Car seats are essential for keeping young children safe when traveling by car. However, many parents are unsure exactly how long their kids need to remain in a car seat. The guidelines can vary depending on the age, weight, and height of the child, so it’s important to understand the recommended best practices.

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Infant Rear-Facing Seats

Experts recommend that infants and toddlers are restrained in a rear-facing car seat until they reach the maximum height and weight for the seat, typically around 2 years old. Rear-facing seats provide the best protection for a child’s head, neck, and spine in the event of a crash.

It’s crucial to keep children rear-facing as long as possible, even if they outgrow the infant seat and need to move to a convertible or all-in-one car seat. Some convertible seats can accommodate children up to 40-50 lbs rear-facing. Parents should reference the seat’s weight and height limits and keep their child rear-facing until they max out those specifications.

Forward-Facing with Harness

Once a child outgrows the rear-facing limits, they can transition to a forward-facing car seat with a harness. The AAP recommends children remain in a forward-facing seat with a harness until they reach the maximum weight or height for that seat, typically around 4-7 years old depending on the seat.

Forward-facing seats should always be installed in the back seat of the vehicle. The back seat is the safest place for children under 13 years.

If there are suitable anchor points, install a car seat in the middle of the back seat.

Children with disabilities who can’t keep their head and neck straight should use a car seat with a recline feature to stop their head from drooping.

Booster Seats

After outgrowing the forward-facing seat with a harness, children should use a belt-positioning booster seat until the vehicle’s seat belt fits properly. This is usually when they reach 4’9″ tall and between 8-12 years old.

Booster seats help position the vehicle’s seat belt correctly across the strong bones of the upper thighs and lower abdomen. This helps distribute crash forces more evenly in the event of a collision.

Risks of Improper Car Seat Use

There were 42,939 motor vehicle accident fatalities in the US in 2021, with 3% of them children aged 14 and under. This represented an increase of 8% from 2020.

Using car seats and booster seats correctly is critical for keeping children safe. An improperly used or installed car seat provides significantly less protection than one that is used correctly.

Research shows that car seats reduce the risk of fatal injury by 71% for infants and 54% for toddlers in passenger cars. However, a car seat that is not properly installed or used can be just as dangerous as not using one at all. Of the children who died in car accidents in 2021, 35% were not secured by a child restraint.  

Common mistakes include:

  • Forward-facing a child too soon
  • Not tightening the harness enough
  • Placing the car seat in the front seat with an active airbag
  • Using an expired or damaged car seat
  • Allowing a child to use just the vehicle’s seat belt before they are tall enough

According to Stephen Schultz and Joshua Myers, car accident attorneys at Schultz & Myers Personal Injury Lawyers, these types of errors can lead to serious or even fatal injuries in a crash. Parents should carefully read the car seat and vehicle manuals to ensure proper installation and use.

By following the expert recommendations and using car seats correctly, parents can help keep their kids as safe as possible when traveling by vehicle.