Navigating the world of car seat laws can be really difficult when you have a baby. There are many different car seat guidelines that will impact your child at each and every stage of development, but if this is your first child, they might send your head spinning.
As soon as you find out that you are going to have a baby, the most important research you can do falls into the realm of baby safety. Your home, your car, and anywhere the baby will be for more than a few moments has to be safe. While making your home safe requires a lot of work that hinders on little details, car safety is different.
Luckily, we live in a world where car seat manufacturers have a strict set of rules that they have to follow, making each car seat safe. Still, car seat safety can change from one model to the next, so you do have to pay attention to everything.
What kind of car seat and the car seat guidelines for your child will depend on a variety of factors, including:
- Your child’s age
- Your child’s height
- Your child’s weight
- Make of your car
Types of Car Seats
Rear-Facing Car Seats
Rear-facing seats are intended for toddler and toddler usage. From the time you bring your baby home and for the next 2 or so year. On the market today, there are three different rear-facing seat types: rear-facing infant, convertible, and 3-in-one car seats.
Rear Facing Infant Seats
This type of seat is to be used for newborns and infants. They will typically come with an infant head pillow that will help to keep it steady as the car bumps. Your baby will stay in this seat, depending on the model, between 22 to 45 pounds.
Typically, the seats will have a base that stays in the car. This is helpful because you don’t have to remove and connect the base every time you use it. Some brands, particularly those that are more well-known, give you the option of buying more than one base.
Some more expensive brands come with a set of carrying handles and/or as part of a stroller unit.
When used in a rear-facing manner, convertible seats function much like a rear-facing seat. However, this type of seat is then converted into a forward-facing model as your child ages. Many parents prefer this type of model because it only requires them to make one purchase. However, some don’t like how bulky they are.
Your child will be able to stay in the seat up until a higher weight limit (40-50 pounds) in this manner. If your baby is likely going to be larger, this could be a fantastic choice.
Look for models that partake in a 5-point harness system, which includes a harness that connects in five places: the legs, the hips, and the shoulders.
3-in-1 car seats last the longest out of any seat. This means that they too tend to be bulkier than other models. They can also be less convenient.
However, just like the convertible car seat, they can handle higher weight loads in the rear-facing position.
Rear-Facing Car Seat
Rear-Facing Car Seat Installation Tips
The first step in the installation process of a rear-facing car seat is to always read the appropriate owner’s manual section and the entire car seat manual before you start. This will give you insight and make the job a lot less stressful.
Here are some other tips from experienced parents:
- Make sure the harness goes into the slots below or at your baby’s shoulders.
- Make sure the car seat doesn’t move all that much. When properly installed with the LATCH or seatbelt system, this shouldn’t a problem.
- Put the car seat in the back seat – never the front seat.
- Have someone ride with your baby the first few times to ensure that he or she is comfortable for the entire ride. You will likely have to change the angle so that your child’s head doesn’t move back and forth.
- If you are still having problems, seek out the help of a child-passenger safety technician (CPST) in your area.
Rear-Facing Car Seat FAQ
Can my child’s feet touch the seat in rear-facing mode?
While your child wants to be tightly strapped into their seats, you child should be able to be comfortable while in his or her seat. Still, bending his/her legs is fine.
Why won’t my child sit straight in the rear-facing car seat?
At a young age, your child won’t easily be able to adjust something that doesn’t feet right. You can supplement the car seat’s construction with blankets to either side, a diaper on the crotch strap, or a bigger infant car seat around the head. Do not put anything behind your child.
Can I put my child into the car seat in a winter jacket?
Your best bet is to put your child in his/her thinnest clothing before strapping him/her into the car seat. This will allow the car seat to function properly and reduce the risk of injury.
Should I use a special car seat with a preemie?
Very small babies won’t be able to fit into all car seats. The hospital will typically be able to tell you whether or not your seat is a good match for your baby and the best angle.
Forward-Facing Car Seats
As always, ensure that you read the vehicle owner’s manual before you install the seat. Your child will have cross the height and weight limit before moving from a rear facing seat to a forward-facing seat. Remember that a rear-facing seat is the best option under that.
Forward-Facing Seats Installation Tips:
- Before mounting the seat, read all manuals. You have to ensure that everything is tight and works together well to get the maximum safety as promised.
Switching from rear to forward facing:
- You have to first adjust the shoulder straps so that they are at or above where your child’s shoulders sit in the proper position. Sometimes this will be the top harness slot, but that will be noted in the instructions if this is the case. These seats do not work any better or any worse. The manual will not if you have to change the angle of the seat for safety and comfort.
- If you are using a seatbelt, make sure to check the belt path as it might have changed from the rear facing seat. Once again, the seat needs to be locked and tightened for the safest possible ride.
- If possible, always use the top tether to lock the seat in place. This will attach to the uppermost part of the car seat and holds it tightly. All cars should have these unless you have something created before 2000.
- Once again, consult the owner’s guide of the car and the seat for the best results.
Forward-Facing Seats FAQ:
What should I check if my child has to be driven by someone else?
- Before you let that person drive away with your child, you have to ensure that he or she is a) sitting in a car seat; b) the seat is the proper size for the age of your child; c) the seat is properly installed in the vehicle for transportation; and d) your child is transported by someone hat has a valid driver’s license.
- If your child is transported by school-officials, there should be a discussion about safety before you sign off on the service.
Booster seats are going to be the seat you have the most problems with. Mostly because your child will fight you on whether or not they need to be used. However, if your child cannot safely sit with the seatbelt comfortably, you will have to insist. Before the age of 13, your child will have to sit in the back seat. While your child is in the back seat, it is likely that the booster seat will be needed. Some children will be taller or weigh more, so that could change the need.
Each booster seat is different. You will have to follow the guidelines for your seat in particular. As a general rule, your child is too big for the forward-facing car seat if the following are true:
- He/she reaches the top weight allowed
- He/she reaches the top height allowed
- His/her shoulders have reached the top slot for the harness
- His/her ears are by the top of the seat
Types of Booster Seats:
There are two types of booster seats available: high-back and backless. They do no come with harness straps and instead use the shoulder and lap belts in your vehicle. The purpose is to lift and position your child so that the seat belts fit properly over the child. Not only does this make the ride more comfortable, but it makes it so that, if you are in a car accident, the belt will do more good than harm.
Booster Seat Installation Tips:
Once again, read the owner’s manual and the car seat guide before installing the seat and using it. Sometimes booster seats can be a bit confusing because they have a plastic guide that requires you to fish the belt through it easily. Your instruction book will help you there.
When using a booster seat in your vehicle, ensure that:
- The lap belt is low and snug across your child’s thighs.
- The belt crosses the middle of your child’s chest and continues through the shoulder. It should not cut at the neck.
- If it isn’t working out, your child might not yet be ready for a booster seat.
Booster Seat FAQ:
What if my car doesn’t have shoulder straps in the back?
If your car does not have shoulder straps across the back, you will not be able to use a booster seat. Instead, you should use a forward-facing seat with a harness. You could also check to see if you can have them installed, use a travel vest, or consider traveling in a car that has them.
What difference does the high-back make?
Both are designed to help your child stay safe and comfortable in your car. Both reduce the risk of injury as well. High-back seats are typically used when a car doesn’t have a headrest. Most often, seats that have a high back will be combination or convertible seats.
On their own, backless boosters are cheaper and easier to move from car to car, but they are still as safe.
Tips for Going Car Seat Shopping
When you go shopping for a car seat, whether this is the first time or you haven’t done it in a while, make sure to remember the following:
There is no “pick this seat because it is the best all around.” Each child will have a different seat that is best for him or her. It has to fit your car correctly, it has to be installed well, and it has to be used properly in order for it to be the “best” option.
One thing you really shouldn’t use to make your primary choice is price. Do not go for a deal simply because it is a deal and do not go for a more expensive option because you think it will be safer. You have to look deeper. Try to use a new seat, however.
Do NOT use a car seat that:
- You do not have an owner’s manual for;
- Is expired or will expire during your use;
- Has visible damage and/or cracks. Seats that were in even minor accidents could be unsafe to use. Check with the manufacturer to see if the seat is still viable.
- Does not have a label giving you dates, model numbers, and other pertinent information;
- Is missing any key parts that you need to have – this does not include toy bars, covers, or other optional accessories;
- Was recalled at any time. To check this, contact contacting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Vehicle Safety Hotline at 888-327-4236
The LATCH System
LATCH is somewhat of a newer system to attach a car seat to the car. For parents with smaller cars, it is easier and safer for the baby. The top tether is usually use for forward-facing seats and improves safety – and it can even be used with the seat belt system.
It is important to note that both methods are equally safe when done properly.
Vehicles that use the LATCH system can have lower anchors as well, and these are typically found where the seat cushions meet. These items should be noted in your car’s manual. All cars produced after 2002 should have this somewhere – the seats, the floor, or the ceiling.
The lower anchors have a maximum weight (including the car seat) of 65 pounds, but car seats can have lower weight limits.
Seat Belt Method
If you decide to use your seat belt to install the car seat, you have to make sure that your seatbelt locks. To do this in most cars, you simply have to pull the belt as far out as it will go and then let it retract like shrink wrap around the seat. If that doesn’t work, make sure to read your owner’s manual.
- Make sure that you model the behavior you want your child to exhibit. Wear your seatbelt properly, even if you are just going down the street. Make your child do the same thing, no matter how old he or she is. This will set them up for the day (long in the future) when they drive.
- Ensure that anyone who transports your child uses a car seat. Not only that, but make sure that it is correctly installed and your child is comfortable. Remember that you can get extra bases when your child is still in a rear-facing seat so that you can strap him or her into the seat and you just need to install the base. Once again, anyone who transports your child to daycare or preschool should be trained.
- Do not leave your child alone in the car. Not only is this unsafe, especially in the heat, but it can be unsafe. You can’t keep an eye on your child to see if he or she gets out of the seatbelt or harness. Even worse, you won’t be in control of the vehicle in the case of anything happening. You never know what could happen, and freak accidents occur in cars every day.
- At the end of the day, you have to use your instincts to see what the best options are. Do your research and do not take this purchase lightly. It is a very serious choice, especially if you decide to buy three-in-one seats or convertible seats.
- Always read the manufacturer’s instructions for your car seat and the owner’s guide of your car. If you do not have them, you can try to look up the model number on the internet to get the correct guide. If that doesn’t work, you can call the manufacturer and use the model number, seat name, and date to have the proper manual sent to you.
State by State Car Seat Laws and Guidelines
Each state in the US has a different set of car seat guidelines and laws for car seat usage. Here they are in alphabetical order:
- Alabama: Safety seats required up to 6 years of age, seat belt required until 15. The weight limit for a forward-facing car seat starts at 1-year-old and 20 pounds.
- Alaska: Children under 57” and 65 pounds need to be in a child safety device. Children who weigh more than 65 pounds need to be in a seat belt. Children less than 65 but more than 20 need to be in a booster seat.
- Arizona: Children under 16 must be restrained; booster seat height limit of 57 inches or less.
- Arkansas: Weight limit of 60 pounds to be in a seat belt, under 60 pounds must be child restraint.
- California: Children under 8 and under 57” must be restrained, starting in 2017, children under 40 pounds and 40” must be in a rear-facing seat. Your child has to be properly restrained.
- Colorado: Children 8-16 must wear seat belts, children under 40 pounds must be in a car seat, children under 20 pounds must be in a rear-facing system.
- Connecticut: Children over 7 who weight more than 60 pounds may be in a seat belt, under 60 pounds they are required to use a restraint. Under 20 pounds, your child needs to be in a rear facing seat.
- Delaware: No child under 12 or under the height limit of 65” can be in the front seat; children under 8 and 66 pounds must be in a safety seat that meets the standards according to the seat.
- District of Columbia: Children between the ages of 8 to 16 must be in a seat belt, children under 8 must be in a child restraint.
- Florida: Children between the ages of 6 to 18 must be in a seat belt, children under 6 must be in a child restraint.
- Georgia: Children who meet the height requirement of 4 feet 9 inches and are over 8 must be in a seat belt. Children under that must be in a seat according to the seat standards.
- Hawaii: Children 8-17 must be in a seat belt, children 4-8 must be in a child safety seat as long as they meet weight requirements. Children under 4 must be in a child restraint system.
- Idaho: Children under 7 must be in a safety restraint.
- Illinois: Children under 8 must be in a safety restraint; a weight limit of 40 pounds for riding in the back seat without a shoulder belt.
- Indiana: Children 8-16 required to be in a seat belt, children under 8 must be properly restrained according to seat instructions. Vehicles in a funeral procession are exempt from laws.
- Iowa: Children 8-16 required to be in a seat belt, children under 8 must be properly restrained according to seat instructions. Infants under 1-year-old and under 20 pounds must be restrained in a rear-facing seat.
- Kansas: Children 8-18, over 80 pounds, and over 4’9” must be in a seat belt; children 4-8 who weigh less than 80 pounds are required to be in a booster seat; children under 4 are required to be in a child safety seat.
- Kentucky: Children under 8 and within the height limit of 40” and 57” must be in a booster seat. Children under the height limit of 40” must be in a child restraint.
- Louisiana: Children over 60 pounds must be in a booster seat until 13. Under that, must be in a rear seat. Children between 20-40 pounds must be in a forward facing seat. Children under 1-year-old and 20 pounds must be in a rear facing seat.
- Maine: Children under 18 must be in a seat belt; children under 100 pounds must be in the rear seat; children 40-80 pounds must use a booster seat, children under 40 pounds must use a child safety seat according to manufacturer standards.
- Maryland: Children under 16 must be in a seat belt; children under 8 must be in a safety seat.
- Massachusetts: Children 8-12 must use a safety belt; children under 8 must use a child restraint system.
- Michigan: Children under 16 must use safety belt, children under 8 must use a booster seat, children under 4 must use a child restraint system.
- Minnesota: Children 8 and under must be in a child restraint.
- Mississippi: Children under 65 pounds between 4-6 must be in a booster seat, children under age 4 must be in a child safety seat.
- Missouri: Children who are 8-16 at hit the weight limit of 80 pounds can be in a seat belt, children 4-8 must ride in a restraint system until they hit 80 pounds. Children under 40 pounds must be in a child seat.
- Montana: Children under 6 and less than 60 pounds must be properly restrained.
- Nebraska: Children 6-18 must be secured, under 6, children must in a safety seat.
- Nevada: Children under 6 and less than 60 pounds must be in a child safety seat.
- New Hampshire: Seat belts required on everyone under 18. Children under 7 and 57” must be in a child restraint system.
- New Hampshire: Children under 8 and 80 pounds must be in a restraint. Children less than 30 pounds must be in a rear facing seat.
- New Mexico: Children under 18 need to be in a seat belt, children under 60 pounds must be in a booster seat, children 1-4 must be in a safety seat, children under 1-year-old must be in a rear facing seat.
- New York: Children 8-16 must wear seat belt, children 4-8 must be in a booster seat, children under 40 pounds must be restrained.
- North Carolina: Under 16, everyone must be in a seat belt, children under 80 pounds must be in a child restraint system.
- North Dakota: Children 7-18 must be in a seat belt, children under 7 and 80 pounds must be in a restraint system.
- Ohio: Children 8-15 must be in a seat belt, children 4-8 and under 4’9” must be in a booster seat, children under 4 and 40 pounds must be in a restraint system.
- Oklahoma: Children over 8 must be in a seat belt, children 4-8 must be in a properly restrained car seat, children under 4 must be rear facing.
- Oregon: Children under 8 must ride in a child safety system, children who weigh less than 40 pounds must be in an appropriate system, children under 20 pounds must be in a rear-facing system.
- Pennsylvania: Children 8-18 must be in a seat belt system, children 4-8 must be in a booster seat, children under 4 must be in a child passenger restraint system.
- Rhode Island: Children 8-18 must be in a seat belt, children under 8 should be in the rear seat.
- South Carolina: Children between 1-6 who weigh more than 80 pounds must be in a seat belt, those who weigh less must be in a booster seat, children between 20 to 40 pounds must be in a child seat, children under 20 pounds must be in a rear-facing seat.
- South Dakota: Children under 18 must be in a seat, children under 5 and under 40 pounds must be in a child restraint system.
- Tennessee: Children 9-16 must be in a seat belt, children under 9 must be in the rear of the vehicle. Children weighing more than 20 pounds must be in a child seat, children less than 20 pounds must be rear facing.
- Texas: Children 8-17 must be in a seat belt, children under 57” must be in a child safety system according to manufacturer instructions.
- Utah: Children under 8 must use a child restraint system.
- Vermont: Children 8-18 must be in a seat belt, children 1-8 and more than 20 pounds must be in a safety seat, children under 1 must be in a rear facing seat.
- Virginia: Children 8-18 must be in a seat belt, children 1-8 and more than 20 pounds must be in a safety seat, children under 1 must be in a rear facing seat.
- Washington: Seat belts required under 16, children must use a restraint system until age 8.
- West Virginia: Children 8-18 must be in seat belts, children under age 8 must be in a car seat.
- Wisconsin: Child must ride in rear facing seat until 20 pounds, children must be in a seat until 40 pounds, children must be in a booster seat until 80 pounds.
- Wyoming: Children under 9 must be in a restraint system in the rear of the car.