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Infant Car Seat Safety

By some estimates, more than 90 percent of parents install or use car seats incorrectly. Here’s what you need to know to ensure your baby stays safe.

You know why it’s so important to put your baby in her car seat, no matter how short the drive: Car crashes are the leading cause of injury and death among children, and most occur within 25 miles of home (and not, as is often believed, on highways). A crash at even 30 miles per hour creates as much force as falling from a three-story window. But using a car seat — especially the first time — can be tricky. How do you know it’s installed correctly? And how can you protect your newborn's floppy head? Here’s everything you need to know to ensure you’re using your little one’s car seat as safely as possible.


There are three types of car seats you can use with your infant:

Infant-only car seat. This small, portable seat (sometimes part of a stroller system) has a carrying handle and a separate base that’s meant to be left in the car. (If you have more than one vehicle, you can buy additional bases for most car seats.) It’s designed for infants and babies weighing up to about 22 to 40 pounds, depending on the model, and is meant to be used only in the rear-facing position. Most babies outgrow infant seats by the time they’re 8 or 9 months old — at which point you’ll need to get your baby a convertible or all-in-one car seat.

Convertible car seat. With a higher height and weight limit (up to 40 to 60 pounds), this seat can be used for longer in the rear-facing position and can later be used in the front-facing position. The only problem: The fit of a convertible seat may be slightly less secure for a newborn. So if you choose this model, make sure your baby fits snugly in it.

All-in-one (3-in-1) car seat. An all-in-one seat can be transformed from a rear-facing car seat to a forward-facing car seat and finally a booster seat. Just check to be sure yours is designed to be used with babies (not all are). The downside is it doesn’t have a carrying handle or separate base. And because it’s bigger, in addition to ensuring your newborn fits snugly into it, you’ll need to check its manual to be sure the seat fits your car model.

There are also two types of harnesses; you'll want to opt for the 5-point harness since it ensures baby stays the most secure:

5-point harness: All new car seats these days are designed with a 5-point harness, since it offers the most points of protection. The harness’s belts attach to the seat at five separate points: Two above the shoulders, two at either side of baby’s hips, and one between baby’s legs. 

3-point harness: Older harnesses may have straps that attach to the seat at only three points: Two above each of baby’s shoulders, and one between baby’s legs. 


No matter the model of vehicle or car seats you have, you should always follow three important rules for installing an infant car seat:

Place the car seat in the backseat. The safest spot for your baby is always in the backseat — preferably in the middle spot, away from passenger-side air bags. If your car doesn’t fit a car seat securely there, place the seat on either side of the backseat (or, if you drive an SUV, in the second row). One place you should never put a car seat: on the front seat. If there's an accident (even if it's minor), the passenger-side airbag could open up and seriously injure your baby. (To note: All kids under the age of 13 belong in the backseat.)

Face it backwards. Experts urge parents to keep kids in the rear-facing position as long as possible, usually until about 2 years old. Why? Facing backward offers the best protection for a baby's head, neck and spine. Kids under 2 are 75 percent less likely to be severely or fatally injured in a car crash if they're rear-facing. (Find out when to make the switch to the forward-facing position below.)

Be sure the base is secured tightly. A car seat shouldn’t wobble, pivot, slide or tip. If it moves more than an inch forward or to the side, it's too loose. You'll know a rear-facing infant seat is installed tightly enough if, when you hold the top edge of the car seat and try to push it downward, the back of the seat stays firmly in place at the same angle.

If you drive a car made in 2002 or later

All cars made in 2002 and later are designed with a LATCH system (anchors and tethers designed to attach the car seat to the backseat of the car). Keep in mind that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says parents should use either the LATCH system or the seat belt with a car seat, but never both. Read the car seat and vehicle manuals carefully and follow all instructions. The basics:

Place the car seat base in your car. Locate the LATCH system.

Connect the car seat base’s lower anchors to the lower anchors of the LATCH system, ensuring there are no twists in the belt.

Press down on the car seat and tighten the straps.

Once the base 

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