The most important purchase you'll make
before having your baby is a car safety seat. You will need one to
bring your baby home from the hospital and for every car trip
thereafter. More children are killed or injured in car crashes than
in any other type of accident, so it pays to buckle them up in a car
seat. Every state has a law requiring babies and children to ride
The following sections will give you
information on choosing, installing, and using a car seat.
Car Seat Basics
There is no one "best" car seat. However, any
seat you consider should meet federal guidelines and should be
installed according to the manufacturer's instructions. You might
wish to try out the car seat in your car before purchasing it. Many
stores provide a doll to use to figure out what it will be like to
put your child into the car seat.
If you want to use a used car seat, keep the
following points in mind. Never use a car seat that:
- Has been in a crash
- Has any cracks in the shell
- Has frayed straps
- Is too old. Check the label to see when the
seat was made. Check with the manufacturer to find out how long it
recommends using the seat.
- Has no manufacturer's instructions for
installation and use
- Is missing the model number (needed to check
for recalls and upgrades)
- Has been recalled
Rules of the Road
- Always use a car seat, starting with your
baby's first ride home from the hospital. Always use a seat belt
yourself, as this keeps you safe, prevents you from injuring a child
in the course of a crash, and sets a pattern for your child to
- Read and carefully follow the car seat
manufacturer's instructions on installation and keep them for future
- Read your vehicle owner's manual for more
information on how to install a car seat.
- If you don't know how to install the car seat
and can't figure it out, use this Website to locate a Child
Passenger Safety (CPS) technician or site to help you.
- Put your child's car seat in the backseat. In
fact, place all children younger than 13 in the backseat. It's the
safest place in the car in the event of a head-on crash (the most
common kind of crash).
- Use the harness system to hold your child in
the car seat. Use a seat belt or LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers
for Children) system to hold the car seat in the car. LATCH is
mandated for all cars and car seats manufactured after September
2002, and it allows for better head protection as well as easier
installation. LATCH systems can be retro fitted into older cars at a
car dealership, for a small fee.
- Before each trip, check to make sure the car
seat is installed tightly enough. It should not easily roll from
side to side or away from the seat.
- Dress your baby so that the strap can go
between his legs. In cold weather, put blankets around the child
after the straps are secured.
- Check for worn straps and padding. Check to be
sure that the specific car seat has not been recalled by contacting
the manufacturer or the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
- If your child will regularly ride in two or
more different cars, it may be easier and safer to purchase and
install a seat for each vehicle, and keep them installed correctly.
- All belts should fit kids snugly, but not
chafe. Regularly check and adjust your child's car seat straps as he
- Place the plastic harness strap clip at armpit
level, keeping the straps flat. Make sure the straps are not frayed.
- Make sure that metal components of the seat
are never in direct contact with your child's skin. They can get
very hot and burn your child.
Infant-Only Car Seats
- Are used for young babies up to 22 to 35
pounds, depending on the model
- Are small and portable and fit newborns best
- Are rear-facing only (baby faces the back
seat, not the front of the car)
- Come with a three-point harness or a
Infant Seat Features
- Detachable base. Several
infant seat models come with detachable bases. This type of base
also allows for adjustment in the reclining angle, with small
infants needing to be more reclined than older infants. After
buckling your baby into the seat, you simply lock the seat into the
base. The base must be installed tightly and the seat snugly locked
in every time.
- Harness slots. Infant seats
that come with more than one harness slot provide more room for
growing babies. On rear-facing seats, the harness slots should
always be at or below your baby's shoulders.
- Handles. Carrying handles
vary hugely in style and ease of use. Check the instructions for how
to secure the handle during travel.
- Pads and padding. Infant car
seats will get dirty, so pick one that you can easily clean. Head
supports are very helpful for most newborns and all preemies. If the
seat doesn't have separate head supports, purchase such padding
before you go to the hospital to give birth. Never put padding
between the baby and the harness.
- Can be used rear-facing for infants and
toddlers, and forward-facing for older children
- Do not fit newborns as well as infant seats
(note: If you'll be using a convertible car seat for a small infant,
the best harness choice is the five-point harness)
- Are bulkier and may be heavier than infant
seats but can be used longer. Place your convertible seat in the
rear-facing position until your child is 2 or until your child
reaches the highest weight or height recommended by the
- Convertible seats have four types of
- Five-point harness. It has
five straps: two at the shoulder, two at the hips, and one at the
- Six-point harness. There are
two straps each at the shoulders, hips, and crotch.
- T-shield. This is a padded
T-shaped or triangular shield, attached to shoulder straps, that
goes across the child's chest.
- Overhead shield. This padded,
tray-like shield swings down around the child.
Convertible seat features
- Adjustable buckles and
shields. Many convertible seats give you two or more buckle
positions so you can adjust the straps for a growing child. Many
overhead shields can be adjusted as well.
- Higher weight limits. Several
convertible seats now come with higher weight limits for bigger
These are for older and bigger children
beyond infancy. They
- cannot be used rear-facing
- are only for children 2 years of age and older
- may convert to belt-positioning boosters for
children over 40 pounds, allowing you to use this seat longer
- can be used with a lap belt only or a
- Forward-facing seats include:
- Built-in seats. Some new cars
and vans come with pre-installed car seats. This eliminates
installation hassles for you, but weight and height limits vary
widely. Check these limits and stay within them.
- Travel vests. These may be an
option if your car has only lap belts.
When your child has outgrown the
forward-facing car seat, it's time for a belt-positioning booster
seat. These seats raise the child up and help protect the neck and
head. All children whose weight and height exceed the forward-facing
seat's limits should use a booster seat until the vehicle seat belt
Check for Recalls
Has your baby's car seat been recalled? To
find out, telephone the manufacturer or the Vehicle Safety hotline at
Car Seats on Airplanes
For information about using your car seat on an airplane, visit the
FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) Website
Guidelines for Very Small Passengers
Infants born earlier than 37 weeks and those
who weigh less than 5 1/2 pounds (2,500 grams) may require special
treatment to travel safely in a car, as they can have difficulty
breathing in a standard car seat.
Safety begins before hospital discharge:
While still in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit), the infant
needs to be placed in the proposed car seat with the trained nursing
staff monitoring heart rate, respirations, and blood oxygen levels.
If these measurements are adversely affected by sitting in the car
seat, the infant needs to be placed in a greater reclining position
or in a car bed or other device that allows safe transport in a more
horizontal position. (In addition, babies who have trouble breathing
in regular car seats should avoid infant swings, carriers, and seats,
as these cause the same kinds of problems as a car seat.)
Once the best car seat or car bed has been
determined, it should be placed in the backseat, facing the rear of
the car. An adult should sit next to the infant at all times, ready
to respond to any difficulty. If home monitoring equipment is needed
by an individual infant, it should be used while in the car with the
devices firmly wedged on the floor or under the seat and kept there
throughout the trip. These devices can become projectiles in a crash
or a sudden stop if they're not secured properly.
No infant should ever be left alone in a car,
even for a minute.
Once it's been shown that a baby can be
safely transported safety in an upright or semi-upright position,
check to make sure the car seat fits its small passenger:
- Infant-only, three-point harness seats or
convertible five-point harness seats are the best for the small
- No seats with shields, tummy pads, or arm
rests should be used.
- The crotch strap should be less than 5 1/2
inches from the back of the seat.
- The shoulder harness insertion/attachment
should be less than 10 inches above the seat base.
- The shoulder strap slots should be above the
infant's shoulders but not so high as to cut into the neck.
- The strap clip should be at the infant's
mid-chest, not over the abdomen or at the neck.
- A rolled-up receiving blanket, towel, or cloth
diaper should be placed on both sides of the infant to reduce
slumping. No padding should be under or behind the infant, as the
child should be firmly secured against the bottom and back of the
For more information, see the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy
statement on the transportation of small infants. An AAP-approved
video, Special Delivery: Safe Transportation of Premature and Small
Infants, is available for viewing at many hospitals.
AAP Car Seat Guide
Click here for more information from the American Academy of Pediatrics.