Car seats are a vital tool to have from the moment you leave the hospital until your child outgrows the need for them.
But buying a car seat is not as simple as just buying a car seat. In other words, there's more to buying a car seat than choosing one that looks nice. Choosing the safest car seat (within your budget) - and other factors - are very important.
There are four car seat stages, and in this article, I'll be going through each stage in detail so you get a good grasp on what type of car seat your child will need and when they'll need it.
Car Seat Stages: 4 Stages of Car Seat Use
According to the Pediatrics Division of Community Health and Research, there are four car seat stages that every child will grow through. They include rear-facing car seats, forward-facing car seats, booster seats, and seatbelts.
Stage 1: Rear-facing car seats
Rear-facing car seats should be used until your child is at least 2 years old. In some cases, a child may ride in the rear-facing position up until they’re at least four years old, depending on the height and weight requirements of the car seat.
A rear-facing car seat will typically come equipped with harness straps that come at or below your child’s shoulders and recline angles to give your child more head and neck support.
It’s recommended by the NHTSA and several other child passenger safety organizations that you keep your child seated in the rear-facing position for as long as possible. Today, you’ll find that a majority of rear-facing car seats on the market have an extended rear-facing weight range to abide by these safety standards.
Stage 2: Forward-facing car seat
Forward-facing car seats are usually used until the child reaches, at least, five years old. This type of car seat is equipped with a 5-point harness and a tether that attaches to the back of the seat. The harness straps should come at or above your child’s shoulders because they’re typically adjusted a lot as your child grows. Also, most forward-facing car seats have a maximum weight limit that varies between 50 and 85 pounds.
Stage 3: Booster seat
A booster seat is a forward-facing car seat that’s used when your child is at least five years old and outgrows the height and weight requirements of their forward-facing car seat with a 5-point harness. Instead of using a harness system, booster seats incorporate the use of the vehicle seatbelt. There are two types of booster seats: high-back and backless. The benefit of high-back boosters is that it offers additional head and neck support, as well as side impact protection.
A child will most likely transition to a booster seat when they’re around 10 to 12 years old. The point of a booster seat is to give your child added height so that they can safely use a vehicle seatbelt. Once your child exceeds the height and weight requirements of a high-back booster, you may transition to a backless booster, depending on if your child needs it, or not.
Stage 4: Seatbelt
Once your child has outgrown their backless booster, they’ll transition to riding in the car without a car seat. This typically happens when the child is at least 10 years old.
Booster Seats: How to Know When Your Child Has Outgrown One
To double-check that your child should be riding without a car seat, you can conduct the Five-Step Test. The purpose of the test is to ensure that your child can ride in the car safely, properly, and comfortably for the entire ride. Here are the steps for the Five-Step Test according to Car Seats for the Littles:
- 1Your child sits all the way back on the vehicle seat with their knees bent on the edge of the seat.
- 2The vehicle seatbelt should fit evenly across your child’s torso without cutting into their neck or face.
- 3The Lap belt should fit on your child’s hips and touch the tops of their thighs.
- 4Your child’s feet should be able to lie flat on the floor.
- 5Your child should be able to ride like this comfortably for the entire ride.
Once your child has exceeded the height and weight requirements of their infant car seat, it will be time to transition to a convertible one. More than likely, your child will exceed the height requirements faster than they do the weight requirements. So, another way to tell when it’s time to transition to a convertible car seat is if there’s less than one inch of space between the top of your child’s head and the top of their car seat.
It’s highly recommended by several car seat passenger safety organizations that you keep your child seated in the rear-facing position for as long as possible. Studies are still being done to determine at what age a child should transition to a forward-facing car seat. However, since most car seats now have an extended rear-facing weight range, experts say that once your child has exceeded the height and weight requirements of the rear-facing position, then you can turn the car seat forward-facing. Another indicator that it’s time to turn your convertible car seat forward is if your child’s head is less than one inch away from the top of the car seat shell/ head restraint.
There are a few requirements your child should meet before transitioning to a high-back booster.
In this article, I broke down the four stages of car seats to give you a better understanding of what the stages are and when they'll typically take place. It's very important that you follow the manufacturer's weight and height recommendations because regardless of what you read online, every manufacturer is different and they all have different height and weight requirements. Adhering to your car seat's specific height and weight requirements will ensure that your child rides in the car as safely as possible.
With two kids of my own, I’m passionate about child safety! I’m a research nerd who’s on a mission to make the world a safer place for kids – starting with car seats!
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