Crash Course in Car Seats

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised its stance on an important car-seat safety practice. I want to get the word out on the change and also revisit car-seat rules and tips in general. Even seasoned parents can use a refresher from time to time. Tracy Whitman, program coordinator for Maryland Kids in Safety Seats (KISS), helps lay out the basics.

New AAP Policy

Previous guidelines suggested that babies and toddlers should be in rear-facing car seats until age 2. This past August, AAP revised its guidance for the rear-facing position to the maximum height/weight allowed per the seat’s manufacturer stipulations rather than basing the switch to front-facing on age.

“AAP is the resource for best practice, and best practice trumps state law,” Whitman says. “Most convertible car seats have a 50-pound weight limit for rear-facing, and most 2-year-olds are not yet 50 pounds.”

According to the World Health Organization, the average weight for a 24- month-old is about 27 pounds. The limits of different seat brands may vary, but many children could ride rear-facing to age 4 or 5 and still be within the size limits. The maximum height for rear-facing is typically reached when the child’s head extends beyond an inch below the top of the car seat.

Why stay rear-facing?

“It allows the sturdy back shell of the seat to absorb the crash force and dissipate injury energy to keep the child safer,” Whitman says. “It spreads out the crash force and cradles the brain in the shell.” Babies younger than 2 are much more vulnerable to head, neck or spinal trauma from crash forces or even in the event of a sudden stop. AAA reports that children are five times safer in a rear-facing car seat than a forward-facing seat in a car crash.

Protected pretzels

When kids with long legs are rear-facing, what do they do with their legs? “They cross them.” says Whitman, “or bend them however they’re comfortable. Kids are so pliable, they can get comfy in a small space. Parents tend to believe that those folded-up legs could pose a danger, but with legs crossed and contained safely inside a shell, [children are] more protected. It’s actually front-facing that sees more lower-extremity injuries on impact.”

Whitman cautions parents not to project what they think might be comfortable for a child. In fact, when she moved her son to forward-facing, “he wanted to keep his legs crossed, because it was what he knew, and he felt more secure. He didn’t want his legs dangling!”

Next stages

Once your child surpasses the weight or height limits for rear-facing, you can turn the seat forward. Forward-facing usage rules did not change. It is still suggested that children use the five-point harness for as long as the manufacturer guidelines allow.

Then, it’s booster time. Booster seats allow for proper positioning of the belt and should be used for most children ages 8 to 12, unless the child is 4-foot-9 or taller. Whitman advises parents to consider the child’s height when seated, not just standing, to gauge whether the seat fits properly. “Some kids have longer torsos while others are mostly legs. Follow the manufacturer rules for where the head/shoulders should fit when the child is in the seat. There is no magic height or weight for car safety.”

Whitman says KISS considers five factors as a gold standard before ditching a booster. Can the child sit with his/her bottom all the way back, knees bent over edge and feet on floor? Is the lap belt pressing on soft tissues/belly? Does the shoulder belt fit across the collar bone? Can the child maintain a safe position without napping/squirming?

Front seat can wait

Kids love the idea of being able to sit in the front seat, but don’t rush it. The back seat really is safest for children under 13, according to Whitman. “It’s because of skeletal-structure maturity and the presence of airbags. Adult bones can handle the stress of impact better than children’s bones.”

High rate of misuse

Whitman says that last year the misuse rate of car seats in Maryland was 83 percent. Misuse covers a broad range of things, including incorrect selection of seats, harnessing improperly, wrong installation, seats that are broken, recalled or expired and seats that have been in a crash.

Inspections are recommended. When I was a nervous first-time parent-to-be, I sought expert help with the installation. But it seems that most installation mistakes are actually made by seasoned parents who think they have it all figured out. However, things change. When reusing hand-me-down seats from previous children, items may get overlooked for the sake of convenience and familiarity.

Expiration or recalls

Car seats expire. Whitman notes that the lifespan is generally six to 12 years (the longer range is for multipurpose seats). “Most seats are stamped with an expiration date, but there should also always be a date right upfront in the user’s manual,” she says. To be alerted of potential recalls, complete the product registration and/or check the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration database (

Compromised integrity

“Any kind of impact, even if child is not in the car at the time, may compromise the integrity of the seat,” Whitman says. “There may be no visible damage, yet there could be small cracks or stretched webbing on the belts. Some manufacturers may say a minor crash is OK and they will still guarantee the integrity of the seat, but policy varies by brand.” Call the manufacturer for its crash policy if you have any collision, and ask your insurance agent whether seat replacement is covered. Whitman reminds us, “It’s always better to err on the side of caution.”

Get rid of the gook

Accumulated crumbs, dirt and sticky who-knows-what may eventually interfere with comfort and with performance of buckles and belts. Periodically clean the seat/cover/buckles to extend their life and to make things less gross. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for doing so, however, and be careful to replace all parts and settings properly after cleaning.

Take care in saving

When storing a seat, make sure all parts are clean and accounted for, as well as the manual. Use the original box, a storage bag or a large utility bin. Try to avoid a location that exposes the seat to extreme temperature changes. Check on the seat from time to time to make sure mold or pests aren’t becoming a risk. When you pull it from storage, check for damage, expiration and possible recalls. Expired or compromised seats must be disposed of properly. Cut the straps and/or remove the parts to render the seat unusable before throwing it away. Unfortunately, there are few recycling options for these giant hunks of plastic.

Solid installation is key

You may have seen the terrifying dash-cam video of a Minnesota toddler—securely strapped into a car seat—who fell from her mother’s vehicle on a sharp turn because the seat had not been properly fastened. That would scare anyone into double checking. Installation is something you can easily find help with. Keep in mind that if you use multiple vehicles, methods for getting the best fit may also vary per vehicle. We can’t always control what happens on the road, but we can take steps to ensure that our most precious cargo is as protected as can be.

The maximum height for rear-facing is typically reached when the child’s head extends beyond an inch below the top of the car seat.


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