The ultimate guide to child car seats

child in car seat

Child car safety can be complicated and confusing. At Esurance, we're on a mission to make insurance simple and transparent so you can feel confident knowing you're protected. An important part of feeling protected is, of course, knowing your kids are safe and sound too. Here we share important car seat safety tips every parent and parent-to-be needs to know to simplify the process.

Keeping your child safe in the car

As a parent, keeping your child safe in the car can be overwhelming. First there's getting your newborn home safe and sound. Then helping your toddler get used to booster seats. And finally graduating to seat belts. Plus, you need to know when your kid's ready to move on from one type of seat to the next. As if there's not enough to worry about!

At Esurance, we can't help you with all the stresses of parenting. But we can help make figuring out car seats surprisingly painless. To that end, we've created a comprehensive guide to child seat safety. There's quite a bit to know ... so buckle in.

Car seat basics: What you need to know

Ok, here we go. Car seat specifics vary by state, manufacturer, and, most importantly, child. Since each child grows and changes at a rate that's unique to them, their needs from a car seat will be unique as well. Here are a few basic tips to get you started:

  • Car seats should be chosen based on your child's age and size.
  • Children should be kept in each type of car seat — rear-facing, forward-facing, or booster — for as long as possible before graduating to the next. Typically children transition when they've reached the weight and/or height limit of each seat.
  • Car seat manufacturers each have different weight and height limits, so be sure to check these for any car seat you're looking at.
  • Whenever you purchase a car seat, don't forget to register your specific model to stay up to date on changes and recalls.

And here's a basic overview of recommended car seats by age:

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Read on to learn more car seat safety specifics for your child as they grow (and marvel at how quickly they do!).

Chapter 1: Newborns and infants

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Infants are, of course, tiny and fragile and need to sit in the back seat in rear-facing car seats from their very first trip home from the hospital until they're around 2 or 3 years old, depending on their height and weight.

The supportive structure of rear-facing car seats cradle your baby's neck, head, and spinal cord during these early years. Before bringing baby home, prep your car and make sure you're 100% comfortable with how to secure the seat and your baby within the seat.

Your first trip home from the hospital will be exciting ... but you'll also be exhausted. So make sure you know how everything works before the big day. Your future, sleep-deprived self will thank you.

Infant car seats: the basics

  • Children should stay rear-facing as long as possible, according to updated recommendations released by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in 2018. This is typically until at least age 2, but again, should be determined by the seat's weight and/or height limits.
  • Laws and recommendations vary by state, so be sure to also review the specific requirements in your state.

Types of car seats for newborns and infants

When it comes to your child's first car seat, you'll have the choice between an infant-only car seat and a rear-facing convertible car seat.

Infant-only car seats

Infant-only car seats are for newborns and small infants and double as carriers. Babies typically outgrow infant carrier car seats before they turn 1 and should then transition to a larger rear-facing car seat.

Infant seats often come with a base that you can use in multiple vehicles, simplifying the transition in and out of the car. This also makes it very easy to move your child out of the car when they're napping. Because NO ONE wants to wake a sleeping baby.

Rear-facing convertible seats

Convertible car seats begin rear-facing and transition to forward-facing once your baby is bigger. Which means they can be a more cost-effective option since you'll probably use the seat for longer.

One type of convertible car seat is the 3-in-1 car seat, which can convert from a rear-facing seat to a forward-facing seat and finally a booster seat. Not all 3-in-1 car seats are meant for infants, so it's important to check the specifications of the seat if you decide to go with this type.

Convertible car seats are larger than infant rear-facing car seats, and are semi-permanently installed in the car. Meaning they can't be unclipped from the car, so you'll have to remove your baby from the seat when you leave the car.

Choosing an infant car seat

Now. Choosing a seat. There are several important things to think about when buying your first infant car seat:

  • Weight and portability: If you're constantly on the move or switch cars often, an infant car seat is a good choice because it's portable. On the other hand, if you're less likely to change up cars and feel at ease with a more permanent option, a convertible seat can be the more cost effective way to go.
  • Price range: Price ranges for car seats can vary widely: According to consumer reports, infant car seats can range from $80 to $500 and convertible car seats can range from $40 to $450, so you'll want to consider your budget when deciding. In the long-run, convertible car seats are often more cost-effective as they limit the number of products you buy.
  • Longevity: It's also a good idea to think about how long each car seat can support your child. If you're looking for a model that transitions as your child grows, convertible seats are a good choice.
  • The best seat for your car's make and model: Car seats should fit easily through your car door, be simple to place and remove, have enough room so the seat in front doesn't push against the car seat, and secure properly with either a seat belt or the LATCH system (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children). If you're not sure where to start, research the best car seats for your car make and model.
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Can I buy a used car seat?

Since it's not possible to know the full history of a second-hand car seat, it's always best to buy new. If you do buy a used car seat, first take a look at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) used car seat checklist.

Where should I position the seat?

The safest spot for your infant is always the back seat. The middle seat is preferable, because front seat airbags could impact the side back seats. If your car doesn't allow for a car seat in the back middle seat, the back passenger side seat is best.

How do I know the straps are tight enough?

Gently tighten the straps around your child until you're unable to pinch slack in the belt between two fingers. The car seat straps should always lie flat and should never be twisted. Be sure the central buckle is directly in the center of the baby's sternum (near the armpits), halfway between their shoulder blades.

How do I know my seat is installed properly?

A tight fit is always the goal! The base and seat shouldn't move more than an inch side to side when shaken. Your car seat's installation manual will also include instructions tailored to the seat.

Is my baby at the right angle?

The easiest way to determine if your infant is at the right angle is by choosing a car seat with a built-in angle indicator. Your baby's head should not be able to fall forward — if it does, they need to recline more.

My baby's head doesn't seem supported. Can I use a support insert?

For safety reasons, you shouldn't put any aftermarket products into your child's car seat. For smaller infants, this includes infant support inserts. If your car seat doesn't come with a support insert, you can use rolled blankets to act as buffers on either side of your baby's head. But it's recommended that you check with the car seat manufacturer first to ensure it's safe for your model.

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  • It may sound complicated, but you'll get the hang of it! If you're worried about your initial car seat installation, have it inspected for free by a child passenger safety technician (CPST). You can find a CPST near you through the NHTSA.
  • Always check your car manual for specifics like the position of the front car seat in relation to your child's seat, LATCH requirements, and if you should purchase a specific locking clip from your dealer.
  • Avoid strapping your child into a car seat wearing bulky clothing since that can affect the security of the straps.

Chapter 2: Toddlers and preschoolers

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Kids. They grow so fast. Here's what you should know about the transition from newborn to toddler seats.

Toddler car seats: the basics

  • Children should transition to a forward-facing seat when they reach the height and/or weight limit on the rear-facing seat, typically between 35 and 40 pounds.
  • If your child outgrows the height limit of a rear-facing seat before reaching the weight limit, they should be transitioned to a forward-facing seat.

Types of car seats for toddlers and preschoolers

Similar to rear-facing seats, forward-facing seats come in convertible and standard varieties.

Forward-facing convertible safety seats

Forward-facing convertible seats are designed to transition from rear- to forward-facing seats, and sometimes even to a booster seat for older children.

Forward-facing harness seats

Forward-facing seats with 5-point harnesses support children with the same security they had as infants. Just like convertible seats, the top harness straps sit at or above the child's shoulders and snap in the center of their chest at armpit level.

Choosing a toddler car seat

Keep these things in mind when choosing a car seat:

  • Your child's size: All kids are different and grow at different rates. And more so than before, you want to choose a car seat based on your child's height and weight.
  • The LATCH system: Make sure the car seat LATCH system — which is used to secure the car seat in the vehicle — is compatible with your vehicle's seat belts. Double check your owner's manual to find the best match for your car.
  • Your transition info: If you've already purchased a 3-in-1 car seat, this is when you'll transition it from a rear-facing car seat to a forward-facing car seat. To do this, remove the seat from your vehicle and follow the instructions in the car seat user manual before re-installing. If you're unsure about the conversion, you can consult a CPST.
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What if my child is older than 2 but still fits the rear-facing car seat?

Not to worry — that can happen! And it's actually not a bad thing. Previous guidelines suggested turning a child around at age 2. But new guidelines recommend that children stay rear-facing as long as possible.

How long should my child stay in a forward-facing car seat?

The CDC recommends keeping your child in a forward-facing harnessed car seat until at least the age of 5, or until they outgrow the weight or height limits.

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  • Always use the tethering system for forward-facing seats.
  • Since 2014, the NHTSA has advised parents not to use the lower anchors of the LATCH system if the combined weight of the child and the car seat exceeds 65 pounds. Once their combined weight has exceeded this maximum, use the safety belt system rather than the LATCH system.
  • Be sure child lock is on as well! At this age, children begin to explore pressing buttons and may be able to reach locks and window controls.

Chapter 3: School-aged children

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Yup, they grow like weeds. And once they've outgrown their forward-facing harnessed car seats, it's time for a booster seat.

Booster car seats: the basics

  • Typically, kids are ready for a booster seat when they are at least 35 inches tall and between 40 and 80 pounds.
  • You'll know your child fits in a booster seat properly when the belt is low on the child's hips, touching the upper thigh, and the shoulder belt sits flush against their torso and across the center of the shoulder.

Types of booster seats for young children

Booster seats help ensure that the seat belt sits in the proper place on your child's shoulders, so they're not constantly fidgeting and fussing with the straps. Or worse, tucking the strap behind their back. In addition to convertible car seats that can transition to booster seats, there are 2 main varieties of booster seats: high-back and backless.

High-back booster seats

High-back booster seats have both a boosted bottom and fully structured back. They help keep the shoulder and lap belt in the proper position while providing full neck support.

Backless booster seats

Backless booster seats don't have head support. Instead they use shoulder belt positioning clips to keep your child secure.

Choosing a booster seat

Here are a few key things to think about when choosing a booster seat:

  • Your car type: High-back booster seats are ideal for cars without built-in neck support (like headrests) in the back seat. Backless booster seats are ideal for cars with headrests.
  • Portability: Backless boosters are easier to move than high-back booster seats.
  • Variety: If you're on the fence between high-back and backless boosters, consider buying a high-back booster seat with a removable back, which allows you to convert it to a backless booster.
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What if I don't have a shoulder belt in my car?

Older cars without this feature can be updated to include a shoulder belt. Kids shouldn't ride without both a lap belt and shoulder belt.

How can I help my child transition to a booster seat?

Without a harness, your child can move around a lot in the seat, like kids are apt to do. Help them make this transition by going over basic car safety with them. A high-back booster seat is great for active children, as it provides more structure.

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  • Keep the belt buckled even when there's no one in the seat so that it doesn't move while driving.
  • Because your child has more freedom in a booster seat, you'll want to make sure to remove any distractions that will have them twisting or reaching in the seat. Secure additional items in your car to avoid things moving in the event of sudden stops.

Chapter 4: Older children

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All grown up? Well, not quite, but making the move to the seat belt is the last step. Children should switch from a booster seat to a car seat belt only when the seat belt fits properly — meaning it lays across the upper thighs and the chest.

Seat belts: the basics

  • Children need to be taller than 4 feet 9 inches to switch from a booster to a seat belt.
  • Typically, children transition between the ages of 8 and 12.
  • Children should ride in the backseat until at least age 13.

Moving to the front seat

Before moving older children to the front seat, move the seat as far back as possible for airbag safety.

And it goes without saying, but we'll say it anyway — this is a great time to instill responsible driving techniques, like not looking at your phone while on the road and always buckling your belt before the car starts.

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How do I know the seat belt is in the proper position?

To make sure the seat belt is comfortable and safe for your child, check the following:

  • They can sit with their backs fully against the back of the seat.
  • Their knees bend at the end of the seat with legs hanging down straight.
  • The shoulder belt crosses at the middle of the shoulder, not the neck.
  • The lap belt lies across the top of the thighs, not the abdomen.

Can my child move to the front seat earlier?

Ideally, they shouldn't sit in the front seat until they've reached the height and age limits mentioned above. There are a few exceptions, including if your car doesn't have proper back seat restraints or if your child has a medical condition that requires constant attention.

On the rare occasion that the back seat isn't an option for your smaller child, the NHTSA advises turning off the front airbag.

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  • Set the tone: even if their friends have different rules at home, remind your kids to always buckle up no matter what.
  • Never allow older kids or teens to share a seat belt or sit in a middle spot that has no belts.

Chapter 5: State-by-state guidelines

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Child seat safety varies by state. You can get the lowdown on your specific state regulations here. But here are a few general things to be aware of:

  • Fines range from $10 to $500.
  • All 50 states and the District of Columbia have some form of child safety seat laws.
  • 49 states and the District of Columbia require booster seats or something similar for children who have outgrown child car seats but cannot yet wear an adult seat belt.
  • 11 states mandate that children under 2 be in a rear-facing child seat (California, Connecticut, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Virginia).

Wrapping up: the easy road to child car safety

There's A LOT to know when it comes to child car seat safety. But just like we're committed to making insurance simple and easy to understand, we also want to make choosing the right car seat simple and easy to understand. In the end, it all boils down to understanding what your child needs at different times in their development. Once you know that, the rest is pretty easy.

Related links

Kids and your car insurance
Your munchkins can impact your car insurance needs. Find out how.

Laws on child safety seats
The Governor's Highway Safety Association provides a state-by-state listing of child passenger safety laws.

Car seat inspections
Use this website from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to find the nearest inspection center.

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