Every child deserves to travel safely in the car. It falls on your shoulders as parents to ensure your child has the proper size and type of car seat or booster seat. Picking the right seat from the rows of choices in the big box store isn't always easy, though. Children need a seat that fits them not only physically but also developmentally. Matching your child to the right seat means considering more than just his chronological age.
Babies need a car seat that supports their weak neck and back muscles. The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends keeping a child rear-facing until at least age 2, although many state laws stipulate children must rear-face just until age 1. Some states mandate rear-facing until certain weight limits are reached, such as 20 pounds. Others require rear-facing until age 1 year and 20 pounds, although some allow front facing at either 1 year or 20 pounds. Seats made specifically for babies often work as part of a system that interfaces with a stroller. The seats, which have a bucket-like appearance and a handle for easy removal and carrying, can often be removed from the car seat base and placed directly into a stroller frame. If you're out and about a lot with your baby, this might be the most convenient seat for you.
Riding Around in a Convertible
Convertible car seats -- also known as 3-in-1 seats -- grow with your child and can be used either rear facing or forward facing. You can use the same seat, with adaptations, for your child from infancy until he's ready for a booster seat. Convertible seats tilt back so they're comfortable for a small baby. Many come with removable inserts that support your baby's head, neck and back when he's tiny. As he grows, you can remove the insert and turn the seat forward in a more upright position. If you don't care about using a seat that fits into your stroller, a convertible seat can save you the hassle of having to buy two car seats down the road.
Forward-Facing Only Car Seats
You can use car seats for preschoolers or school-age children only in a front- facing position. Forward-facing seats aren't suitable for babies, who are safest in the rear-facing position. Your child must meet the height and/or weight limits of the seat, which vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. When choosing a car seat, choose one that fits well in your car and is easy to install and use properly. The biggest problem with car seats is that most -- around 75 percent -- aren't used and installed correctly, according to the Michigan State Police. Read the installation instructions carefully; you can also have your installation checked at the police station or fire station in many towns. An improperly installed seat might not fully protect your child in an accident, which could result in injury or death.
Moving to a Booster
Your child may or may not be ready for a booster seat, which uses the car's seat belt as a restraint, at the age listed on the seat. Most boosters use both weight and age as a guideline for use, with the AAP recommending age 4 as the youngest age for moving to a booster seat. Some manufacturers, as well as some states, also have regulations pertaining to a child's height and weight for booster use. But not all 4-year-olds can sit up in the car without leaning too much to one side. Boosters come in both backless models and models with back and head supports, which help keep a little wiggleworm where he belongs. If your child falls asleep often in the car, he might also appreciate a model with a headrest. The AAP recommends -- and many states mandate -- that children stay in boosters until they reach 4' 9" inches; some also have weight limits. Check with your state's Department of Transportation for state regulations.