In late March, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), in conjunction with the American Academy of Pediatrics, released a new set of guidelines for children’s seats in vehicles. While previous NHTSA guidelines were categorized by the type of child seat—for example rear-facing, forward-facing, and booster—this year for the first time, the guidelines are categorized by the age of the child. By focusing on the child first, the guidelines attempt to more effectively incorporate scientific and medical testing results.
For all age groups, parents should: select a car seat based on the child’s age, height, and weight; keep the child in a car seat for as long as possible according to the seat’s height and weight requirements; and always make children under 13 ride in the back seat.
Beyond these general recommendations, NHTSA has specific guidelines for the age groups: Birth – 12 months, 1-3 years, 4-7 years, and 8-12 years:
- Children under the age of 1 should always ride in a rear-facing car seat, which may be an infant-only seat, a convertible seat, or a 3-in-1 seat.
- Children between the ages of 1 and 3 should be kept in a rear-facing seat as long as possible. This means leaving your child in the rear-facing seat until they reach the top height and weight limit allowed by the seat’s manufacturer. Once a child outgrows the rear-facing seat, they are ready to travel in a forward-facing seat with a harness.
- Children between the ages of 4 and 7 should remain in a forward-facing seat with a harness until they reach the top height or weight limit allowed by the seat’s manufacturer. They can then travel in a booster seat, but always in the backseat of the car.
- Children in the 8 to 12 year age range should ride in a booster seat until they are big enough to fit in a seat belt properly. Proper seat belt fit means that the lap belt lies snugly across the upper thighs, not the stomach. The shoulder belt should lie snugly across they should and chest and not cross the neck or face. Children are safest in the back seat.
As you can tell from reading the age-specific recommendations, the general rule of thumb is that parents should only switch the child seat when the child as OUTGROWN their seat. This keeps the children in the safest seats for the longest amount of time, only transitioning when the child is big enough. Overall, according to NHTSA, the best car seat is “one that fits your child, fits your vehicle and one you will use every time your child is in the car.”
For parents looking for more detailed information, and in particular answers to questions about which type of seat to buy, installation tips, and how your child sits in the seat, the American Academy of Pediatrics has a much more comprehensive guide available.