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Car Seat Safety: 5 Things You Need to Know Right Now
Updated on
July 8, 2024

Car Seat Safety: 5 Things You Need to Know Right Now

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There are aspects of parenting you can wing on the fly. Changing a diaper blowout in your trunk? You got this! Panic buying 10 pacifiers at once to find the one that finally calms your baby instead of methodically trying them one by one? Been there, done that. 

But when it comes to car seat safety, a little knowledge goes a long way. Arming yourself with car seat know-how can help keep your baby safe on the go and help you feel more confident and empowered as a parent.

If you’re dipping your toe into car seat safety, start here: these are the five things you should know right now.

1. The Different Types of Car Seats—and When to Use Them

A huge part of car seat safety is learning what types of car seats there are in the world—and when to use them. Once you’ve chosen the right seat, it then becomes a lot easier to move on to learning how to use it properly.

Infant car seats

An infant car seat is a car seat made specifically for younger babies. Infant car seats always face the rear of a vehicle. Almost all infant car seats attach to a base. The base stays installed in your vehicle and the seat clicks in and out of the base. Most infant seats can also be used without a base. In that case, you’ll use your vehicle’s seat belt or built-in connectors called LATCH to install your seat and keep it secure.

When can you use an infant car seat? An infant car seat can be used from birth until your baby reaches the seat’s height or weight maximum—whichever comes first. For most seats, these limits are approximately 32-35 inches for height and 30-35 pounds for weight. When a baby reaches one of these limits varies, but right around the one-year mark is a good general approximation.

Convertible car seats

A convertible car seat turns from a rear-facing to a forward-facing seat. Unlike infant car seats, a convertible car seat doesn’t have a base; instead, it uses the vehicle’s seat belt or LATCH system for installation. Convertible car seats aren’t portable like infant car seats. That’s because they’re designed to be installed in your car and stay there, so most are heavy and bulky.

When can you use a convertible car seat? You can use a convertible car seat from birth until your child outgrows the seat by either height or weight. Excluding all-in-one convertible car seats that turn into booster seats (and therefore have longer life spans), most kids will outgrow a convertible car seat in the late preschool years—but limits vary seat by seat. 

If you do choose to skip an infant car seat and go straight to a convertible, there are a few things to consider. You’ll own one less piece of baby gear, and convertible car seats have a much longer lifespan than infant seats. But many convertible car seats don’t fit newborns very well. “There are a few convertible car seats that do, but far and away the newborn fit of an infant seat is more consistent,” says Samantha Taylor, Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) and the voice behind Mama Knows Car Seats. You’ll also lose the convenience of an infant car seat for those times when you need to transfer your child from the car to a stroller (and back again).

Rotating car seats

Rotating car seats are a type of convertible car seat. Rotating seats spin on their base, either 180 or 360 degrees, making it easier to get your little one in and out of the car—especially when they’re rear-facing. Rotating seats can also make it easier for parents and caregivers with certain physical disabilities to load a child in and out of a car seat.

When can you use a rotating car seat? Like convertible seats, rotating car seats can be used from birth until your child reaches the maximum height or weight limit. If the seat doesn’t transition to a booster, most children will max out of their rotating car seat toward the end of their preschool years.

All-in-one car seats

An all-in-one car seat is the one-stop shop of car seats. All-in-one seats transform from rear-facing to forward-facing seats and then ultimately to a booster seat. 

When can you use an all-in-one car seat? All-in-one seats can be used from infancy through the elementary school years. Many all-in-one seats have a lifespan of about a decade, but like all car seats, how long you’ll be able to use it will depend on your child’s size and your seat’s height and weight limits.

Booster seats

A booster seat uses a vehicle’s seat belt as a restraint. Think of a booster as the step between a car seat and a seat belt; it elevates a child in a car’s seat, making adult seat belts fit better on little bodies. 

There are two types of boosters, high-back and backless. A high-back booster is similar to a car seat in that it is a mini-sized seat, with a bottom and back, placed on a passenger seat. High-back boosters have a seat belt guide through which you can thread a vehicle’s shoulder belt for a proper fit. Backless boosters have only a seat component to provide the extra height needed to position your child properly in a vehicle’s seat. Backless boosters have seat belt guides that position the belt over the correct place on the child’s body.

When can you use a booster seat? You can use a booster seat when your child hits all three of these milestones: maxes out the height or weight limits of their convertible car seat; meets the height and weight minimums of your booster seat; and is mature enough to sit properly in a booster 100% of the time. (You can read more about how to know when it’s time to switch from a convertible car seat to a booster later in this guide.) Many kids aren’t mature enough to sit properly in a booster until at least five years old; most hit this milestone sometime between five and seven.

2. Rear-Facing: What It Is and Why It’s So Important

Infant car seats are designed to face backward in your car. Convertible car seats start off as rear-facing, too—but why?

According to car seat safety experts, rear-facing your baby and toddler is the safest way for them to ride. “According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), it's safest for infants and toddlers to ride rear-facing in a car seat for as long as possible,” says Joe Colella, Director of Child Passenger Safety at the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, a leading industry voice on quality and safety for baby and children’s products, and 2020 Child Passenger Safety Hall of Fame Inductee. “This recommendation is based on data showing that rear-facing seats offer better protection in crashes for children from birth through 23 months of age, along with child development and biomechanics considerations.”

You may also come across the term “extended rear-facing” when reviewing a list of features on a particular car seat. When used in this way, it refers to a seat that maximizes the amount of time a child can ride rear-facing by offering a higher weight and height limit.

What does this mean in real life? Whenever possible, it’s recommended to keep your child rear-facing in their car seat until they reach the top height or weight limit allowed by your seat’s manufacturer. If you’re using an infant car seat, look for one with high limits—preferably 32 inches and 35 pounds. For a convertible seat, 49 inches and 50 pounds are both considered high rear-facing limits. And remember: almost all kids outgrow car seats by height first, not weight, so consider prioritizing a seat’s height maximum over its weight limit.

3. How to Choose the Right Car Seat

“All car seats sold in the US must meet the same strict safety regulations and pass the same testing and requirements set by the NHTSA.” That’s the answer you’re likely to get if you ask a car seat safety expert how to choose the safest car seat. But what exactly does that mean, and how does it translate in real life as you shop for an infant or convertible seat?

According to Collela, you should choose a car seat that meets these criteria:

  1. Fits your child. “The right car seat is one designed for your child’s height, weight, age and developmental needs,” he says. 

  2. Fits your vehicle. “Following car seat installation instructions and vehicle owner’s manual guidance is crucial.” In order for your car seat to function properly, it needs to be correctly attached to your vehicle.

  3. Used consistently and correctly. You—and anyone else who drives your child regularly—needs to be comfortable using your car seat and able to use it properly.  

How a car seat fits your child, how easy it is to install and how easy it is to use regularly are inextricably linked to a car seat’s safety. Keep this in mind when shopping for a car seat. You can buy the fanciest seat on the market—but if you aren’t using it properly, it won’t matter.

A quick note on car seat fit. We know it’s almost impossible to test a car seat in your vehicle prior to purchasing it. Here are a few tips for ensuring that the seat you land on will properly fit your particular vehicle.

  • Measure. Simple? Yes. But also crucial. Before deciding on a seat, look up its dimensions, then get out that measuring tape, head to your car and get to work. If you own a compact car, be attentive to the seat’s height and depth measurements. If fitting multiple car seats across your back seat is your concern, consider the car seat’s width. 

  • Check if the car seat can touch the front seat. Many parents focus on width, but a car seat’s front-to-back measurement is important, too. A seat’s front-to-back length and the angle required for a proper install can affect how a car seat fits into a back seat. (A tall, deep seat with fewer recline options can cause an issue if you drive a smaller, more compact vehicle or if you’re tall and need space to push your front seat back, for example.) One way to address this is to research if the particular brand of seat you’re interested in allows for a rear-facing car seat to touch the vehicle seat in front of it. Most manufacturers allow a car seat and a front seat to lightly touch, but some require an inch or two of clearance between the two. (And even within the manufacturers that do allow the seats to touch, there are very specific—and differing—guidelines brand by brand. Here are Graco's guidelines, for example, versus Clek’s.) You can search and download a manufacturer’s car seat manual to check guidelines around this before you purchase.

  • Pay attention to recline. A car seat’s recline is about more than just comfort; it also affects how a seat fits in a vehicle once it’s installed. Generally, a car seat with more recline options will fit a wider range of vehicles. But like all things with car seats, this isn’t always the case—so don’t use this as your only fit predictor.

4. How to Properly Buckle Your Child into a Car Seat

Harness errors—buckling a child incorrectly into their car seat or making another mistake that interferes with harness fit—are some of the most common car seat mistakes parents make, according to Colella. “The internal harness secures the child in the car seat to reduce the likelihood of injury in a crash,” he explains. It’s important to learn how to do it right every time.

To fit a child in an infant car seat:

  1. Place your child in the car seat with their back flat against the car seat’s back.

  2. Place the harness straps over the child’s shoulders, like backpack straps. The straps should be at or just below the child’s shoulders.

  3. Buckle the crotch straps, then the chest clip. 

  4. Slide the chest clip down, then tighten the straps until snug. Move the chest clip up to armpit level, then tighten the straps again. You’ll know the harness is snug enough when you can’t pinch any extra material at the shoulder.

Buckling a newborn into a car seat? How to position a newborn’s head in the car seat from The Car Seat Lady is an excellent resource.

You'll follow the same steps to fit a child in a convertible car seat. The only difference is if your child is forward-facing in their convertible seat; if so, the straps should be at or just above the child’s shoulders.

In addition to following the steps above, there are several other safety tips to keep in mind.

  • Bulky winter coats + car seats don’t mix. Bulky clothing makes it difficult to tighten a car seat’s harness, which can reduce crash protection. “Safer options are to place a blanket over the properly harnessed child or to put the coat on the child backward after the child is correctly buckled,” Colella recommends.

  • Always be sure your harness straps are flat, not twisted.

  • Aftermarket products—products made by a third-party manufacturer that are sold separately from your car seat’s original packaging—are a big no. They’re not evaluated under federal safety standards and they’re not safe for use. Non-approved products for car seats include: infant support inserts, headrests or other comfort items that are not included with your car seat; aftermarket shoulder pads or harness covers; car seat covers or blankets that come between the back of the car seat and the child; hanging toys or mirrors; seat protectors; headrests for booster riders; and waterproof pads.

5. When—and Why—to Switch Car Seats

One of the most common questions new parents have is around when to “level up” their car seat. When should you switch from an infant car seat to a convertible? And how do you know when to make the jump from a convertible seat to a booster?  

Our top tip: Don’t make the move too soon.

Infant to convertible car seat

Your child should stay in their infant car seat until they outgrow the seat by either the height or weight maximums. “Or” is the important word to remember here. It means that if your child meets the seat’s weight requirement but is over the height maximum, it’s time to make the switch—and vice versa. 

“You can switch as early as you want, but you must switch if one limit of the car seat is met,” says Taylor. “If the maximum height limit is met OR the maximum weight limit is met, it’s time to swap!” 

Most parents swap to a convertible car seat around the one-year mark, but when you make the switch should depend on your child’s height and weight and the specifics of your particular car seat.

Convertible car seat to booster seat

Next up is a big switch—making the jump from a convertible seat to a booster seat. According to the AAP, children should transition to a booster seat when they reach the maximum height or weight of their forward-facing car seat. But this rule comes with some nuance that’s worth understanding before you upgrade.

  • As noted above, don’t consider transitioning your child to a booster seat until they’ve maxed out the limits of their forward-facing car seat. For some seats, that’s around 40 pounds or five years old, while others have much higher limits.

  • Be sure your child meets the height and weight requirements of a booster seat. Just like other types of car seats, boosters have a minimum height and weight requirement for use. 

  • Don’t rush to make the switch from a convertible car seat to a booster based on size minimums alone. The more important thing to look for is that your child is mature enough to sit properly in a booster seat. Boosters offer much more freedom of movement than harnessed car seats. A car seat has a five-point harness, so when it’s properly tightened, it doesn’t allow for much movement; a booster, on the other hand, does not. Leaning over, twisting, reaching over to poke a sibling…none of these are safe positions for your child to be in while you’re driving. Most kids aren’t mature enough to sit properly in a booster until at least five years old; most hit this milestone sometime between five and seven.

If you’re still unsure whether it’s the right time to make the switch, keep these four things in mind, according to Car Seats for the Littles, a car seat safety group staffed by a team of CPSTs. Your child should:

  • Be at least five years old.

  • Meet the minimum height and weight requirements of your booster seat.

  • Be able to sit properly one hundred percent of the time, even when asleep.

  • Have a proper seat belt fit.

Car Seat Safety Terms You Should Know

Car seat lingo is real; it can sometimes feel like a different language entirely. Here are the key terms you should know. For a full list, head over to our car seat gear glossary.

  • Anti-Rebound Bar. In the event of a crash, a car seat will move toward the point of impact. An anti-rebound bar reduces the movement of a car seat as it moves back into your vehicle’s back seat. It halts the rebound and causes the seat to come to a stop sooner than it would have without the anti-rebound bar.

  • Car Seat Adapter. Car seat adapters connect an infant car seat to a stroller. Adapters make it possible to safely snap together a car seat and a stroller from different brands to make a travel system. They’re often sold separately from your car seat and cost anywhere from about $20 and up. Not every infant car seat is compatible with every stroller, however; the Infant Car Seat and Stroller Compatibility guide will help you check.

  • Chest Clip. A chest clip holds the shoulder straps of your baby’s car seat together. A chest strap should always be placed over your baby’s chest at armpit level.

  • Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. These are government standards that guide manufacturers as they make and test car seats. All car seats sold in the United States must meet these standards in order to be sold in the US market.

  • Five-Point Harness. A five-point harness consists of two shoulder straps, two waist straps and a between-the-legs strap that all meet in a middle buckle. Five-point harnesses are safer than three-point harnesses because they spread the force from a crash over more areas of the body.

  • LATCH. LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren. The LATCH system is an alternate way to secure your car seat that uses built-in anchors and tethers rather than your vehicle’s seat belt. The system consists of two lower anchors found in the seat crack of your car that clip or hook onto two lower attachments on your car seat and a tether anchor behind the back seat that clips onto a tether hook found on the back of your car seat. LATCH is also not available in every seating position, so you’ll need to consult your vehicle manual.

  • Load Leg (Stability Leg). A laid leg, also called a stability leg, helps to reduce the amount of force on a car seat and reduce the rebound of a seat in the event of a crash.

  • No-Rethread Harness. As your baby grows, you’ll need to adjust your seat’s shoulder straps to accommodate the correct fit. A no-rethread harness means you’ll be able to move the straps up and down without having to manually reroute them through the back of the seat. On rear-facing car seats, the shoulder straps should come through the car seat slots at or just below your child’s shoulders. For forward-facing seats, adjust the straps so they hit at or just above your child’s shoulders.

  • Side Impact Protection. About a quarter of crashes involve a hit from the side rather than the front. Side-impact protection can help keep your baby safe in the event of this type of crash. All car seats manufactured after June 30, 2025, will be required to meet side impact performance regulations, but some models already have features built in that have been crash-tested for improved outcomes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Still have more car seat safety questions? These are some of the most common car seat questions—and the answers.

Do car seats expire?

Yes, all car seats expire. Car seat expiration dates vary by manufacturer and model, but most seats last between about six to 10 years. In general, manufacturers aim to set a car seat’s expiration date roughly to match the seat’s designed length of use.

Where is the safest place to install a car seat?

The center of your vehicle’s back seat is statistically the safest place to install your child’s car seat. That’s because many crashes involve a side impact, so a middle position will help to avoid direct impact. However, not all vehicles allow for a car seat in every spot that has a seat belt. If you can’t install your car seat in the center, choose the position where you can install it tightly using either LATCH or your vehicle’s seat belt, according to the AAP’s car seat safety information guidelines. And always check your specific vehicle’s owner’s manual before installation. The Safe Kids’ Ultimate Car Seat Guide Installation Tips is a great resource for car seat installation.

Is it safer to install a car seat using LATCH or a seat belt?

LATCH provides an easier way to install a car seat compared to using a seat belt, and can sometimes help you get a more secure installation. But it’s not always the safer way. (The Car Seat Lady’s LATCH system explainer does a great deep dive into this if you want to learn why.) Using LATCH to install a car seat is also predicated on meeting certain weight limits. Once you exceed those limits, you’ll need to switch over to using your car’s seat belt for installation. Always be sure to consult your car seat manual and follow the manufacturer’s instructions when installing and using your convertible car seat.

How do you clean a car seat?

Car seats can get (really) dirty—but it’s important to clean them properly so you don’t risk damaging the seat’s integrity. Before you grab that scrub brush, always consult your car seat’s instruction manual and follow the specific cleaning directions set forth by the manufacturer. (Different car seats will allow for different cleaning methods, so it’s really important to follow the particular instructions for your particular seat.) Can’t find your manual? You can search for it online or call your car seat manufacturer and speak with their customer service team. How to Clean a Car Seat gives you step-by-step tips.

Can my baby sleep in their infant car seat?

Yes, babies can fall asleep in an infant car seat, but it’s important to then transfer them to a safe sleep space like a crib or a bassinet, as the AAP recommends against the use of car seats for sleep outside of a car. The AAP also advises that babies have a break from the car seat every 90 minutes.

Can I buy a used car seat?

Car seat safety experts always recommend purchasing any car seat new, as a used seat may be damaged or may not meet current safety regulations. If you do end up selecting a used infant car seat, get it from someone you trust. Be sure the seat has never been in a crash, look up the seat’s expiration date and check for any recalls through NHTSA. If the seat is dirty, follow the manufacturer’s strict rules around how to clean the car seat; each seat has a specific set of cleaning instructions to maintain the seat’s safety and integrity.

Are rotating car seats safe?

Because all car seats sold in the US must pass the same safety standards, we know that rotating car seats meet the same safety criteria as all other types of car seats sold in this country. When using a rotating car seat, keep the following safety tips in mind:

  • Two-piece rotating car seats (base + shell) must always be used together, never on their own.

  • Never ride with a child facing sideways in a rotating car seat. Always be sure the seat is locked into either a rear- or forward-facing position. And never drive with a rotating car seat in an unlocked position, even when a child isn’t riding in the seat.

  • Max out your seat’s rear-facing height or weight limits before turning your child forward-facing. 

If I have multiple car seats in my vehicle, is it okay for them to touch?

Some car seat manufacturers allow car seats to touch each other, but it’s always best to refer to your car seat manual or call your manufacturer’s customer service department.

Jen LaBracio

Senior Gear Editor

Jen LaBracio is Babylist’s Senior Gear Editor, a role that perfectly combines her love of all things baby gear with her love of (obsessive) research. When she’s not testing out a new high chair or pushing the latest stroller model around her neighborhood, she likes to run, spin, listen to podcasts, read and spend time at the beach. In her past life, she worked for over a decade in children’s publishing. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and their two boys, Will and Ben.

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