Car Seat Guidelines to Keep Your Kids Safe

Using the AAP Car Seat Guidelines

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The American Academy of Pediatrics has a policy statement on child passenger safety with recommendations and guidelines for car seats. These recommendations change over the years as new research and information become available. See what their current guidelines say for keeping children safe in a vehicle.

AAP Car Seat Guidelines

The AAP's car seat guidelines include recommendations for car seats, booster seats, and safe use of the vehicle's seat belts. These guidelines were most recently updated in November 2018.

Rear-Facing Car Safety Seats

Infants and toddlers are at greater risk for head and spinal cord injuries if they are in a forward-facing car seat instead of a rear-facing car seat, which provides better support for their head and neck. Infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing car safety seat (an infant seat or rear-facing convertible car seat with a harness) for as long as possible, until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by the seat's manufacturer.

The limits on most convertible seats allow children to ride rear-facing for 2 years or more. Every child will need a convertible rear-facing seat, because they will outgrow their infant seat well before it is safe for them to ride forward-facing. Convertible seats (those that can be either rear- or forward-facing) typically have rear-facing weight limits of at least 40 pounds, with some as high as 50 pounds.

However, many children reach the height limit before the weight limit for rear-facing. The height limit is not when the child's feet touch the back of the vehicle seat. Rather, for most seats the height limit is when the child's head is one inch below the topmost point of the seat. Note that more than one-third of all U.S. states now have laws requiring children to remain rear-facing until at least age 2.

Forward-Facing Car Safety Seats

Once they have outgrown their rear-facing car seat (by reaching either the height or weight limit), children should sit in a forward-facing car seat with harness straps as long as possible, and until they reach the weight or height limits of their car seat.

Keep in mind that many convertible car seats and combination car seats have forward-facing weight limits of 65 to 80 pounds when used with harness straps. However, the majority of kids will outgrow their forward-facing car seat in height before they reach the weight limit. The forward-facing height limit is when the child's shoulders reach the top shoulder strap slot.

Booster Seats

When a child outgrows their forward-facing car seat, they should transition to a booster seat (a seat where the child wears the vehicle's seat belt as their restraint). To ride safely in a booster seat, a child must be mature enough to sit properly for the entire ride, without slouching, leaning over, or messing with the seat belt. In addition to being able to follow these rules, it is recommended that kids be at least 5 years old and weigh at least 40 pounds before riding in a booster.

Vehicle Seat Belts

A child can ride safely without a booster seat when their body fits properly on the vehicle seat and the seat belt fits properly on their body without the help of the booster. Specifically, the child must be able to sit without slouching and have their knees bend at the edge of the seat, the lap belt must rest on the lap (not the belly), and the shoulder belt should cross between the neck and shoulder. Most kids will need to be close to 5 feet tall and 8 to 12 years old before they can ride safely without a booster.

All kids under 13 years of age should sit in the back seat, using an age-appropriate restraint.

Car Seat Best Practices

The best car seat is one that is used correctly.

  • Avoid common car seat mistakes: In addition to choosing the wrong type of seat for your child's age, common car seat mistakes include not installing the seat tightly enough, having loose harness straps, and turning kids forward-facing too soon (your child's legs will be bent in a rear-facing seat and this is fine).
  • Check your child's seat belt readiness: Your older child isn't ready to ride without a booster unless they can sit with their back against the vehicle's seat and have their knees bent at the edge of the seat without slouching, with the shoulder belt lying between the neck and shoulder, and the lap belt on their lap (upper thighs), not abdomen.
  • Register your car seat: You will be notified of any car seat recalls if you register your car seat.
  • Tight is right: Make sure your car seat is installed tightly. If, when holding the car seat at the belt path (where the seat belt or LATCH strap passes through), you can move the seat more than 1 inch, then it is not installed tightly enough.
  • Use caution with pickup trucks: Children should never be allowed to ride in the cargo area of a pickup truck. Parents should be aware that the smaller rear seats of 2-door, 3-door, and some 4-door pickups are not as safe as larger back seats found in other cars and trucks. The tight back seat increases the chances of the child's head and other body parts hitting the back of the front seat in a crash.
  • Use the tether strap: Every forward-facing car seat in the U.S. has a tether strap. This strap comes from the top of the child's car seat and connects to a tether anchor in the back of the vehicle. Every forward-facing car seat is safer when it is tethered. The tether reduces how far forward the child's head moves by at least 4 inches. In so doing, it greatly reduces the risk of brain and spinal cord injury.

Car Seat Laws

Most state car seat laws have not caught up to the AAP car seat guidelines to help keep kids safe. One state may allow your 6-year-old to ride without a booster, while one neighboring state says the child needs a booster until age 7 and another state requires one until age 8. But your child doesn't change as they cross state lines. Parents should do what is safe for their kids. Follow the AAP guidelines, even if they exceed the requirements of the state car seat laws where you live.

Best Car Seats

Is there a best car seat for your child? While there are big differences in prices for car seats, it's important to know that all car seats meet the same federal safety standards and crash performance standards. Some car seats and booster seats are easier to use than others, either because they have clearer instructions, are easier to install, have better labels, or make it easier to secure your child correctly in the seat, which can be seen in the wide variety of ease of use ratings that car seats get.

In order to follow the latest AAP car seat guidelines, you might also try to find a car seat and/or booster seat with high weight and height limits, so that you don't have to move your child to a new seat before they are ready. See the AAP's car seat product listing, which is updated yearly. It includes weight and height restrictions as well as price ranges.

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Article Sources
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  1. Durbin DR, Hoffman BD. Child passenger safety. Pediatrics. 2018;142(5) doi:10.1542/peds.2018-2460

  2. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Car seat ease-of-use ratings.