Baby Car Seat Safety Tips

Baby boy smiling in car seat.

 Ana Cariane / Getty Images

Your baby's car seat is one of the most important products you will use to keep your little one safe. Here are some of the key points parents should know about car seat safety. 

Types of Car Seats

There are two different types of car seats you can choose for your baby: infant and convertible car seats.

Infant Car Seats

An infant car seat is designed for infants to use and can only be placed rear-facing. These types of car seats usually click into a base that remains in the car and has a handle to make the seat more convenient for carrying and getting in and out of the vehicle.

You will have to check the specific car seat for weight and height limits. Almost every baby is too long (tall) before they are too heavy for their infant car seat. For most infant seats, "too tall" is when the baby's head is one inch below the top of the car seat.

Convertible Car Seats

Convertible car seats are designed to be used both for newborns and older babies. These seats start out rear-facing for infants and can be converted to forward-facing for older kids. Most convertible car seats have rear-facing weight limits ranging from 35 to 50 pounds and height limits that typically require the child's head to be at least one inch below the top of the car seat.

Convertible car seats are designed to allow toddlers and preschoolers to ride rear-facing, and older kids to later ride forward-facing. Unlike infant car seats, however, convertible car seats remain in the car so they cannot be used as a carrier. 

Here are some basic safety tips to keep in mind when purchasing and using car seats for your children.

Review Your State's Laws

The exact laws on how old your child must be to use a car seat and what height and weight restrictions there are for car seats vary by state. Check your state's car seat laws to be sure that you are following the rules and regulations. 

Know Baby Sleep Safety Guidelines

It is very safe for your baby to sleep in the car seat while in a moving car or on an airplane. However, as soon as you get home, if your baby is still asleep in the car seat, you need to transfer them to their safe sleep environment— an empty crib, playard, or bassinet.

Always make sure your baby is on their back and without any blankets or stuffed animals when it’s time for them to sleep.

Do not place your baby in a car seat while wearing bulky clothes or coats. When the temperature drops, it's important to keep your baby warm and comfortable, all the while keeping them safe.

In the wintertime, you need to layer your baby in thin, tight layers. Use a tight-fitting fleece or super thin packable down jacket as the top layer.

After your baby is buckled, use blankets to keep them warm. Make sure that any extra padding does not cause you to loosen the car seat straps to the point that it is not fitted properly and therefore does not provide adequate protection.

Be Careful With Seat Covers

While car seat covers are available, many are not safe. If you do purchase a car seat cover, make sure that it can be put on in its entirety after the baby is buckled snug (many covers act like sleeping bags with a layer that goes under the baby's body; these are not safe in car seats, despite what the marketing might indicate).

You also need to ensure that the cover does not cover your baby's face. If you use a car seat cover, keep in mind that there is no such thing as an “approved” seat cover—these products are not regulated.

To ensure your baby’s safety, know that some covers (those that have a layer that goes under the baby's body) can interfere with the car seat straps.

Additionally, if they cover your baby’s face, the seat covers can cause your baby to re-breath their own air, which is an asphyxiation risk.

Don't Put a Car Seat on a Grocery Cart

Even if your car seat easily "clicks" into place on top of the grocery cart, it's not designed to be secure there. A car seat on top of a cart puts a baby at risk for falling. It can also make the cart tip over, causing serious harm to your baby.

Buy Car Seats New

You should not accept used car seats or purchase one second-hand. Car seats expire. Most car seats are single-use products and need to be replaced after any crash.

Previously used car seats are also at risk for having parts that are missing, straps that are frayed, or other damage that could affect your child's safety in a crash.

Rear-Facing Car Seats

You have probably seen a lot of information online about rear-facing car seats. Maybe you're confused about the exact guidelines. How long is too long? Is there a limit for rear-facing car seats? What is best for your baby?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends is that kids (not just babies) ride rear-facing in their convertible car seat until they reach the max rear-facing height or weight for their convertible car seat.

Most convertible seats go rear-facing to 40 to 50 pounds, and most require the child's head to be at least one inch below the top of the seat while rear-facing. The child's legs touching the back of the vehicle seat is not an indication that the child is too big for rear-facing.

Rear-facing is the safest way to ride—not just for infants and toddlers, but also for preschoolers. There are now car seats on the market that will allow you to keep children who weigh as much as 50 pounds rear-facing.

Nearly one-third of all states require kids to ride rear-facing until at least age two. Regardless, the AAP recommends that kids ride rear-facing until reaching the max rear-facing height or weight (whichever comes first) in their convertible seat, which means that most kids can and should ride rear-facing until age 3 to 5.

Will My Child Be Uncomfortable?

Even though you might worry about your child being uncomfortable rear-facing, the good news is that rear-facing is both safe and comfortable. Kids have much more flexibility in their joints than adults. While you might be uncomfortable sitting in the positions you see your rear-facing child in, they may be perfectly comfortable.

Many parents are surprised to learn those leg injuries are more common in forward-facing kids than in rear-facing kids.

Children with longer legs will typically sit crisscross, or drape one leg over the edge of the car seat, or put both legs straight up the back of the vehicle seat. In a frontal crash, rear-facing kids will tuck up into a cannonball position.

Studies have shown that this does not hurt the child's hips or legs. In that same frontal crash, a forward-facing child's legs fly up and often hit the back of the front seat, and as everything is moving forward, there are compression forces into the child's hips and thigh that can break bones.

The most common time leg injuries to rear-facing kids are seen is if there is a direct impact on their leg from another vehicle. If a vehicle hits your leg, you'll get hurt no matter what direction you're facing.

A Word From Verywell

A good convertible seat is the one that will allow you to keep your child rear-facing as long as possible. For parents that start with an infant seat, don’t let a convertible seat sit in your closet or basement unused for a year before they start using it. Only buy it when you’re ready to use it.

When you’re looking for a seat, keep in mind that price is not an indication of the protection it offers in a crash. Remember that manufacturers typically don't publicly release their crash data, so it’s hard to know for sure that one seat is "safer" than another (the marketing departments of every manufacturer will all suggest that their seats are the safest).

The bottom line is that all seats in the U.S. must meet strong minimum safety standards, but even a seat that has been designed for safety is only safe if you use it correctly.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Parikh SN, Wilson L. Hazardous use of car seats outside the car in the United States, 2003-2007. Pediatrics. 2010;126(2):352-7. doi:10.1542/peds.2010-0333

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Car Seats: Information for Families.‌

  3. The Car Seat Lady. When Should Your Child Turn Forward-Facing?.

  4. Bennett TD, Kaufman R, Schiff M, Mock C, Quan L. Crash analysis of lower extremity injuries in children restrained in forward-facing car seats during front and rear impactsJ Trauma. 2006;61(3):592–597. doi:10.1097/01.ta.0000195792.26837.99

Additional Reading

By Chaunie Brusie, RN, BSN
Chaunie Brusie is a registered nurse with experience in long-term, critical care, and obstetrical and pediatric nursing.