Child Safety Seats

All children must be properly secured in a safety seat or other child restraint system while riding in a vehicle. Failing to properly secure your child increases his or her risk of death or serious injury in an accident. Laws and regulations regarding child passenger safety vary from state to state. Follow the laws in your area.

The following information includes best-practice recommendations for use of child restraint systems. These recommendations may not apply to children with physical or behavioral conditions. Talk to your caregiver if you think your child may need a specialized seat.

REAR-FACING SAFETY SEATS

Recommendation

Keep children in a rear-facing safety seat until the age of 2 years or until they reach the upper weight or height limit of their safety seat.

Types of Rear-facing Safety Seats

  • Rear-facing infant-only safety seat.

  • Convertible safety seat.

Guidelines

  • If your child is riding in an infant-only safety seat and reaches the weight or height limit of the seat before 2 years of age, use a convertible safety seat in the rear-facing position until your child is 2 years of age or until the weight or height limit of that safety seat is reached.  

  • The safety seat's harness should fit the child snugly. The pinch test is one method to check the harness for a correct fit. To perform the pinch test, pinch the harness at your child's shoulders from top to bottom. The harness fits correctly if you cannot make a vertical fold in the harness. You will need to readjust the harness with any change in the thickness of your child's clothing.  

  • If there is more than one harness slot, use the slot that is at or below the child's shoulders.  

  • Angle the safety seat so the child's head is not flopping forward. Do not angle it more than 45 degrees. Use angle adjusters or tilt the safety seat back and place a rolled towel under the front of the seat. Older children who are able to maintain head control can be in a more upright position.  

  • The sides of the safety seat can be padded with rolled cloths to prevent small children from slouching to the side. Nothing should be added under or behind the child or between the child and the harness.  

  • Make sure the carry handle is in the correct position (either around the top of the seat or under the seat) before driving.

  • Make sure your child's safety seat is properly installed (secured tightly with vehicle seat belt or Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children [LATCH] system). Carefully review your vehicle owner's manual and safety seat installation instructions.

  • Signs that a child has outgrown his or her rear-facing safety seat include:

  • Your child's shoulders are above the top of the harness slots.  

  • Your child's ears are at or above the top of the safety seat.

FORWARD-FACING SEATS

Recommendation

Children 2 years or older, or those younger than 2 years who have reached the rear-facing weight or height limit of their safety seat, should ride in a forward-facing safety seat with a harness. A child should ride in a forward-facing safety seat with a harness until reaching the upper weight or height limit of the safety seat.

Types of Forward-facing Safety Seats

  • Convertible safety seat.

  • Combination safety seat.

Guidelines

  • The safety seat's harness should fit the child snugly. The pinch test is one method to check the harness for a correct fit. To perform the pinch test, pinch the harness at your child's shoulders from top to bottom. The harness fits correctly if you cannot make a vertical fold in the harness. You will need to readjust the harness with any change in the thickness of your child's clothing.  

  • If there is more than one harness slot, use the slot that is at or below the child's shoulders.

  • Make sure your child's safety seat is properly installed (secured tightly with vehicle seat belt or Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children [LATCH] system). Carefully review your vehicle owner's manual and safety seat installation instructions.

  • Signs that a child has outgrown his or her forward-facing safety seat include:  

  • Your child's shoulders are above the top of the harness slots.  

  • Your child's ears are at or above the top of the safety seat.

BOOSTER SEATS

Recommendation

Children who have reached the height or weight limit of their forward-facing safety seat should ride in a belt-positioning booster seat until the vehicle seat belts fit properly.

Guidelines

  • The shoulder belt should be snug and cross the middle of the child's chest and shoulder (not the neck or throat).  

  • The lap belt should fit low and tight across the child's upper thigh (not the abdomen).    

  • Always secure the seat with both a shoulder seat belt and a lap seat belt. If your child must travel in a vehicle that only has lap belts:  

  • Have shoulder belts installed if possible.  

  • Use a travel vest or a forward-facing safety seat with a harness and higher weight and height limits.  

VEHICLE SEAT BELTS

Recommendation
Children who are old enough and large enough should use a lap-and-shoulder seat belt. The vehicle seat belts usually fit properly when a child reaches a height of 4 ft 9 in (145 cm). This is usually between the ages of 8 and 12 years old.

Guidelines

  • A seat belt fits if:  

  • The shoulder belt crosses the middle of the child's chest and shoulder (not the neck or throat).  

  • The lap belt is low and snug across the child's upper thighs (not the abdomen).  

  • The child is tall enough to sit against the seat with knees bent.  

  • Vehicles made before 1996 may have vehicle seat belts that do not lock unless the vehicle stops suddenly. A locking clip may be needed in these vehicles to secure the safety seat. The locking clip is usually placed around the vehicle seat belt above the buckle.  

  • Do not let your child tuck the shoulder belt under an arm or behind his or her back.  

  • Do not let your child share seat belts.

ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDATIONS

  • All children younger than 13 years should ride in the back seat. If your child must travel in a vehicle without a back seat:  

  • Deactivate the front air bags if the vehicle has them. If your vehicle does not have an air bag on and off switch, you will need to deactivate them manually. Air bags can cause serious head and neck injuries or death in children.  

  • Move the safety seat back from the dashboard (and the air bags) as far as you can.  

  • Review vehicle instructions regarding seat placement if the vehicle is equipped with side curtain air bags.  

  • Replace a safety seat following a moderate or severe crash.

  • Get your child's safety seat checked by a trained and certified technician. See cert.safekids.org for more information.

  • Check for recalls on your child's safety seat.

  • Do not use a safety seat that is damaged.  

  • Do not use a safety seat that is more than 5–6 years old.  

  • Do not use a used safety seat with an unknown history.