When to Turn the Car Seat

When to Turn the Car SeatOne of the most heated debates I overhear or see happening around me on social media are as follows: childbirth, breastfeeding, vaccinations, and car seats. People get passionate over car seats—which ones to buy, how to install them, and when to turn them. Every time a video of a child singing in the car goes viral, you can bet there will be armchair quarterback car seat experts chiming in to name off each thing that’s wrong with the child’s placement and positioning.

So why are car seats confusing? For one, they aren’t standard. Second, the laws differ by state, and they might have changed between your first and second children. Third, there is a ton of conflicting information out there. So let’s make car seats a little less confusing.

First, before you even think about trading in, trading up or trading out your car seat, you need to make sure what you have is installed properly. Make an appointment with a car seat specialist to evaluate the fit and installation of your car seat. Don’t know where to go? Use this handy car seat inspection locator to find an inspection station near you. Car seats have several components that have to work properly for maximum safety, and the odds are that one of them is lacking.

Second, you should keep your child rear facing until they meet BOTH the weight and age requirement for the seat. For most seats, that’s 20 pounds AND age 2. Many people will choose to rear-face longer than that, and that’s fine. You don’t have to turn your child around as long as they are within the weight limits for rear facing in that particular car seat. However, as long as you continue to rear face, the seat needs to be at a 45-degree angle. If your seat does not recline, you can place a rolled up towel or cut a pool noodle and place it in the gap.

Third, only use the LATCH system or the car safety belt to install your car seat. LATCH is most effective when the car seat-plus-child weight is below the LATCH limit. When it’s above the LATCH limit, it’s safer to use the car safety belt. Either one can be used for rear- or forward-facing positions.

Fourth, when you do turn the car seat to forward, you need to correct the recline to make the car seat sit straight up, and rethread the harness through the top slots in the seat, no matter how tall or short your child is.

So when your child has outgrown his or her first five-point harness car seat, what’s the next step? I found this to be a more confusing question than when to stop rear facing. Although the weight limits are pretty broad for most booster seats and most will have “ages 3 and up” on the box, there are factors that come into play that are beyond just weight. Can your child sit for the entire car trip with the seat belt correctly positioned? Can they buckle in correctly? Will they stay seated no matter what tempts them?

If the answer is no, you need to get a five-point harness with a higher weight limit than the baby bucket and put off the booster seat until age 5 or 6. Even if your child stays seated a majority of the time, it’s just not good enough. We don’t get to pick when we have accidents, and eyeballing the backseat when you need to be watching the road can make driving with your child even more dangerous. There are lots of other areas in which we can let our children earn freedoms and prove they can be responsible. Car seats are just not one of them.

Erin Burt is a freelance writer and mother of three who somehow manages to fit three car seats across the backseat of her Honda Civic. She lives and writes in upstate New York.

 

 

Tags: booster seat, car seat, forward facing, LATCH system, rear facing, safety, safety belt, seat belt

2 Responses to “When to Turn the Car Seat”

  1. Lori Griggs says:

    Along with the corrections above regarding recline and harness slots, I would also like to add that you never mentioned height limits. If your child is slender like mine, you’d better know your height limits. My infant seat was 30 lbs or 30 inches.

  2. Marie B says:

    I am a CPST (child passenger safety technician) and I just wanted to correct a couple of things posted above. First, not all car seats require a 45 degree angle when rear facing. It’s usually 30-45 degrees. An older child with good head control can have less recline. Always read the manual to find out what is ok with your car seat!
    Second, not all car seats require you use the top harness slot for forward facing as long as the shoulder slots are at or above the shoulders, again read the manual!
    Also I don’t know of any CPST that would be ok with a 3 or 4 year old in a booster even if they can sit still the entire trip.