Car seat guide

Everything you need to know about choosing, installing and using the right car seat for your child

Dan Bortolotti 1

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Some parenting jobs never get any easier, and using car seats is one of them. Safer cars, clever engineering, sturdy anchoring systems and updated laws have all helped reduce the number of children who are seriously injured or killed in traffic collisions. But selecting and installing the right car seat for your child — and your vehicle — is still a challenge.

Here’s a guide to the three main categories of car seats, with tips on how to select the appropriate one, install it properly, and know when it’s time to graduate to the next stage.

Rear-Facing Seats

Who they’re for: Rear-facing seats are for babies and toddlers. Provincial laws and manufacturers’ guidelines vary but, in general, kids should use them from birth until they are at least 12 months old and weigh 20 to 22 pounds (9 to 10 kg).

What they do: Young children are especially vulnerable to injuries of the head, neck and spine. Rear-facing seats ensure the child is not thrown violently forward during a collision or sudden stop.

How to install: The safest position to install an infant seat is in the centre of the vehicle’s back seat. If your vehicle does not have Universal Anchorage System (UAS) connectors in the centre of the back seat, use the seat belt instead. With some seat belts, you may need to use a locking clip.

The seat should not move more than an inch in any direction. The best way to ensure a secure installation is to use your knee to press down on the seat when you tighten the belt.

The seat should rest at a 45-degree angle: Use a foam pool noodle under the base of the seat to adjust the angle, if necessary.

The slot for the harness straps should be at or just below baby’s shoulders. Ensure the harness is snug and the chest clip is at the level of your child’s armpit.

When to move up: Your child should remain rear-facing until she reaches the maximum allowable weight and height limits set by the manufacturer. Moving your toddler to a forward-facing seat is not a milestone like standing or walking — don’t be in a hurry! Many children outgrow infant-only seats shortly after their first birthday, but convertible seats can be safely used in the rear-facing position until a child is 30 to 40 pounds (14 to 18 kg) and 32 to 36 inches (81 to 91 cm) tall, depending on the model.

Next up: Forward-facing seats >>
Forward-Facing Seats

Who they’re for: Forward-facing car seats are for children who have outgrown rear-facing seats. In general, kids can use a forward-facing seat once they have reached at least 22 pounds (10 kg) and 12 months of age, and are able to walk unassisted.

What they do: Most forward-facing car seats have a five-point harness system that attaches at the shoulders, hips and crotch. This helps distribute the forces of a crash across the strongest parts of a child’s body.

How to install: Position the car seat in the middle of the back seat whenever possible. The seat can be attached with the UAS or the car’s seat belt. A locking clip may be required if you use the seat belt.

All forward-facing car seats have a tether strap that reduces the movement of the seat in a collision or sudden stop. The tether strap is attached at the top of the car seat and must be anchored to the vehicle. If you’re not sure where the tether anchors are, check your car’s owner’s manual.

The harness straps slot should be at or just above the child’s shoulders. Tighten the harness so only one finger can fit underneath at your child’s collarbone.

When to move up: Your child is ready to move to a booster when he’s reached the upper weight limit for his forward-facing seat, if the tops of his ears are above the seat back, or if his shoulders are above the top harness slots. If your child is tall but has not yet reached 40 pounds (18 kg), he should be using a forward-facing seat that has higher harness slots.

Even after a child has reached 40 pounds, he may not be developmentally ready to move to a booster. If your child is younger than 4½, consider using a forward-facing model that can accommodate kids up to 65 pounds (30 kg). The same goes for kids who regularly fall asleep in the car, slouch, squirm, or fiddle with the seat belts.

Next up: Booster seats >>

Booster Seats

Who they’re for: Booster seats are for kids who have outgrown their forward-facing seats — that is, they are at least 40 pounds (18 kg) — but are not ready to use adult seat belts alone.

What they do: Booster seats raise kids up so the vehicle’s lap and shoulder belts are positioned over the strongest parts of their bodies. They come in two types: those with no back (also called cushions), and those with a high back that will protect the child from whiplash in a collision. If your vehicle doesn’t have headrests in the back seat, use a booster with a high back.

How to install: Boosters are not directly secured to the vehicle with the UAS or the seat belts. Instead, the vehicle’s lap and shoulder belts hold both the child and the seat in place. Be sure to buckle in the booster seat even when it’s unoccupied, or it can become a projectile if you have to stop quickly.

As always, the middle of the back seat is the safest place for the booster seat. However, older vehicles may not have shoulder belts in this position. If this is the case, place the booster on the passenger or driver side of the back seat.

Positioning the seat belts is crucial: The lap belt should go across the hips, never across the abdomen. The shoulder belt must be across the chest but not touching the neck. Never tuck the shoulder belt under the child’s arm, or behind her back. High-back booster seats typically have a clip or guide that can help you safely adjust the shoulder belt.

When to move up: Many provinces require kids to use a booster until they are four feet, nine inches (145 cm) tall, or 80 pounds (36 kg), or at least eight or nine years old (the exceptions are Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the territories). These are good guidelines to follow even if your province does not require them.

Seat belts are not designed for children, so don’t be too quick to ditch your child’s booster, even if he complains he’s too old for it. Kids are only ready to use adult seat belts when they can sit all the way back in the vehicle’s seat, with their knees comfortably bent over the edge. Even after your child outgrows his booster, the back seat remains the safest place for all passengers, at least until age 13.

Next up: New regulations >>
Going forward, looking back

There’s a movement toward keeping children in rear-facing seats for much longer than current Canadian guidelines require. The American Academy of Pediatrics has begun recommending that children remain in rear-facing seats until age two. In Sweden, children do not typically move to forward-facing car seats until they’re 55 pounds (25 kg) and four years of age. Many seats sold in Canada cannot accommodate these guidelines, however, so always follow the manufacturers’ recommendations.

Doing Double Duty

Convertible Seats (also called infant/child seats) are designed to be rear-facing from birth until about 30 to 40 pounds (14 to 18 kg), then turned around and used in the forward-facing position until at least 40 to 65 pounds (18 to 30 kg).

These can be an excellent choice for bigger babies and toddlers. However, although they have been approved for use from birth, many parents will find them too large for newborns. If you can, use an infant-only seat first and switch to a convertible seat after your baby approaches 22 pounds (10 kg). (Infant-only seats are also more convenient for new parents, since they can often be detached and used as a carrier, or attached to a stroller.)

Combination seats function as a forward-facing child seat with harness until a child is 40 pounds (18 kg), after which they can convert to a booster that can be used until a child is 80 to 100 pounds (36 to 45 kg). Some combination seats (also called 3-in-1 seats) can be used in the rear-facing position with babies, as well.

There are a couple of problems with combination seats. First, kids may grow too tall for the harness before they reach 40 pounds, which means they can be too tall for the forward-facing position but too light for the booster. Second, if you buy a 3-in-1 when your child is a baby, it may pass its expiry date before he is ready to say goodbye to a booster.

Roadside Assistance

Choosing the safest seat for your child involves more than just paying attention to her height, weight and developmental stage. You also need to make sure the seat is a good fit with your vehicle.

If your car was manufactured after September 2002, it will be equipped with the Universal Anchoring System (UAS), which works with all current car seat models. The vehicle’s owner’s manual and the seat’s instruction booklet will explain how to find and use the UAS.

Vehicle seat belts can also be a challenge. Cars with “continuous loop” belts (which are secured to the seat or the floor of the vehicle and only retract at the shoulder) cannot safely hold a car seat on their own: They require an H-shaped locking clip to prevent slipping. This clip should have come with your car seat. Check the vehicle’s owner’s manual and the seat’s instruction booklet for directions on using the locking clip.

Front-seat airbags can pose a major hazard to children in car seats. Some vehicles (such as pickups) leave parents no choice but to put a car seat in the front. However, you should never use a rear-facing seat in the front seat of a vehicle equipped with an airbag, unless you can deactivate it. Airbags in the back seat inflate differently, and do not pose any danger to kids in car seats.

The location of tether anchors varies widely: On a sedan, they are usually on the ledge between the back seat and the rear window, while on hatchbacks and SUVs, they may be at the base of the vehicle’s seat backs, on the floor or even attached to the ceiling. Check your vehicle’s owner’s manual for the location of the tether anchors. If your vehicle doesn’t have them, take it to a dealership to have them installed. (Many will do this for free.)

8 car seat no-nos >>
8 car seat no-nos and how to avoid them

We asked Cara Miller, a Certified Child Restraint Systems Technician in Saint John, to share the most common mistakes she sees at car seat clinics.

1. Rear-facing seats at the wrong angle The back of an infant seat should be tilted at a 45-degree angle. “This is especially important for newborns,” Miller explains, “because it prevents babies from being hunched over and keeps their airways open.” If your seat won’t adjust to 45 degrees, you can slide up to three pool noodles under the seat to change the angle.

2. Not using tethers when forward facing Contact your vehicle’s manufacturer. If additional anchors cannot be installed, you’ll have no choice but to make other transportation arrangements.

3. Not locking seat belts properly “You actually have to lock the seat belt to ensure that the car seat will not loosen over time,” says Miller. To do this, pull the belt all the way out, and when you let it back in a little, you’ll hear a clicking noise. Not all belts work like this, however: Some require you to use the H-shaped locking clip that came with the seat.

5. Poorly adjusted harnesses You should be able to slide just one finger under the straps at your child’s collarbone. The proper height for the harness straps can be confusing. For rear-facing seats, the slots should be at or just below the child’s shoulders. On forward-facing seats, they should be at the shoulder or slightly above.

4. Using the UAS improperly Your child is safest in the middle of the back seat. Unfortunately, some vehicles have UAS anchors for the left and right seats, but none for the centre; in that case, use a seat belt installation. However, Miller has seen parents “borrow” anchors from the left and right sides so they can place the car seat in the middle. You should never do this (unless your manual allows it), since it may cause too much movement of the seat.

6. Missing or misused chest clip The chest clip, which holds the harness straps in the safest position, should be at armpit level. If you lose or break the clip, always get a replacement directly from the manufacturer because they vary widely from model to model. Manufacturers will generally replace them for free.

7. Using bulky coats or blankets “Nothing should ever go between the baby and the harness straps,” Miller cautions. “Snowsuits can compress in a collision and the baby might be ejected right out of the seat.” Try dressing your baby in lightweight polar fleece, and look for a “shower cap” cover, which has an elasticized edge and fits overtop the car seat. Avoid “head huggers” unless they came with the infant seat: If your baby’s head flops from side to side, use a rolled-up towel or blanket instead.

8. Using expired car seats “Most people think they can get 10 years out of a car seat, but the average lifespan is only about six years,” Miller says. The materials tend to wear out, so manufacturers have a suggested expiry date, which is usually moulded right onto the plastic.

New car seat regulations

Starting January 2012, car seats sold in Canada must meet new design and testing standards set by Transport Canada. The changes are being made to accommodate bigger kids and to bring Canadian testing criteria in line with those of the US. What will this mean if you have a seat made before the new rules come into effect? It will still be legal and safe to use it, says Maryse Durette of Transport Canada. “There is no need to replace a child seat unless it was installed in a vehicle involved in a collision or the expiry date is past.”

Our Experts

Transport Canada has several helpful resources, including a list of car seat models that do not comply with regulations. Search “car seats” at tc.gc.ca/eng.

Cara Miller is a Certified Child Restraint Systems Technician. She was also Community Producer for Today’s Parent’s sister website, CanadianParents.com. She has prepared a series of helpful car seat articles and videos.

To find a car seat clinic, contact your local police or regional health department.

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