FAQs - Frequently Asked Questions
Which child safety seat is "the best" for my child?
The "best" safety seat is the one that fits your child, fits your car, and fits your family's needs in terms of comfort and convenience, so that you'll use it on every single ride. For more information about selecting a safety seat to fit your child, see "Best Child Safety Seat."
What are the basic guidelines for proper safety seat use?
Install the safety seat so that it moves no more than an inch to the front or sideways in the vehicle (see Installation tightness).
Straps should be threaded through the slots at or below the child’s shoulders on a rear-facing safety seat and through the top strap slots in most forward-facing convertible seats. Straps should be at or above the child's shoulders in seats that only face forward, such as combination seats.
The harness should be comfortable but tight enough that the webbing cannot be pinched between your fingers (see Harness tightness).
The top of the harness retainer clip should be at armpit level.
Put any blankets or coats on top of the harness.
Restrain children in the rear seat, especially if the vehicle has a passenger air bag. Never put a rear-facing safety seat in front of a passenger air bag.
Use a top tether with forward-facing safety seats, attached to a designated tether anchor. This can reduce the forward-motion of the child's head in a crash by several crucial inches.
During cold weather, what is the best way to keep my child warm in his safety seat?
Clothing worn by children can present compression and harness routing problems. Bulky jackets and snowsuits can compress in a crash and leave the harness slack on a child, allowing excessive movement or even ejection. It is best to have children travel without coats, to put coats on backwards, or to add a blanket over the child after the harness has been buckled. Jackets that are worn the regular way should be no heavier than lightweight fleece fabric or be unfastened to allow contact between the child and the harness or vehicle belt. An option for an infant in an infant seat is a shower cap-style seat cover. This style of cover fits over the top of the infant seat, has an elastic band around the edge, and has no fabric behind or under the child. For more on this topic, go to Padded inserts, blankets, and bulky clothing.
How can I tell if the safety seat fits my car?
The best way is to try it out in your car before you buy the safety seat. You may have problems if the vehicle seat has deep contours, humps, or certain types of safety belts. Read the installation instructions that came come with the safety seat. You may need special equipment from the dealer to install your seat safely. Look in the index of your vehicle owner’s manual under “child restraint,” and read about installation. A safety seat should not wobble, pivot, slide side-to-side, or tip over. Belt-positioning boosters should also fit the shape of the vehicle seat so they sit flat and don't tip. For a booster, make sure the vehicle belt is positioned correctly on the child.
How old is too old for a safety seat?
There is some controversy about the "expiration" date for safety seats. All experts agree that a seat should be discarded and destroyed if it is more than 10 years old, even if it looks fine. Most manufacturers suggest replacing a seat 5 to 8 years after the date of manufacture, because current safety seats may have better safety features than older seats, such as a tether or air bag warnings. The date of manufacture may be found on a sticker on the seat (unless it has peeled off) and may be stamped into the plastic shell. However, don’t confuse patent dates, which can also be molded into the plastic, with the date the individual safety seat was manufactured. For more information, go to Expiration date.
What is a tether and when is it used?
A tether is a webbing strap that is attached to the top of a safety seat on one end (see Top tether) and equipped with a hook or other fastener on the other. When the safety seat is forward-facing, the tether is attached to a designated vehicle tether anchor (see Top tether anchorage). Attaching a tether can reduce the forward motion of a child’s head in a crash by 4, 6, 8, or more inches, depending on the size of the child and the severity of the crash. Use of a tether for forward-facing safety seats is strongly recommended. Tethering a rear-facing safety seat is less common and is only allowed on a few models (see Top tether, rear-facing). A tether is not necessary on booster seats, but some manufacturers suggest leaving it attached even after the harness on a combination seat has been removed.
What is LATCH?
This acronym stands for
"Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren." This new child restraint installation system has been
available on safety seats (except
car beds and
belt-positioning boosters) made after September 1, 2002, and on some made
earlier. The corresponding anchor hardware, also required by that date, is
widely available in earlier vehicles as well. For more details, go to
Is the LATCH system or the safety belt preferred?
The LATCH system allows you to securely attach your safety seat in your car without using the vehicle belt and possibly to get a better fit. For seating positions with LATCH anchors, experts recommend trying the LATCH installation first and only using the vehicle belt in that seating position if LATCH, for some reason, results in a looser fit. If you want to use the center rear seat and no LATCH anchors are available (check the vehicle owner's manual), try the vehicle belt to be sure you can get a tight installation. If you cannot, try the LATCH anchors in a different seating position.
How do I securely install a safety seat?
After you have read the instructions for both the safety seat and the vehicle, follow these steps to install the safety seat. First, compress the vehicle seat cushion by pushing down on the safety seat. Then remove all of the slack from the LATCH strap (see instructions for rigid LATCH hardware) or the vehicle belt. Finally, if using the vehicle belt, test the lap portion to make sure it is "locked" to prevent gradual loosening. For forward-facing safety seats, always attach the top tether if available. The safety seat should stay tight once it's installed.
How can I tell if my safety seat is installed tightly enough?
For a rear-facing safety seat, grasp it near the belt path on both sides and try to pull it away from the vehicle seat and from side to side. The safety seat should not slide easily more than about an inch. Then push the top edge downward, toward the floor of the car. Although the vehicle seat cushion may give, the safety seat should stay firmly in place and the back of the safety seat should stay at approximately the same angle (reclined about halfway back). It is acceptable (and normal) if the top of the safety seat can be pushed toward the rear of the car. (A few rear-facing safety seats have a tether to the floor or an anti-rebound bar to restrict this motion.) It is also normal for a rear-facing seat to swivel from side to side (toward the right or left front fender of the vehicle) when it is gripped at the top edge. If the belt is tight but the safety seat is not secure, try another seating position or a different safety seat. If an infant seat is installed with the base, try it without the base, if instructions state that it can be installed that way.
For a forward-facing safety seat with a harness, installation can always be improved with a top tether. Choose a seating position with a top tether anchor. First, install the safety seat with the vehicle belt or lower LATCH attachments, but without the top tether attached. Test the safety seat by grasping it at the belt path and pulling it forward and side to side. Then grip the top and try to pull it forward and sideways. If it can be easily moved more than an inch forward or to the side, try another seating position that also includes a tether anchor or, if using LATCH, try the vehicle belt instead. Using the best lower installation (belt or LATCH), attach and tighten the top tether. If no tether or anchor is available, try a different safety seat, order a tether kit from the safety seat manufacturer, and/or consider installing a tether anchor. Anchor kits are available for most vehicles made since 1989 and for many back to the late 1970s.
When do I need to use a locking clip?
The purpose of and need for a locking clip are often misunderstood. A locking clip keeps the lap portion of a lap-shoulder belt tight on a child safety seat by clamping it to the shoulder portion next to the latch plate. Model year 1996 and newer vehicles are supposed to have safety belts that lock in some manner for installation of child safety seats, but occasionally a locking clip is still needed to keep the lap part of the belt from loosening. If a locking clip is needed, it should be placed within a half inch of the latch plate.
A locking clip will do no good in a crash if used on a lap-only belt. If a lap-only safety belt loosens during use, try turning the latch plate over before buckling the belt. This will re-position the “tilt-lock” or locking bar mechanism used on lap-only belts and keep the belt tight.
Where is the safest place in the car for my child to sit?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends that all children 12 and under be restrained in the rear seat. Researchers estimate that putting a child in the back seat instead of the front reduces the chance of injury and death by more than 30%, whether or not the car has a passenger air bag. The center of the back seat is the farthest away from a possible side impact, so we always try first to install a safety seat there. If you can't secure the safety seat firmly in the center or there is more than one child in the car, you will need to use an outboard (side) seating position. Safety seats fit differently with various vehicle belts and seat cushions, and a tight fit is very important. If the car has lap-shoulder belts on the sides only, older children in boosters or belts alone should sit on the side instead of using a lap-only belt in the center. If there are two young children in the family, it may be necessary to separate them (for various behavioral reasons, and particularly if one is a vulnerable newborn) and not use the center seat for either one. For more information, go to Seating position.
How do I secure a newborn in a safety seat?
A newborn will need to ride facing the rear of the vehicle in a safety seat reclined halfway back. This gives the best protection for the head and neck while keeping the airway open. (See also Angle of recline, rear-facing.) The first preference for location of the safety seat in the vehicle is the center rear seat, farthest from all points of potential impact. Choices of safety seat include an infant-only seat, preferably with a 5-point harness, or a 5-point harness convertible seat that is certified to at least 30 lb. rear-facing. A child born prematurely requires testing in a safety seat for potential breathing and heart-rate problems. Some of these infants will need to use a crash-tested infant car bed instead of a standard rear-facing safety seat. When identifying the best safety seat, look for at least one set of very low harness strap slots, so that the straps come up and over the baby’s shoulders.
Place the baby in the safety seat buttocks first, with the infant’s back resting against the safety seat back. The baby should not be dressed in a sack-type outfit but in something that keeps the legs free. Next imagine the baby as a star, and place the straps over the child, coming together at the buckle. One leg is on each side of the crotch strap with the harness across the baby’s hips or thighs, and each arm is outside the shoulder strap, not under it. Because newborns make involuntary movements with their limbs and may be a bit tricky to harness, try adjusting the harness in two stages. First, be sure that some soft fabric (the baby’s collar or a short, thin strap cover) is between the harness and the infant’s neck to avoid chafing, and then tighten each strap part of the way. Now make the harness “snug,” so that slack cannot be pinched near the shoulder (see Harness tightness), and slide the shoulder harness retainer clip up so the top is at armpit level. There should be nothing added under the baby. Blankets can go over the harnessed baby. In other words, strap before you wrap.
Rolled receiving blankets on each side of the child's body can give support needed by filling the spaces to the sides. Be sure to keep the blankets outside of the harness and out from under the baby. If necessary, place a diaper wedge between the crotch and crotch strap to reduce slumping.
When can I turn my baby around to face forward in the car?
When he is at least 2 years old, and preferably longer. (Swedish children ride rear-facing until at least three years old in safety seats made to fit larger children.) In a crash, an infant's spinal cord may stretch if she is riding facing forward, and the baby could die or be paralyzed for life. This is true even for babies who have strong neck muscles and good head control. For children between age 1 and 2, it is 5 times safer to ride facing the back of the car.
Most convertible safety seats can be used facing the rear up to 35-45 pounds. So there is no reason to turn your baby forward before age one and risk spinal injury. Do not use a rear-facing-only seat if your baby weighs more than the maximum shown in the instructions (22-35 lbs.) or if her head is within an inch of the top edge of the seat. When using a convertible seat rear-facing, make sure the child's head is below the top of the safety seat, so that the head is not exposed to contact with the vehicle interior.
Why is facing rearward so important?
Babies have heavy heads and fragile necks. The neck bones are soft, and the ligaments are stretchy. If the baby is facing forward in a frontal crash (the most common and most severe type of crash), the body is held back by the straps, but the head is not. The head is thrust forward, stretching the neck. Older children and adults wearing safety belts may end up with temporary neck injuries. But a baby's neck bones are soft and actually separate during a crash, and the spinal cord can tear. It's like yanking an electrical plug out of a socket by the cord and breaking the wires.
In contrast, when a baby rides facing rearward, the whole body--head, neck, and torso--is cradled by the back of the safety seat in a frontal crash. Facing rearward also protects the baby better in other types of crashes, particularly side impacts. For more information, go to "Rear-facing vs. forward-facing."
Is it safe for my rear-facing baby’s feet to touch the vehicle seatback?
There is no evidence that longer legs are at risk of injury in a crash; in fact, leg and foot injuries are more common in children facing the front of the car. Most children learn to fold up their legs for comfort when their feet touch the back of the vehicle seat. The only physical limit on rear-facing use is when the child's head comes near the top of the safety seat. At this point, the child should be moved to a rear-facing convertible restraint. For taller rear-facing children, the concern is not potential leg injuries but possible head contact with the vehicle interior in a severe rear impact or during rebound from a severe frontal collision. This can be controlled by using a rear-facing seat equipped with a rear-facing tether (Swedish style).
My child is over 40 pounds but not ready for a belt-positioning booster. What are my options?
There are many safety seats available that provide a 5-point harness for children over 40 pounds.
When can my child use the regular vehicle belt without a booster?
The best way to determine if a child is ready to use the safety belt without a booster is to take the 5-Step Test. Most children need to use a booster until they are at least age 10-12.
My child and I were in a crash. Should I replace the safety seat?
Generally, the recommendation is to replace all safety seats in use in a crash. It is almost impossible to tell if there is internal weakening of the plastic, and it would be very expensive to perform a thorough investigation of the safety seat to verify that it is safe to use. In California and Illinois, state law requires that the responsible insurer replace safety seats that were in use at the time of the crash. In other states, the insurer of the responsible party may pay for the replacement of the safety seat. If your agent is not aware of the need for this replacement, SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. will provide a letter of support for this position.
Which child safety seat is escape-proof?
Unfortunately, there is no escape-proof safety seat. Children who learn how to get out of one kind of safety seat soon learn how to escape from others. However, most children quickly respond to parental firmness. This finding is based on a study conducted by SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. with data collected from a range of English- and Spanish-speaking families.
For the others, first make sure that the shoulder straps are in the correct slots, that the harness is very snug, and that the retainer clip is in place at armpit level.
Next, plan to spend one or two intense weeks working on the problem. Bring the safety seat into your home and let your child play "mom" or "dad," and carefully buckle in a favorite doll or animal. This dramatic play begins the process of identification with the best way to behave. Schedule each trip so that you have enough time to pull over and stop the car every single time your child gets out of the safety seat. Each time, explain that you cannot drive until everyone is buckled up. If you act bored instead of angry, she will soon get tired of misbehaving.
Plan some rewards, too. For instance, arrange a special trip to a place the child likes to visit and explain that the car will get there faster if everyone stays buckled up. Try playing audio cassettes your child likes, and rotate them to prevent boredom. Also, give your child soft toys and books to enjoy in the car, but nothing hard or sharp that could hurt someone in a crash. Children look forward to having special toys for trips. Rotating a few items from week to week will help keep their interest.
If your child belongs to a day care or activity group, discuss the need for a buckle-up program for all of the children and parents. There are probably other parents who would welcome this kind of help as well. The excellent "Bucklebear" curriculum and associated materials can be helpful in such efforts.
Is it safe for two children to share one safety belt?
No. A crash test was conducted with two "child" dummies sitting side by side and buckled into one belt. The dummies' heads crashed together hard enough to cause severe injuries, and real children have died this way. Children have also died when sitting on someone's lap, with both of them buckled into one belt. In a crash, the lap-held child is crushed to death as the weight of the older child or adult presses him against the belt. Remember this rule: "One person, one safety belt." If you transport more people in your vehicle than you have belts, you may not have adequate insurance to cover all of the claims resulting from a crash. In many states, this practice is also illegal.
Can I put my child in the front seat of a pickup truck?
Many pickup trucks have back seats that are too small for child safety seats. Researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have found that the risk of injury to children riding in the back seat of a compact extended-cab pickup truck is five times higher than when riding in any other vehicle. Injuries appear to be caused by hitting the inside of the pickup.
If you have a larger pickup with a back seat that faces the front of the truck, a safety seat may be installed there if the truck’s manual recommends it and the safety seat’s base is supported by the truck seat cushion. Check the instruction booklet, since manufacturers require that 80-100% of the base be touching the vehicle seat. You can reduce the risk of injury for forward-facing children by tethering the safety seat. Using a top tether can greatly reduce the chance of a child’s head striking the interior of the pickup. Installation of a safety seat on a side-facing jump seat is not allowed by any child restraint manufacturer.
If you must install a safety seat in the front seat of a pickup truck, make sure the air bag is turned off, either with an on/off switch or with an automatic sensor (check indicator light). Some passenger air bags will expand to cover the center seating position, so installing a safety seat in that location may be dangerous to your child. Check the vehicle owner’s manual to find out where child safety seats may be installed. Installing a safety seat in the front seat of any vehicle increases the risk of death to your child by more than 30%, so a pickup truck without a back seat is not the safest choice for transporting a child.
Should my child use a safety seat on an airplane?
Yes. The Federal Aviation Administration strongly recommends, but does not require, using safety seats on airplanes. Babies and children are much better protected during turbulence and in emergency landings when they use a safety seat. SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. has petitioned the FAA to require all passengers to be buckled up, including children under two, who currently are exempt. The White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security has recommended that all children be properly restrained.
If you buy a ticket for your child, you have a right to use the safety seat, just as you would in your car. But if you don't buy a ticket and want to use the nearest empty seat, the airline can refuse. Find the wording on the safety seat label and in the instruction booklet that says your seat is certified for use in aircraft, in case a flight attendant questions you. Many airlines have discounts for children under age two.
Measure your safety seat at its widest point. It should be no wider than 17", or it probably won't fit into a coach-class seat. Since airplanes have no shoulder belts, belt-positioning boosters cannot be used. Stand-alone harnesses made for cars also cannot be used on aircraft, but there is an FAA-approved harness (for positioning only, not upper body restraint).
Rear-facing seats protect best, but a forward-facing safety seat is much better than none. If you plan to use a forward-facing seat, follow these steps to get it tight. Recline the airplane seatback; thread the belt through the safety seat; face the buckle flap backwards (toward the airplane seatback, so that you will have room to open it again); buckle the belt; kneel in the safety seat and pull on the loose end of the airplane belt to tighten it; get out and bring the airplane seatback fully upright.
For more information, go to Aircraft Travel.
How should a pregnant woman protect herself in a vehicle?
Car crashes are the leading cause of death and serious trauma during pregnancy. It is not possible to determine precise numbers, but estimates suggest that every year there are several hundred fetal losses in collisions during the last half of pregnancy, and the number could be over 1000. This is many more than the approximately 180 babies less than one year old who are annually killed in crashes. In addition, approximately 160 pregnant women die along with their fetuses in highway crashes each year.
Wearing a safety belt protects not only the pregnant woman but also her unborn baby. An analysis of several years of Utah death records found that fetal death from a vehicle crash was 2.8 times more likely if the pregnant woman was unbelted than if she was belted. It is essential that the safety belt be placed properly, with the lap portion across the pelvic bones, below the belly, and the shoulder portion centered on the shoulder and chest. Adjust or remove coats so they don’t interfere with belt fit. To reduce risks, pregnant women may choose to travel less, especially in hazardous conditions, and to sit in the back seat, when possible, as long as a lap-shoulder belt is used. Do not turn off or disconnect air bags. When driving, sit as far away as possible from the steering wheel and tilt it toward the chest, not the belly or face. If a pregnant woman is involved in any crash, even a very minor one, she should immediately go to the hospital or her obstetrician’s office for fetal monitoring.
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