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Nothing is more important on the road than the safety of your most precious cargo: your infant or toddler child. In our lives, we tote them along daily, from our short runs to the grocery store to routine trips to school, work, and visits to see loved ones. The ability to safely secure your child in a car seat is one of the most important precautions you can take as a parent, but an alarming amount are installed incorrectly. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that an overwhelming number of car seats — three out of four — are installed improperly by parents and caregivers. This has a huge impact in terms of the risk to your child’s safety.

However, adequately installed and properly fitted car seats can make all the difference. National campaigns such as this week’s Child Passenger Safety Week highlight the importance of keeping child passengers safe on the road. SafeKids Worldwide estimates that correctly used car seats can reduce the risk of fatal injury by as much as 71 percent. Let’s check out what you should know about car seats and installation to better protect the well-being of your child.

What is the right car seat by age?

The right car seat is primarily determined by age, but the height and weight of your child matter too. This list of criteria must be adhered to for the best possible protection and can be referred to in car seat manuals and car seat labels:

  • Rear-Facing Car Seats. The first car seats your child will use. Children fitted into these seats range in age from newborn to the ages of 2 to 4.
  • Forward Facing Car Seats. The second stage of car seating. Children range in ages from 2 to 5.
  • Booster Seats. Also known as belt positioning seats, these are the last stage of car seats for children. Ages for use range from 5 to 12.
  • Convertible Car Seats & All-In-One Seats. Convertible car seats transform from rear-facing seats to forward-facing seats. All-in-One seats transform into all three phases of seating. Because of their convertibility, these are often much heavier and less portable than single phase car seats.

What to Look for in a Car Seat

When deciding what type of car seat to get, you’ll want to first consider what is the most appropriate seat for your child’s size and age, its fit in your car, and the installation process. All car seats sold in the US must pass rigorous safety and installation benchmarks, so rest assured that there’s a strict standard of safety established in the market. Just be aware of counterfeit car seats, primarily sold through e-commerce sites, which do not have to meet these federal standards. Once you’ve narrowed down the car seat that will meet your child’s height and weight, its fit in your car, and the ease of installation offered by manufacturers, then you should consider other factors, such as safety extras, stroller compatibility, and material.

Price may also be a factor according to what you can afford. Car seats can range from under $200 to over $500. The advanced safety technology and convertibility of these seats contribute to their cost and can get expensive. But sometimes a high price is worth it, as more expensive models include additional safety features such as built-in leveling systems, installation indicators, and additional shock absorption. Only you can decide what works best within your budget.

The safest car seat models of 2021

The following are a list of rear-facing, forward-facing, and booster seats that have received high marks in terms of safety and are considered among the best on the market. Luckily, as a parent, you have many options to choose from, all of which are designed to make transporting your tiny one a lot easier (and safer!).

  • Cybex Aton 2 SensorSafe Infant Car Seat. A compact car seat with easy installation and lots of safety features, including SensorSafe technology, which alerts your phone of child movement and whether your child’s been left in the car. Weight limit of 35 pounds.
  • Chicco KeyFit 30. A compact seat with easy installation, safety features, and stroller compatibility, a perk offered by many manufacturers. Weight limit of 30 pounds.
  • Gracco SnugRide SnugLock 35. A light, affordable infant seat that’s easy to install with either a seat belt or LATCH system. Weight limit of 35 pounds.
  • Britax Grow with You ClickTight Harness-2-Booster Car Seat in Spark. A forward-facing to booster convertible seat with easy installation and safety features. Weight limit is 65 pounds for forward-facing use and 120 pounds for booster seat.
  • Maxi-Cosi RodiFix Booster Car Seat. A belt-positioning booster with easy and quick installation. Weight limit of 120 pounds.

Now may also be time to view some of the safest models of vehicles on the road. As with car seat models, there will undoubtedly be many choices to fit your family’s needs.

How to install a car seat

When it comes to installation of your car seat, you should refer to both your car seat manual and vehicle manual for directions on installations of car and booster seats. Car seats today can be anchored either through the LATCH system in your vehicle or through seat belts. Vehicles made after September 1, 2002, were enabled with LATCH, a system designed to make it easier to correctly install car seats without using a seat belt. LATCH uses lower anchors and top tethers to anchor car seats. Check out these tips on how to install.

  • Never in the front seat. No child age 12 and under should be in the front seat of a vehicle. Regardless of car seat phase, they should always be seated in the back.
  • Try the center seat first. For the placement of your car seat, start with the center seat in the rear as it is the safest. However, parents may need to position their child to the side seat if they want to use LATCH anchors for some car models.
  • Aim for the tightest fit. Make sure the car seat position you choose allows for the tightest fit.
  • Locking your seat belt. If using a seat belt instead of LATCH to anchor your car seat, pull the seat belt all the way out to lock it.
  • Use of the top tether. For forward-facing seats, always use the top tether for additional security to the child’s head regardless of whether you’re anchoring using LATCH or seatbelts.
  • Check the connection. For tethers, make sure you have the right connection location, which is usually on the rear shelf in sedans, and on the floor and in other locations in SUVs and minivans.
  • Place your child into the harness straps snugly. For rear-facing seats, the chest clip should be at your child’s armpit level. Harness straps must be threaded through slots correctly. For forward-facing seats, the straps must be through the slots that are at or above the shoulders. For booster seats, the shoulder belt should lie across the collar and breastbone while the lap belt must lie on the lower pelvis.
  • Finally, lock the harness buckle or seat buckle into place.

Even if you feel totally confident that you correctly installed your child’s car seat, it’s still recommended to have a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) check this with you. You can never be too sure when it comes to your child’s safety.

Though it may seem complicated, there are tools and resources to help you protect your child from fatal or serious injury in the course of being on the road. You should also make sure you have the best coverage for your vehicle in the event of an accident. Refer to this guide if you have any questions about keeping your child safe with the correct car seat and get a quote with Elephant to keep your whole family prepared.

Article last updated on May 31st, 2023 at 4:43 pm

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