Car Seat Basics: Selection and Use

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle crashes are the #1 killer of kids in age groups 1-14.  Safe Kids USA says motor vehicle crashes are the #1 cause of unintentional injury-related death for all children 14 and under.  While some crashes are unsurvivable, over 57% of deaths for children 0-15 were because the child was unrestrained.  Many more were improperly restrained.  Nationally, the misuse rate for child safety seats is over 80% and as high as 95% in some areas.   The good news is that correct use of car seats and boosters does save lives.  Infant seats have been shown to reduce fatal injury by 71%, and toddler seats by 54%.  The information and links on this web page can help you with one of the easiest and most important ways you can protect your children.

Ten Basic Rules:
  • Kids 12 and under should ALWAYS ride in the back seat. This cuts their risk of death by 36%.
  • Kids should be in a carseat or booster until they can be seated properly in a seatbelt.  For most kids, this is around 8-12 years old or 4′ 9″ tall, but proper seatbelt fit is the most important factor.
  • Never place a rear-facing carseat in the front seat when there is an active frontal airbag.
  • Keep your baby rear-facing as long as possible.  That can mean up to 35 or 40 pounds in most current convertible seats, unless they outgrow it by height first.
  • All current car seats pass government safety standards.   Select the one that best fits your child, your vehicle and your budget.  Some models do have different features; select one that has the features that will allow you to use it correctly EVERY trip.
  • Always read the owners manuals for your vehicle and carseat thoroughly.  They often contain specific information about carseat installation that may not be obvious.  Some models may vary from what you would expect.
  • Make sure that the harness fits snugly on your child, the carseat fits snugly in your vehicle, and that your vehicle seatbelts are locked properly.
  • When you buy a carseat, make sure you have a good return policy in case it doesn’t fit or in case you find you don’t like it.  Have your seat inspected by a certified technician for free at a checkup event or fitting station.
  • Please be wary of used carseats, especially those over six years old, those with an unknown history that may have been in a crash, those that show any form of cracks or damage, and those with missing labels, model number, manufacturing date, instructions or parts.
  • Please give driving your complete, unimpaired attention and wear your own seatbelt all the time.  These two simple steps are among these easiest ways you can protect yourself and your passengers from injury or death.

Also see our Frequently Asked Questions List for answers to other common carseat issues.

Selecting the Appropriate Carseat for Your Child:

There is no single best car seat for every child or vehicle.  It can be very confusing to decide what type of carseat to buy, or which features are important.  Our Carseat Buying Guide can help you learn about many features and has links to other websites with specific recommendations.  Specific recommendations are a great starting point, but these vary greatly because someone else’s personal preferences may differ from yours, as will the fit with their particular children and vehicles.  One of the most important things is to determine which type of carseat you need, and be prepared to do some comparative shopping.  Don’t be discouraged if you have to try more than one to get a model that works for you and your child!

Nearly all new vehicles and carseats are equipped with Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren (LATCH).  This is a relatively new system that may be used instead of seatbelts for carseat installation.  Some models, including the Clek Oobr Booster Seat,  the Jane Monte Carlo Booster Seat, and Kiddy CruiserFix Pro Booster have rigid LATCH attachments.  In most vehicles, rigid LATCH is extremely fast, easy and may offer additional protection, especially in dangerous side impacts.  The tables below list other features to consider, as well as safety tips.  Some example models are shown as illustrations; they are not necessarily recommended as the best models for your child or vehicle!

Infant Carseats and Carriers:
  • Use rear-facing up to 22-35 pounds, depending on the model.
  • A 5-point harness is preferred. Keep chest clip at armpit level and not on the neck or tummy.
  • Harness strap slots should be at or below the shoulders.
  • A front adjuster to tighten the harness makes it easy to use.
  • Newborns and infants should have a 45-degree maximum recline.
  • Built-in angle indicators and adjusters may help get the correct recline.
  • Manufacturers have differing instructions on where handle should be while traveling. Read the instruction manual to learn if it should be up or down in the vehicle.
  • A rear-facing tether or impact foam found on some models may improve safety.
  • Infant seats may fit newborns better than convertible models.
  • Some models include a complete stroller and base system, while others may include just the convenient base that installs in the car.
Convertible Carseats:
  • Rear-Facing is SAFEST!
  • Select a model with a 35-or 40-pound rear-facing weight limit and keep your child rear-facing as long as possible.
  • Your child should be turned front-facing at the 35-or 40-pound rear-facing limit, or if the top of their head is within an inch of the top of the shell.
  • Models with a 5-point harness and front harness adjuster are preferred.
  • Keep the harness straps at or below the shoulders while rear-facing.
  • Keep the harness straps at or above the shoulders while front-facing.
  • Some older models require the use of TOP slots while front-facing (check your manual).
  • Keep chest clip at armpit level, not on the neck or tummy.
  • Make sure you use the correct seat belt path or LATCH hooks intended for front-facing or rear-facing.
  • A 45-degree maximum recline is needed for newborns and young infants while rear-facing.  Older babies with good head support can have less recline while rear-facing.
  • Upright with no recline is best for front-facing.
  • Some models feature tethers that can also be used rear-facing and impact foam for added safety.  Some also have built-in locking clips for convenience.
Combination Carseats:
  • Use the internal harness front-facing to the maximum limits indicated in the manual!
  • Models with a 5-point harness and front harness adjuster are preferred.
  • Keep chest clip at armpit level, not on the neck or tummy.
  • When the child reaches the weight limit of the harness or his or her shoulders are above the top harness slots, remove the harness and use the seat as a booster with a lap AND shoulder belt.
  • As a booster, the lap belt should ride high on the thighs or low on the hips.
  • As a booster, the shoulder belt should cross the center of the shoulder and chest.
  • Use the built-in shoulder belt guide if the shoulder belt doesn’t fit correctly.
  • The shoulder belt guide on some models can “catch” the seatbelt and leave slack.  Please make sure the belt is tight at all times.
  • Look for high top harness slots to accommodate taller children up to 40 pounds (more for many models) in the harness.
Booster Carseats:
  • Best used after 40 pounds with a only lap AND shoulder belt.
  • Use until the manufacturer’s weight limit, or until your child can wear a seatbelt properly, usually around 8-12 years old or 4′ 9″ tall.
  • Shoulder belt should cross the center of the shoulder and chest, not on the neck.
  • Lap belt should be high on the thighs or low on the hips, not on the tummy.
  • Use a high back model if your vehicle has low seat backs with no head rests. Some models may offer increased side impact protection.
  • A backless model is fine if your vehicle has headrests, or if there is plenty of growing room from the tops of your child’s ears up to the top of the seat back.
  • Many models have open loop shoulder belt guides that don’t catch like some guides on combination seats.
  • Many have adjustable head supports and extra padding for added comfort, compared to combination seats.

Front-Facing and Specialty Models:
  • Some models are suitable for older kids in vehicles that don’t have shoulder belts, or for big kids that are still too immature to ride properly in a seatbelt or booster.  Others are designed for children with special needs. If you have a lap-only belt seating position and cannot have a shoulder belt retrofitted, one of these models may work for you.
  • The Britax Marathon, Boulevard, Pavilion, and Advocate are convertible seats that are rated to 65 pounds front-facing. Top shoulder height setting is around 17.
  • The Britax Frontier goes to 90 pounds with an internal 5-point harness. Top shoulder height setting is about 20″. The seat then converts to an adjustable high-back booster for children 40 lbs. to over 100 lbs.
  • The Diono Radian harnesses to 80 pounds, with a top shoulder height setting of 17″+. The seat is relatively narrow and can also be used rear-facing. It converts to a high-back booster for children 50-120 pounds.
  • The Evenflo Sureride goes to 40 pounds rear-racing and to 65 pounds front-facing with a five point harness, with a top shoulder height setting of 19.5″.
  • The Evenflo Triumph goes to 40 pounds rear-racing and to 65 pounds front-facing with a five point harness. Shoulder strap height is easily adjusted from the front of the seat and the harness is tightened by turning an adjustment knob on the side of the seat.
  • The Graco Nautilus is a front-facing only seat with an internal harness to 65 pounds. The seat then converts to an adjustable high-back booster from 30 to 100 pounds.
  • The Graco Milestone is a convertible car seat with a 40-pound rear-facing weight limit and a 65-pound front-facing weight limit. The top harness height is about 18″. It converts to a high-back booster for children up to 100 pounds.
  • E-Z-On Products makes harnesses for vehicles with lap belts and children with special needs, including the Kid-Y Harness and similar Kid-Y Harness plus Ride Ryte Booster. The vehicle must provide adequate head restraint.
  • Safe Traffic Systems makes the RideSafer Travel Vest in a 60 and 80 pound version as an alternative to boosters and for vehicles with lap belts. Vehicle must provide adequate head restraint.
  • The Cosco/Safety First Dreamride Car Bed, Hope Car Bed, and AngelGuard Infant Car Bed can be used for premature infants and babies with possible breathing problems or special needs
  • Snugseat, Merritt, and Columbia Medical make models for children with special needs.

The specific models listed or shown are not necessarily recommended by Car-Safety.Org or Car-Seat.Org.  Contact information for the listed manufacturers can be found at the Child Seat Manufacturers Listing.  Below are some other excellent resources on carseat selection, including specific recommendations from advocates and technicians.

Recommended Links on Carseat Selection:

Have More Questions?

The links above will answer many questions.  We also have a more complete links page and a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page with references to more sources of information.  Finally, we would be very happy to try to answer any questions or problems you may have regarding specific seats or vehicles.  Please post them at our FORUMS.