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Car Seat Checkup 1 of 3: Use the Right Seat

Note: This is intended as a checkup for parents who are already familiar with their car seats, and should not be taken as a start-to-finish instruction guide for new parents. If anything here goes against the instruction manual for your car seat, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. If you have any questions not answered here, seek the help of a Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST). In the Phoenix, AZ area? Click here to book an in-person appointment.

I have had many people with kids ask me to take a look at their car seats, and I’m always happy to do so. In spite of more and more research and technological advancements in crash force management, there remains a very high margin of error when it comes to car seat installation and use. Alarmingly, 59% of kids in car seats are not properly secured! I thought it would be a good idea to put together a checklist for parents to follow at home to make sure they are still keeping their precious cargo safe on the road. Since it’s kind of a massive topic, I have split it into 3 parts. If any of this seems foreign or too confusing, please, please, please find a local CPST to give you some hands-on assistance.

Where is your car seat owner’s manual? The first step is to put your hands on it so you can reference the specifics as we go along. If you can’t find your original, print a copy from the manufacturer’s website.

Check to make sure the seat is not expired or recalled. Unless explicitly stated otherwise, car seats are typically good for 6 years from the date of manufacture (which can be found on a sticker on the back or underside of the seat). To check for recalled parts, you can search at https://www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov/recalls/childseat.cfm, but it is so much easier to have the manufacturer contact you in case of a recall. Pass the responsibility on to them by registering your car seat by mail or online.

Use the most appropriate type of child restraint for your child’s size. For small children, this means rear-facing. In our home state of Arizona at the time of this writing, the law allows parents to turn their kids forward-facing at one year old and 20 pounds. However, the experts strongly recommend keeping them backward for much longer, up to the limits of your convertible car seat; hopefully 45-50 pounds. (At this point, you’re checking your manual to see exactly when you need to buy that next seat or turn your kiddo around, right? Don’t worry, we’ll wait for you…) The other thing that can indicate a child has outgrown a rear-facing seat is if the top of his head is within an inch of the top of the seat when fully extended.
If you have older children, they should still be in proper child restraints until they can sit upright in the vehicle seat with feet on the floor and the shoulder belt across the shoulder, not the neck. Different states have other requirements, but in Arizona, kids less than 8 years old and 4’9” tall must be in a car seat or booster. As far as when to switch from one seat to the next, look at the limits of the current seat to be your guide. Don’t be too eager to “graduate” from one seat type to the next, because each time you do, the protection provided by the seat is less and less.

Next week I’ll discuss checking and adjusting your car seat and installation basics. Be sure to follow the whole series.

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