seat as safe for use. The decision to use a secondhand seat is completely at the discretion of the caregiver after careful consideration.
To keep your child the safest in the vehicle, I want you to forget your state laws. I do not mean for you to ignore your car seat laws or do something illegal. But I do want you to understand that, in the United States, the current car seat laws reflect the minimum requirements for car seats. These laws do not reflect the best practice recommendations given by CPSTs.
The child passenger safety community and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that parents maximize the height and weight maximum limits of their current seat before transitioning their child to another seat or direction in the vehicle. This recommendation also supports rear-facing children for as long as possible because this is the safest way for a child to travel.
Take your time transitioning your child to a different type of seat and maximize the limits of your child’s current seat. Only when your child has met the weight, height, or any other stipulation from your seat’s manufacturer, should you transition your child.
Once your child is encroaching upon the limits of their booster seat, you may begin to see if they meet the five steps necessary to use a seat belt without a booster seat. Here’s what 5-stepping looks like!
When deciding to use only the seat belt, you must ensure that your child can do all five steps:
Typically, a child cannot 5-step until they are 10-12 years of age and around 4’9” in height. If a child can perform all of the above steps, they are ready to transition to using only a seat belt. Be vigilant in checking these steps in each vehicle your child will be riding in as vehicle seats and seat belt fit will vary from vehicle to vehicle. Check out this video to see the test in action.
The labels on your car seat provide you with a wealth of information. Many of the main points of your manual can be found on your car seat labels. They will contain information for installing your car seat with lower connector anchors (if applicable) or seatbelt, any weight or height limitations, and any setting limitations. All manufacturer warnings will also be on these labels.
The manufacturer’s label is important to find and reference. This label can be hidden underneath the seat itself or the seat cover and padding. It will give you information such as the make and model name and number, serial number, date of manufacturer, date of expiration, and manufacturer contact information.
It is important to read these labels, understand what they mean, and know where to find the manufacturer information for your seats. They can serve as a quick reference and provide helpful information you will need when registering your seat with the manufacturer.
Unfortunately, any item in our vehicle that is not secured has the potential to become a dangerous projectile in a crash. Therefore, I caution parents to choose toys and car seat mirrors wisely.
Should you choose to use mirrors or allow toys, it will be at your discretion which items you choose to allow in the vehicle. For toys, lightweight, soft toys are preferred, and all items should be properly stowed when not being used. Never attach them to the car seat itself.
Car seat mirrors involve weighing the risks and benefits of having one. Many parents are admittedly anxious, and having a mirror helps them to feel less so. Mirrors can also contribute to distracted driving, and it is important to know when to pull over to check on your child. If you must purchase a mirror, aim for one that is shatterproof, can be secured at four points on the headrest (forming a cross), and is not secured with Velcro (look for buckles instead).
Backseat video cameras are typically discouraged for distraction reasons as well, but some situations (such as medical issues) may necessitate their use.
This is an excellent time to add some guidance about aftermarket items, which refers to anything that did not come with your car seat. These items include extra head support, shoulder pads, and car seat covers.
A great general rule to remember is that anything that goes around your car seat straps, that you pull the straps through, or that goes between the child and the straps, or the seat is not safe.
If there is a particular item you wish to use with your child’s car seat, it is best to select a car seat that comes with these items as they have been crash-tested and manufacturer-approved to use with the seat.
Another option after purchasing your car seat would be to consider purchasing items directly from the manufacturer that they have approved as compatible with your seat. In essence, avoid using anything that is not manufacturer-approved for use with your seat because it has not been tested in a crash, and it is unknown how it would perform.
Heat-related deaths in vehicles can be a devastating reality. According to Safe Kids Worldwide, every 10 days a child will die from heatstroke in a vehicle.
More than 50% of those deaths were due to a caregiver forgetting that a child was in the car. Young children are at a higher risk for heatstroke due to their bodies heating up three to five times faster than adults. Unfortunately, heatstroke deaths can happen quickly as a car can heat up 19 degrees in just a mere 10 minutes.
Preventing heatstroke requires forming conscious habits of checking the back seat every time you park and exit the vehicle. Never leave your child alone in a vehicle and always lock it, keeping your keys away from the reach of children. Have a clear system for communicating regarding the pickup and drop-off of children, including asking your childcare provider to call you immediately if your child does not arrive as scheduled. An additional tip includes leaving essential items in the back seat to ensure that the back seat will always be checked.
Before you go…
Navigating the world of car seats and child passenger safety can be an overwhelming and stressful task. I hope these tips have illustrated the importance of car seat safety and that it is possible to tackle keeping your child safe in the vehicle.
Child Passenger Safety Technicians want to help you, so make sure you reach out for assistance.
Following these tips will take you far in your safety journey and assist in keeping everyone in your family as safe as possible while traveling in a motor vehicle.
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