This Current Breakdown of Car Seat Safety Recommendations May Surprise You

Image Source: Leah Campbell

When my daughter was born, I had only a week to prepare for her arrival. It was a surprise adoption I hadn’t been looking for; a random introduction to a pregnant mama who, upon learning that I was getting foster care licensed, asked me if I would take her baby.

A week later, that was exactly what I did.

But the thing about having a week to prepare for a newborn is that you don’t have any time to research. My friends came together like the amazing village they are, dropping off hand-me-downs and helping me to wash laundry and set up a nursery. But when I left that hospital with my little girl, she was in a car seat that was too big for her, with straps that weren’t done right, and a million toys and stuffed animals around her.

I honestly had no idea what I was doing.

Thankfully, I had a friend of a friend who was a Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) reach out after I shared those first photos. Without any pressure or judgment, she offered to help me with any car seat questions I might have.

And from there, my passion for car seat safety was born.

Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of flack for following the most stringent car seat recommendations. My daughter rear faced until just shy of her 4th birthday (when, being in the 90th percentile for height, she started pushing up against the maximum rear facing height requirements for her seat). And she is 5 now, and still in a 5-point harness — something I plan on maintaining for at least the next 2 years.

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Image Source: Leah Campbell

Nearly all of my friends with similar-aged kids flipped their little ones forward by 2 at the latest, and are rocking the boosters now.

I get teased a lot. People ask me if I plan on keeping her in her car seat until college. “How did WE ever survive?” is thrown my way with mocking smiles. And all the while, it’s somehow assumed that I’m the one who’s crazy.

Even though, the truth is, I’m just the one who’s following what the science surrounding this issue backs up.

I say that without judgment. I get that dealing with car seats can be a pain. And that there are a million reasons a parent might not follow the latest recommendations.

Perhaps the biggest of those reasons is that many don’t even really know which recommendations they should be following. State laws are often much more lenient than the recommendations being made by car seat experts. For instance, according to Safe Rides 4 Kids, most states only require a child remain rear facing up to age 1. But the data supports kids being 5 times safer rear facing, with the best practices recommendation being that kids should remain rear facing until at least the age of 2 — with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) following that recommendation up by saying the preference is to keep kids rear facing until they reach the height or weight limits of their seat.

Babble spoke to Amanda Nutter, a CPST currently living in Missouri, for a rundown of current car seat recommendations. She explained that best practices are as follows:

  • Rear facing until between 2 and 4 years old, ideally until the child reaches the maximum height and weight limits of their seat.
  • Once turned around, children should remain in the 5-point harness until they are mature enough to stay in a safe sitting position (meaning they aren’t reaching for things in the car, falling asleep in their seat, or leaning out of the seat belt). For most kids, that level of maturity isn’t reached until at least age 7.
  • From there, a booster seat until around the age of 10 to 12, depending on when they meet the following conditions:
    • Knees bend easily at the edge of the seat.
    • Bottoms all the way back, and feet flat on the floor.
    • Lap portion of the belt fits across their hips.
    • Shoulder belt goes across their collarbone.
    • Able to sit in this position the entire time.

Amanda explained that being prepared to graduate to no seat at all depends on being able to pass that five-step test. And she told Babble that kids may be able to pass all five steps in some vehicles but not others.

When I moved my daughter forward facing, I took her to the local fire department to get the help of a CPST there. They literally applauded me for keeping her rear facing as long as I had.
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When asked about the differences between state laws and best practice recommendations, she explained:

“It takes years to push legislation through to update state car seat laws. And even when updates to the laws are introduced, they often fail because of misconceptions about child passenger safety.

For example, many people believe that if their younger child is big for his or her age, they will be okay to turn forward facing before 2. However, the human body develops according to age, not size — so a 1-year-old who is the size of a 2-year-old still has the skeleton of a 1-year-old, and is still at risk for neck injuries if turned forward facing too soon.”

This falls into a simple lack of education regarding car seat safety. Which makes sense — there is a lot to know! Chicago Tribune published a report in October 2017 about how that lack of knowledge has led to many parents not using their car seat tethers correctly. And The Washington Post had a story in September of 2011 about the common misconceptions that keep parents from rear facing their kids for as long as they should.

I recently asked a large group of mothers about their car seat decisions. Chelle Bell admitted, “I turned my son around before 2. It was a tough decision, but made life easier. He was a better traveler. But when my pediatrician asked if he was still rear facing, I fibbed.”

Kelly Lipp said, “I’m a foster parent and my foster babe was still rear facing … in MY car. But my mom nagged me to change it starting on her 1st birthday. I finally allowed her to switch hers and the babysitter’s car (they shared a car seat) when she was around 18 months. I was just tired of the nagging.”

And Marsha Greene explained, “I turned my son at 20 months. He hated rear facing. He would scream and bellow at the top of his lungs until the car stopped moving. It was torture.”

Leah Campbell
Image Source: Leah Campbell

Several other parents weighed in with valid reasons of their own. Smaller cars that made it hard to manage rear facing. Children carpooling home from school, making it difficult to ensure they always have a booster. Babies struggling with car sickness and moms with bad backs.

All these parents with reasons all their own for knowing the recommendations, but choosing not to follow them.

They are dilemmas Beth McDonough, a mom and former paramedic, is all too used to hearing.

“I had friends who switched their kids forward facing the day they were legally old enough, and it was hard to find a way to gently explain why that wasn’t a good idea without being offensive. No one wants to be told they are endangering their kids,” she told Babble.

But Beth’s experiences as a paramedic, and her knowledge of the research available, pushed her to go a different direction with her own kids.

“NHTSA recommends keeping a child in a five-point harness until they reach the height or weight maximum for their seat. Why wouldn’t we do that? We already have the seats, they are already properly installed, they are perfectly comfortable, and it is just so much safer!”

When asked about her years as a paramedic, she went on to say:

“In my experience, a child who gets ejected from their seat is going to be injured. That’s pretty much 100 percent true from the accidents I have been to. And a child in a five-point harness is unlikely to be ejected, as long as the clips are done right and the child isn’t in a puffy coat. Even when the seat gets thrown from the vehicle, as long as the child remains in the seat, they are usually banged up but fine. A child in a booster seat is more likely to be ejected, though, because they aren’t properly positioned.”

Over the years, I’ve spoken to many first responders who have said the same. Each and every one has told me they follow the most stringent car seat recommendations for their kids, because they’ve seen what a difference it can make.

In fact, when I moved my daughter forward facing, I took her to the local fire department to get the help of a CPST there. They literally applauded me for keeping her rear facing as long as I had. And not only were they amazing about assisting me with the install (which I don’t believe I ever would have gotten right on my own) but they also talked to my little girl about the importance of her seat — and how staying in it could keep her safe.

“People often tell me that they rode without car seats, or even seat belts, when they were children,” Amanda told Babble. “They rationalize that they are fine, so they feel the technology we have today is excessive and unnecessary. Unfortunately, many children have died in vehicle collisions. Those children are just not here to tell their stories. We know that car crashes are a leading cause of death in young children, and we know that the number of deaths has dropped with improved car seat recommendations. Vehicle seat belts are made to fit adult occupants. Car seats and boosters are made to fit children and keep them safe until they adult seat belt fits them properly.”

If you want to learn more about current car seat recommendations, and the science behind those recommendations, there are a few resources you can turn to:

  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a section for parents and child passenger safety on their website.
  • Car Seats for the Littles publishes valuable reviews and lists of recommended seats.
  • And Safe Kids Worldwide is the organization that operates the National Child Passenger Safety Certification — they have plenty of tips for parents who want to keep their kids safe.

Most CPSTs are volunteers who are more than happy to help you in any way they can.

So my recommendation? Call your local fire department to find out if they have a CPST on hand, or if they can tell you where to find one. Because sometimes just having someone look at your car seat install and tell you how you can improve it can make all the difference.

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