Basics of Car-Seat Safety

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Convertible Seats

Theoretically, these are for children from birth to approximately 4 years old who weigh a maximum of 40 pounds. We say theoretically because some types don't work well for infants.

A convertible seat comes with one of three types of restraining harnesses:

  • The five-point harness, which has straps connecting at the crotch, at each shoulder, and at each hip. This type is best for newborns because it fits them snugly.
  • The T-shield, which has shoulder straps and a triangular shield that locks in front of the child's crotch.
  • The tray-shield has a wide tray that swings down over the child's head. In some cars, the roof may be too low to allow you to raise the shield completely.

Some parents find shields easier to operate than the five-point harnesses, but shields often are too high up on a small infant's body or don't fit closely enough to secure him. If you're skipping purchasing an infant seat and going right to a convertible, buy a five-point harness model.

A few convertible seats can be used as rear-facing infant seats for babies up to 32 pounds. These are good for hefty kids who pass the 20-pound mark before their first birthday, but still must be placed in a rear-facing seat. When you buy a seat, it's smart to look for those with higher weight limits since your baby may be one who grows fast.

Give 'Em a Boost

Booster car seats are for kids who have reached 40 pounds and therefore have outgrown their convertible seats.

Safety Savvy

Be sure to return the registration card that comes with your seat. That way the manufacturer can notify you in case there is a recall.

Many parents let their children go right from convertible seats to using regular seat belts. This is unsafe, because these kids aren't yet tall enough to fit belts designed for adults.

Even if your state only requires younger kids to be restrained in safety seats, use a booster when he's older. No matter what your state allows, a child isn't ready for lap or lap/shoulder belts until the belts fit really well, usually when the child weighs 60 to 80 pounds, somewhere around age 8.

There are two basic kinds of booster seats. The belt-positioning booster, used with combination lap and shoulder belts, is preferable. The other type, the shield booster (which is used if you have only lap belts) doesn't offer as much protection for the upper body and only protects children up to 40 pounds. Some models come with a removable shield so you can use them as belt-positioning boosters, too. In that case, the weight limit rises to about 60 pounds, depending on the model.

Gadget Guide

Lap/shoulder belts are safer than lap belts alone (for adults as well as for children in boosters). Many cars and vans in use today have only lap belts in rear seats. If your vehicle doesn't have lap/shoulder belts, ask your car dealer about having them installed.

If your car has a low seat back and your child's ears are above it, choose a belt-positioning booster with a high back. This will protect her head.

When you think your child has outgrown the booster and is ready to wear seat belts, here's how to check for proper fit:

  • The lap belt should fit low over the hips and upper thighs, not across the abdomen.
  • The shoulder belt should fit snugly over the shoulder, not across the neck.
  • The child should be tall enough that his knees bend at the edge of the seat without his having to slouch.
Watch Out!

The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that a shield-type booster should not be used by children under 40 pounds, even if the label says it can. Keep your child in his convertible seat until the scale reads 40 pounds.

Watch Out!

Never put shoulder belts under kids' arms or behind their backs. The child will not be restrained!


Some cars and vans can be equipped with optional, built-in child safety seats, sometimes called integrated safety seats. They can be used instead of a convertible seat or booster, but they don't work for babies under 1 year who need to ride in the rear-facing position. Depending on the car model, the harness works for kids from 20 to about 65 pounds. After 65 pounds, children can use the integrated seat as a booster with the car's lap and shoulder belt.

Built-in seats are simple to use because you never have to worry about installing them. When you don't need them, they can be folded away. Unfortunately, you'll still need to invest in a car seat for those occasions when your car is in the shop, your child is transported in another vehicle, or you want to use a safety seat on an airplane.

For information about using your car seat on an airplane trip, see Children and Airplane Safety.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Child Safety © 2000 by Miriam Bacher Settle, Ph.D., and Susan Crites Price. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit Amazon's web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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