Car seat timeline

Consumer Reports News: May 01, 2008 01:23 PM

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From birth until your child reaches a height of 4 feet, 9 inches, he or she will potentially go through several car seats: an infant car seat, a convertible car seat, a front-facing only car seat, and ultimately a belt-positioning booster or booster seat before being ready for the vehicle belts alone. But which seat should you use when? Use this guide to gauge when it’s time to sit tight or move up to the next level.

Infant car seat: Use an infant car seat (always rear-facing) from birth until your baby reaches the seat’s height and weight limits. Weight limits are typically 22 pounds, but sometimes higher depending on the model. Weight limits are listed on the seat itself as well as in the instruction manual. When your baby reaches the seat’s limits, which may be as soon as 6 to 9 months of age, you’ll need to switch to a convertible car seat in order to keep them rear facing at least until their first birthday.

Convertible seat: Use a convertible car seat rear-facing until your baby is at least 1 year old and weighs 22 pounds or more. Some convertible seats can be used in the rear-facing position up to 30 to 35 pounds, and research shows that babies are safest in a rear facing orientation so it’s best to keep them that way as long as you can. When your baby reaches a convertible seat’s height and weight limits in the rear-facing mode, switch the seat around, and use it front-facing until your toddler reaches the height and weight limits for the forward-facing seat. Weight limits for most are generally up to 40 pounds, though more and more convertible models have weight limits up to 65 pounds or more.

Forward-facing only seat: As an alternative to a front-facing convertible seat, some seats are forward-facing only. This front-facing only seat is used with an internal harness for toddlers typically between 20 to 40 pounds, though again some models can be used with the internal harness at higher weights. The internal harness can then be removed and the forward-facing seat can be used as a belt-positioning booster from 60 to 80 pounds, depending on the model.

Belt-positioning booster seat or booster seat: When your child reaches the weight and height limits of the harness system of either their convertible or front-facing only seat, it’s time for a belt-positioning or standard booster seat for your child. Boosters raise the child up in the vehicle seat to allow the seatbelt to pass correctly across their sternum (not their necks) and low across the child’s upper thigh area (not their abdomen). Both use the vehicle’s own safety belt to restrain the child, but belt positioning models also have some sort of belt guide to better position the seat belts over a child’s shoulders.

Your car’s seat belts solo: When your child is tall enough to use the car’s safety belts, typically at least 57 inches and between 8 and 12 years old, and can ride comfortably seated in the vehicle’s seat, she can ride with just a car’s safety belts. Even with a seat belt, all children under age 13 should ride in the back seat.

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