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Understanding the Three Car Seat Stages and What Seats to Buy

I have had a lot of questions about when to move baby from one car seat stage to the next. Babies start with rear-facing car seats, move to forward-facing, and then finally booster seats.

Motor vehicle crashes are the number one reason for accidental death of children under 13. It also continues to trend in the top three until 18 years of age. Because driving and riding in vehicles is the most dangerous thing we do daily, I always recommend that parents keep their baby in each car seat stage as long as possible. This also is the stance of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Here, we’re sharing a breakdown of each type of car seat, as well as some recommendations of car seats in each of the three stafes. Please be mindful that these options are not the only ones. You should meet with a car seat technician (you can find a local CPST here) to get advice specific to your vehicle and child. The best car seat is the one that fits your child, fits your vehicle, and that you can use correctly all of the time.

Rear-Facing Car Seats

Using a rear-facing car seat is by far the most beneficial thing that you can do for your child in a vehicle. It protects their head, neck, and spine. In a frontal collision, the head and neck of a young child who is forward facing would not be able to sustain the crash forces. When rear facing in a frontal collision, the child is pushed into the car seat and moves with it, while the car seat takes the brunt of the crash force. The crash forces are spread along the backside of the seat, and the child’s head, neck, and spine remain in a relatively straight line.

Some states have laws on the books that you must remain rear facing until at least age 2. Some also have what are called “proper-use” clauses that say you must follow the manufacturer’s instructions. For example, if you live in a “proper-use” state, and you have an Evenflo convertible car seat, you must rear face until age 2, since this is a requirement set by the manufacturer.

AAP says to rear face until the upper height or weight limits of the seat are met. This statement was updated in August of 2018 after a study that cited children were safer rear-facing through their second year was retracted by the British Medical Journal. NHTSA recommends rear facing for as long as possible, as well. While all families’ goals for rear facing are different, one thing is true: it is safer to rear face for as long as possible.

mom putting her baby into rear facing car seat

Properly Using a Rear-Facing Car Seat

When fitting a child into a rear-facing car seat, place the child in the seat with their bottom at the back of the car seat. The harness should come from at or just below the child’s shoulder and lay flat against the child. You should not be able to pinch the harness’s webbing with your thumb and forefinger when checking at the shoulder.

There are two main types of rear-facing seats: Rear facing only seats (also called infant seats or bucket seats) and convertible seats.

Rear-facing-only seats are very commonly used for newborns and infants. They have a carry handle and often come with a detachable base, which makes it very convenient if using different vehicles to transport your baby. They often are called convenience car seats because they also attach to a stroller.

Convertible car seats are seats that will remain in the vehicle and cannot be removed once installed. They are cost efficient since they last much longer than a rear-facing-only car seat. But if multiple people transport your child, you will likely have to buy a a car seat for each vehicle.

Rear-Facing-Only Seats

Safety 1st Onboard 35 LT
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Pros: Fits small infants well; lightweight; good price
Cons: Only two available recline positions

Evenflo LiteMax
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Pros: Fits small infants well; lightweight; good price; two crotch buckle positions; some styles have a load leg
Cons: Requires 1.5″ clearance between the vehicle seat and car seat

Chicco Keyfit 30
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Pros: Allows handle in any position; fits small infants well; front-adjust harness
Cons: Must remove infant padding at 11 pounds; heavier than most

Nuna Pipa

Nuna pipa baby car seat
Pros: Allows handle in any position; fits small infants well; load leg; two crotch buckle positions
Cons: Can be difficult to find locally; load leg cannot be used in seating positions with store-and-go seating

Convertible Seats

Cosco Scenera Next
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Pros: Compact front to back; easy to install; lightweight; narrow, good price
Cons: Low harness height makes the seat outgrow forward-facing before rear-facing—many children will outgrow the seat completely around age 3

Evenflo SureRide 65
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Pros: Easy to install; fits average-size newborns; lightweight; narrow; good price; two crotch buckle positions
Cons: Harness is quite short so may not expand enough to fit child at the upper end of the weight limit; narrow placement of harness straps can irritate the necks of some children; has a single required recline angle

Britax ClickTight Convertibles
Britax clicktight car seatir?t=articles03e4 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=B088V7ZTR6
Pros: Compact front to back; easy to install; easy to remove cover for cleaning; fits average-size newborns; tall shell for rear-facing; taller harness height than G4 models; two crotch buckle positions
Cons: Heavy; short crotch buckle; mall interior doesn’t provide much legroom for your child

Nuna Rava

Nuna rava baby car seat
Pros: 50-pound rear-facing weight limit; compact front to back when calf extension is not used for older infants/children; easy to install; fits average-size newborns; two crotch buckle positions
Cons: Can be difficult to find locally; heavy; must also lock the vehicle belt with True Tension System

Forward-Facing Car Seats

On all forward-facing seats in the US and Canada, there is a set of Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH). While most people are familiar with the lower anchors, Safe Kids found that 64 percent of families are not using the tether while forward-facing. Many parents and caregivers are unfamiliar with the benefits of using the tether for a forward-facing car seat. The tether can reduce forward head movement (called excursion) by 4–6 inches. Because the back seat of most passenger vehicles is quite small, that 4–6 inches of reduction in forward movement can be the difference in your child’s head hitting the front seat or not.

Ohio State’s Buckle Up with Brutus has a few good videos on YouTube and one specifically about the benefits of tethering your forward-facing car seat.

When fitting a child into a forward-facing car seat, place the child in the seat with their bottom at the back of the car seat. The harness should come from at or just above the child’s shoulder and lay flat against the child. You should not be able to pinch the harness’s webbing with your thumb and forefinger when checking at the shoulder.

Forward-facing seats come in two main types: convertible and combination car seats.

A convertible seat is one that goes from rear-facing to forward-facing. A combination seat (also called Harnessed Boosters by some manufacturers) is a seat that starts as a forward-facing car seat with a 5-point harness and moves to a belt-positioning booster seat.

Cosco Finale
Cosco finale car seat ir?t=articles03e4 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=B073VPXWD6
Pros: Lightweight; narrow; good price
Cons: Does not convert to backless; often provides poor belt fit in booster mode; shorter top harness slot height

Graco Wayz/Tranzitions
Graco Wayz car seat ir?t=articles03e4 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=B06Y1N7G1N
Pros: Lightweight; narrow; good price; shoulder belt guide to help with seat belt fit when used backless; two crotch buckle positions
Cons: Does not allow the seat to overhang the vehicle seat in booster mode; harness must be fully removed when switching to booster mode; high, narrow belt path can make installation a challenge in some vehicles

Graco Nautilus
Graco Nautilus car seat ir?t=articles03e4 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=B014DWNLW4
Pros: Easy to install; shoulder belt guide to help with seat belt fit when used backless; three crotch buckle positions
Cons: Can cause head slump in some models; does not allow the seat to overhang the vehicle seat in booster mode; harness must be fully removed when switching to booster mode; not easily switched from high back to backless modes

Chicco MyFit
Chicco MyFit car seatir?t=articles03e4 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=B078T5N4Y4
Pros: Allows up to 3″ of overhang; high harness slots; well-padded; two crotch buckle positions
Cons: Complicated steps to convert from booster to harness; does not become backless; headrest can make a rattling noise

Booster Seats

Your child should stay in their harness for as long as possible. Just like when you move from rear-facing to forward-facing, when you move from a harness to a booster seat, you are losing a layer of protection. You are going from five points of contact (shoulder-shoulder-hip-hip-crotch) to three points of contact (shoulder-hip-hip). As for the minimum age and weight to move, I recommend harnessing until your child is at least 5 years old and 40 pounds.

Your child also needs to have the maturity to sit correctly for the entire car journey every time, even while sleeping. This last point is the place that I get the most pushback. Most caregivers say their children don’t sit perfectly still and lean out of the seatbelt when they are sleeping. I tell them that it is not safe for children to do that — an adult’s skeleton is fully formed and can handle crash forces a bit better. For children, the seatbelt is important in helping to protect them in a collision with an underdeveloped skeleton.

As for the safety difference between a high-back booster and a backless one, there really isn’t one. A high-back booster offers some side-impact protection, whereas a backless one does not. A high-back booster seat should always be used if the vehicle doesn’t have a head restraint (headrest). I always recommend that a child who is new in a booster should have a high-back booster as it reminds them to remain upright and the headwings will give them a place to rest their head if they fall asleep.

Fitting a child into a booster is integral to using the booster correctly. The child should sit with their back flat against the back of the booster seat (or vehicle seat if you’re using a backless booster seat). The shoulder belt should use the shoulder belt guide (if there is one, it is red) and the shoulder belt should come between their neck and the cap of their shoulder and touch the child’s clavicle. The lap belt should lay low across the hips, touching the upper thighs.

Graco Turbo Booster

Graco turbo booster car seat
Pros: Converts to backless; does not require vehicle head support; good price; shoulder belt guide to help with seat belt fit when used backless
Cons: Does not allow the booster to overhang the vehicle seat; lacks padding; requires assembly (screws in the armrests being a major factor)

Diono Monterey XT
Diono booster seatir?t=articles03e4 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=B07S9DYYB5
Pros: Converts to backless; deep head/torso support and seating area; shoulder belt guide to help with seat belt fit when used backless; wide seating area is comfortable for bigger kids
Cons: 40-pound minimum does not allow small but appropriately mature 6–7-year-olds to use the seat; can be difficult to find locally; does not allow the booster to overhang the vehicle seat; requires a vehicle head restraint

Britax Highpoint
Britax high point booster seat ir?t=articles03e4 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=B07XSBGGTF
Pros: Cupholders can be removed for more room; does not require vehicle head support; has a belt guide to keep the lap belt positioned appropriately
Cons: 40-pound minimum does not allow small but appropriately mature 6–7-year-olds to use the seat; does not allow the booster to overhang the vehicle seat

In addition to those listed above, there are a couple of booster seats and harnesses that I would recommend for certain situations:

Ride Safer Delight (formerly Ride Safer Travel Vest)
Ride Safer travel vest ir?t=articles03e4 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=B07WDWZHTH
Pros: Does not take up any more space than the child’s body; lightweight; portable
Cons: Can be tricky to thread seat belt through guides; must be ordered online

BubbleBum Inflatable Booster
Bubblebum inflatable booster ir?t=articles03e4 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=B00AQYZCXK
Pros: Comes with a carrying bag; easy to inflate; tested both inflated and deflated; small for travel
Cons: Lap belt guides need caregiver/parent assistance; not ideal for everyday travel; small seating area so older kids don’t like it as much

MiFold
Mifold booster seat ir?t=articles03e4 20&language=en US&l=li3&o=1&a=B01H5VJJTE
Pros: Folds and fits in a backpack or glove compartment; great for travel
Cons: Needs adult help to get a good belt fit; is not a ‘booster’ but is a belt-positioning device that brings the seatbelt down to meet the child

Using the Adult Seat Belt

Children should remain in a booster seat until these five conditions are met:

  1. They can sit with their back against the vehicle seat.
  2. Their knees bend naturally at the edge of the seat.
  3. Their feet touch the floor.
  4. The seat belt fits across their body correctly. The lap belt should be low on the hips, touching the upper thighs and the shoulder belt should be hitting the clavicle between their neck and shoulder. The shoulder belt should be touching their collar bone.
  5. This position can be maintained for the entire ride.

Moving a child to a seatbelt too soon could result in seatbelt syndrome in a collision. Most children are not ready for a seatbelt until they are between 10 and 12 years of age. The adult seatbelt is designed to fit adult males who are about 4’9”. While this is a general height, there are some situations in which a child may fit all the criteria above before reaching that height in some seating positions in some vehicles. There are also some situations that an older child may need a booster in some vehicles for longer than others.

Related: Best Infant Car Seats for 2020

Cecilia Pearson
Cecilia Pearson
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