WHEN TO SWITCH FROM REAR-FACING TO FORWARD-FACING
Parents are always excited to watch their little ones reach the next big milestone, but switching their car seat is a milestone that shouldn’t be rushed. The focus shouldn’t be on “being big enough” to move to a forward-facing seat, but instead should be on keeping a child in a rear-facing seat until he reaches the height and/or weight limit of the seat. Most kids don’t reach the height and/or weight limits of today’s rear-facing convertible car seats until around 2-4 years old, but 77% of children are moved into a forward-facing seat too soon.
As much as you wish they would, your child won’t stay little forever and there will be a time when your child is ready to transition to a forward-facing car seat. It’s time to switch your child into a forward-facing seat when he reaches the height and/or weight limits of his rear-facing seat. Many children will outgrow a car seat’s height limit before the weight limit is met. If your car seat’s manufacturer offers specific instructions regarding height limits, pay close attention to them. In general, the top of a child’s head should be at least one inch below the top of a rear-facing car seat.
If your child is outgrowing his rear-facing only infant seat (the kind with the carry handle), consider moving him to a rear-facing convertible seat. Convertible seats can typically accommodate rear-facing children up to at least 35 pounds or beyond. Once the rear-facing limits are exceeded, a convertible seat can then transition to forward-facing mode for the next several years of the child's life."
You may notice that your child’s legs and feet touch the vehicle seat in a rear-facing car seat. This is okay! In the event of a crash, your child’s legs will be better protected in a rear-facing car seat because they are contained within the space of the car seat. Forward-facing car seats allow the legs to flail forward and they may be injured by the seatbacks of the front-row vehicle seats. Rear-facing car seats are proven to be safer for children under the age of two because they do a better job of protecting vital body regions such as the head, neck, and spine. If a child’s legs appear too long to fit into the space allotted, they can usually cross them in front of themselves. Children are much more flexible, and are able to bend comfortably in different ways than adults. Do not transition your child out of a rear-facing seat because he appears to be too large! He is only too large when the height or weight limit of his car seat has been reached.
INSTALLING A REAR-FACING SEAT
All rear-facing car seats can be attached to the vehicle in one of two ways: using the vehicle’s seat belt, or using 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’re installing a convertible car seat be sure that the lower anchor belt or seat belt is routed through the rear-facing belt path. The belt path should be labeled directly on the seat itself, and also be identified in the instruction manual. Typically, rear-facing car seats do not utilize the top tether during installations, unless otherwise instructed by the manufacturer of the seat.
It is important to install a rear-facing car seat at the correct angle, typically between 30°-45°. If the car seat is angled too far upright, your newborn baby could have trouble keeping his head up. This could cause the child’s head to fall forward and impede his breathing. Also, the performance of the car seat during a crash could be compromised if it is installed against the manufacturer’s recommendations. All rear-facing car seats have an “angle indicator” integrated into the seat. The angle indictor tells you when the seat is installed at the proper angle. It may be a floating bubble, or a dial that moves with gravity, or a line printed on the side of the seat, which must be parallel to the ground. Read the instruction manual to locate the angle indicator and ensure that you are reading it correctly. The angle on many rear-facing seats can be adjusted by changing the recline of the seat or lowering/raising a foot on the base. Not all vehicle seats are the same so this adjustment allows you to accommodate the angle of your vehicle seat in order to achieve the proper installation angle for you car seat. Sometimes the built-in adjustment on a car seat can’t compensate for a steeply inclined vehicle seat. You may be instructed to use a pool noodle or tightly rolled towel beneath the car seat where the vehicle seat back meets the base. Before using a pool noodle or towel be sure to check your instruction manual to see what the manufacturer allows. As your child grows the recline angle on his seat may need to be adjusted, be sure to read the instruction manual to determine when and how to make these changes.
Still have questions about installing your seat?
BUCKLING IN YOUR LITTLE BUCKEYE
All rear-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 restrains your child’s pelvis during a crash, and also prevents him from sliding downward out of the seat in a crash or even during normal driving. It is very dangerous to place an infant in a car seat without connecting the main buckle, even if the car is not in motion, because they can slide downward and become strangled by the harness.
A retainer clip, or “chest clip”, is buckled at the child’s armpit level to keep the straps properly positioned over his shoulders. Without a chest clip the straps could slide off of your child’s shoulders and he could be ejected from his 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 his torso.
The height of the shoulder harness is important in rear-facing car seats. Your car 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 below 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 below your child’s shoulders. Do not use a position which sits above your child’s shoulders for rear-facing mode. In the event of a collision your child’s body will move into the seat and slide upward into the shoulder straps. Having the shoulder straps above your child’s shoulders would allow for his body to move further during a collision. 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 his 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; 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.
Still have questions about buckling in your little Buckeye?
CHOOSING A SEAT
These types of car seats are often called “infant carriers”, because they consist of two detachable pieces: the base (which remains installed in the vehicle) and the carrier (which can be popped out of the base and easily carried around by the parent).
Rear-facing only seats are sometimes preferred by parents because of the convenience factor: the carrier portion can be attached to strollers, brought inside the house without waking a sleeping child, etc. However, it is important to realize that car seats are designed ONLY for use in the car. The car seat should never be used as a crib or as a babysitter. Setting the carrier portion of a car seat on the floor of your home may cause the carrier to lean forward at an angle which could impede the breathing of the infant. Also, the stability of the carrier is compromised when it is not attached to the base and installed in a vehicle. NEVER place the carrier on top of a high surface where it could fall or overturn, and NEVER place the carrier on top of a grocery cart.
Rear-facing only car seats usually only accommodate children up to 20-25 lbs. This milestone is often hit within the first year of life. At this age and size, the child is not yet ready to transition safely to a forward-facing child car seat. For these situations, a child should be transitioned into a convertible car seat, which will be used in rear-facing mode.
“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. It is recommended that rear-facing mode is used for as long as possible. Convertible seats can usually be used for newborns, as long as the child is not under the minimum weight set by the manufacturer. This type of seat allows the child to stay in the same rear-facing car seat from his first trip home from the hospital all the way through toddlerhood.
Convertible car seats can usually be used in the rear-facing mode for children between 5 and 35 pounds (or more). Each car 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 car 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 child 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.