A “forward-facing” car seat refers to a seat in which the child faces the front of the car and is secured by a 5-point harness. A 5-point harness helps to distribute the forces of a crash over a larger area of your child’s body, and also keeps her positioned properly in her seat.
WHEN TO SWITCH FROM FORWARD-FACING TO A BOOSTER SEAT
It’s time to switch your child into a booster seat when they reach the height and/or weight limits of their forward-facing seat. Today’s forward-facing seats can usually accommodate children from 40-90 pounds, depending on the seat. Some manufacturers will specify height limits for their seats but in general, your child’s ears shouldn’t be above the top of her seat. Your child’s shoulders should also be at or below the top harness position. Once she exceeds the weight limit, the tops of her ears are above the top of the seat, or her shoulders are above the top shoulder harness position it’s time to transition her to a booster seat.
INSTALLING A FORWARD-FACING SEAT
CHILDREN UNDER THE AGE OF 13 SHOULD RIDE IN THE BACK SEAT
To install a forward-facing car seat in your vehicle, use either the seat belt or the LATCH system. Usually, only one of these methods can be used at a time, unless the instruction manual of your specific car seat instructs otherwise. If you use the LATCH system, be aware that this system has a weight limit. If the combined weight of the child and the car seat is greater than 65 pounds, you should use the seat belt to install the seat instead of LATCH. Most car seat instruction manuals state the maximum weight of the child occupant allowed to use a LATCH installation for that particular seat, which already factors in the weight of the seat. If you’re installing a convertible seat be sure that the lower anchor belt or seat belt is routed through the forward-facing belt path. The belt path should be labeled on the seat itself and also identified in the instruction manual.
Forward-facing car seats should always be installed using the top tether. You can find this tether near the uppermost point of the car seat, on the back behind your child’s head. It may be a single strap or a double strap, shaped like a “V”. Every family vehicle manufactured after 2001 is required to have three seating positions with a tether anchor available. The tether anchor of your vehicle is usually behind the head rest: either on the back shelf, the back of the vehicle seat, or the floor of the vehicle behind the seat. Look for the tether anchor icon to help you identify its location. Many vehicle manufacturers have specific instructions on how to route the tether strap through, under, or above the head rest to reach the tether anchor. Consult your vehicle owner’s manual to ensure that you use the proper tether route and have identified the proper tether anchor.
Many convertible seats on the market today have various recline angle options. It is important to install a forward-facing car seat in a designated forward-facing recline setting, which are generally more upright than the rear-facing settings. Some manufacturers may allow a range of recline angles to be used in the forward-facing orientation. Read your instruction manual to be sure that you have chosen an appropriate forward-facing recline setting, and to identify any additional guidelines for forward-facing installations. Never use a pool noodle or towel beneath or behind a forward-facing car seat unless specifically allowed by the manufacturer. Note that these items are almost exclusively used for rear-facing installations, not forward-facing.
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BUCKLING IN YOUR LITTLE BUCKEYE
All forward-facing car seats use a 5-point harness to secure the child into the seat. The harness attaches to the car seat at 5 points: near each shoulder, next to each thigh, and at the crotch. The harness is buckled by a central buckle near the child’s abdomen. This central buckle does most of the work of restraining your forward-facing child in a crash, and also prevents her from sliding downward out of the seat in a crash or even during normal driving.
A retainer clip, or “chest clip”, is buckled at the child’s armpit level to keep the straps properly positioned over her shoulders. Without a chest clip the straps could slide off of your child’s shoulders and she could be ejected from her seat in the event of a collision. When positioned properly at armpit level the chest clip is over your child’s sternum, the strongest part of her torso.
The height of the shoulder harness is important in forward-facing car seats. Your seat probably has several different slots which you can route the shoulder harness through, or it has a no-rethread harness which can be adjusted by sliding the harness or headrest up or down. If you have a car seat that has different slots route the straps through the slot that is at or above the level of your child’s shoulders. If your car seat had a no-rethread harness, adjust the height of the straps so they’re at or above your child’s shoulders. Do not use a position which sits below your child’s shoulders for forward-facing mode. In the event of a collision your child’s body will move forward into the harness straps. Having the shoulder straps below your child’s shoulders would allow for her body to move further during a collision due to extra length being present in the harness straps. More movement = more opportunities for injury.
When you’re buckling your child in, make sure that the harness straps aren’t twisted. The straps should lie flat against your child’s body, and should be routed straight and flat through the shoulder slots, chest clip, and buckles. The harness should be snug on your child. Try to pinch the harness material near your child’s shoulders and hips; if you can gather the fabric of the harness between your fingers, then the harness is too loose. If the harness is too loose it could allow for your child’s body to move further during a collision. More movement = more opportunities for injury.
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CHOOSING A SEAT
“Forward-facing only” car seats are somewhat rare, but occasionally you can find them on the market, typically for special needs situations. These car seats can be used only in the forward-facing direction with the 5-point harness, and cannot be converted into a belt-positioning booster. Many forward-facing seats are rated well beyond the typical limit of 40 pounds—some can be used up to 65 or even 80 pounds or beyond. If you want to get many years of use out of your forward-facing only car seat, choose one with a higher height/weight limit.
“Convertible” car seats can “convert” between rear-facing and forward-facing modes. Convertible car seats have different weight and height limits for each mode (rear and forward-facing), so be sure to read the instructions and labels carefully when deciding which way to face your child.
Convertible car seats can usually be used in forward-facing mode for up to 40, 65, or even 80 pounds or more. Each seat is a little different, so always refer to the instruction manual and labels to know the weight and height limits of your particular model. If you plan on using the seat for as long as possible, shop around to find one with higher height/weight limits. Also be aware that all car seats have an expiration date (usually 6-10 years after date of manufacture). Do not use any car seat past its expiration date. Convertible seats usually have different recline angle settings, shoulder harness slots, and seat belt routes depending on whether you are using it in rear-facing or forward-facing configuration. Make sure all of the settings are proper for your specific mode of use.
“Three-in-one” car seats can convert between three different modes. Usually this refers to a seat that has rear-facing, forward-facing, and high-back booster modes. Sometimes, however, the term is used for a seat that can be used in forward-facing, high-back booster, and backless booster modes, so read the labels carefully. These types of seats are a great option for parents who want to get a lot of mileage out of a single purchase. However, you should be aware of your car seat’s expiration date (usually 6-10 years beyond date of manufacture) and never use it beyond that point. Read the instructions carefully to determine which mode is the best for your child. Three-in-one car seats will feature different installation instructions for each mode. Make sure that you are using the correct base settings, shoulder harness slots, and seat belt route for the mode in which you wish to install it.
“Combination” car seats refer to seats which can be used as a forward-facing car seat (with the 5-point harness), and then transform into a belt-positioning booster. Combination seats will have designated height and weight limits for each mode, so read the instructions carefully to determine which mode is recommended for your child. Be sure to follow the installation instructions for the specific mode which you intend to use.