If you’re expecting a child, one of the first practical things you will do before baby arrives is get the car seat adjusted and ready. There are many blog posts about dad’s first attempts at putting together the car seat. Getting that first car seat is indeed an exciting event, but as parents quickly find out, there’s much more to car seats than meets the eye. There are state and local laws, manufacturer recommendations, and old wives tales. How can parents sort out the most important facts? Here are some guidelines on car seats to put you on the right path.

1. Car seats have expiration dates, so check with the manufacturer before you purchase or accept a used car seat. Components can become worn down and may be subject to failure past their expiration date. Most car seats have an expiration date of 5 years. To be on the safe side, you should always get a new seat after 5 years. If you are having a baby, don’t buy a used seat. Get one that is new and meets the most updated safety guidelines.

2. The law in most states permit babies to start sitting front-facing at 12 months old. However, the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) recommends that they sit rear-facing for as long as possible, until they are either too heavy or too tall for their car seat. They recommend waiting to turn the baby around until he or she is a toddler at age 2, if possible.

3. What is too tall? You may think it means that your child’s legs are long enough to press against the back of the seat, but this is incorrect. There’s nothing wrong with having your child’s knees bent when they are in the car seat. So again, what is too tall? If the top of their head is less an one inch from the top of car seat. The inch is to ensure there is enough room to protect their head if the seat moves due to a crash.

4. Regarding the weight limit, many parents get confused because there is such a wide variety of weight recommendations for different kinds of car seats according to the manufacturer’s guidelines. The AAP clarifies, “Your child should remain in a rear-facing car seat until he or she reaches the top height or weight limit allowed by your car seat’s manufacturer. Once your child outgrows the rear-facing car seat, your child is ready to travel in a forward-facing car seat with a harness.”

5. The best recommendation here is to buy a car seat with a 35, 40, 45, or 50 lb weight limit. Although there are instruction manuals with some car seats that suggest the child should be turned forward-facing once he or she reaches 12 months or 20 lbs, this is not quite right. The rule of thumb is still that the child should remain rear-facing.

6. The best place to put a car seat or booster seat in the car is in the center position of the backseat. Statistically it is 45% safer to put the seat in the middle than on the sides. Sometimes you may have more than one child and that location will not be possible, but always try to put the youngest child in the center position.

7. According to the Car Seat Lady, there is no need to rush your child into a booster seat. Your child should be at least 40 pounds and 4 years old before graduating to a booster seat. Once the child is in a booster seat, it should always have both a lap and shoulder belt.

8. The problem with sitting your 4 or 5 year old child in the seat and using your car’s seat belt is that your child is not tall enough for the belt to work. Kids can slip out of the shoulder belt easily.

9. A lap is never a less dangerous option. Many parents believe that for short rides, or taxi rides, they can forgo the car seat and just hold the child in their lap. This is dangerous even if they are in a carrier. You also can’t safely share a seat belt. Riding on mom or dad’s lap gives the baby no protection. If you don’t have a car seat with you, then you are still better off trying to situate the child on the seat next to you with a safety belt.

Resources: The Car Seat Lady has a wealth of information for parents and a summary of current research and safety statistics. The National Traffic Highway Safety Administration (NTHSA) has crash statistics, recommendations and flyers with the accepted best practices.

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