One of the most crucial ways parents can keep their child safe is by the proper use of a child safety seat in the car. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the leading cause of death in children is motor vehicle accidents. Not only should kids be in car seats appropriate for their age and weight, but they must be properly restrained in those seats.
With hundreds of options to choose from, it's normal for parents to ask which child restraints they should be using in their car. The proper type of seat — from harness seats to high-back boosters — depends on a child's weight, height and age. Additionally, each state carries their own set of laws and practices for which seat must be used.
When should a baby ride in a rear-facing car seat? When are kids the right age and weight to transition to a booster seat? Yahoo Life spoke with car seat safety experts to get the details on the best way for parents to make sure their kids are safe in the car.
What is a car seat?
A car seat is a seat a child sits in while riding in a vehicle that uses a five-point harness system as a means of restraint. This system ensures the small child is properly positioned in case of an accident. There are both front-facing and rear-facing options, with many states requiring young children to ride in a rear-facing car seat. Front-facing seats are most commonly used with toddlers and preschool age children with most seats being able to accommodate children up to 60 pounds.
What is the appropriate age for a car seat?
A rear-facing car seat is best for newborns, infants and young children, and in some states, is mandatory by law. The type of seat used also depends on the type of vehicle you own. Car safety seats are most commonly used by children up to 5 years of age and 40 pounds.
How to make sure a car seat is correctly installed
Car seats can be installed using either the vehicle's seat belt or the LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children) system. The LATCH system was designed to help parents easily and correctly install safety seats without the use of a seat belt. After installation, it's suggested that parents have their car seat inspected by a child passenger safety technician before use. Registering a car safety seat with the manufacturer will also keep moms and dads up to date on any part issues or recalls. Once installed, the harness should fit snugly over the child's shoulders with the clip at the center of their chest. Bulk layers of clothing, like winter coats, are discouraged as these layers could compress in a car crash leaving too much room between the child and the restraint.
What is a booster seat?
A booster seat is a seat a child sits on that uses the vehicle's seat belt as means of restraint. High-back booster seats provide head and neck support in vehicles that do not have a head rest. Some seats can transition from car seat to booster seat, but the distinction between the two is important.
What is the appropriate age for a booster seat?
There is no rush to move your child into a booster seat if the five-point harness is working fine. For booster seats, the child should be at least 5 years old and 40 pounds, with laws varying by state. With a booster seat, the vehicle's seat belt needs to adjust properly over a child. Booster seats need to be used until the child is large enough and tall enough to be secured by the vehicle's seat belt. Transitioning to the use of only a vehicle's seat belt depends on each child but this typically will occur as early as 10 years old and as old as 12 years of age.
Proper positioning is critical
Not all booster seats require being anchored, but this largely depends on style of car and seat. The intention of the booster seat is to ensure the vehicle's seat belt is properly restraining a child and laying snugly over their hip bones, not their stomachs. The boost provided by the seat also makes sure the shoulder portion of the belt crosses the middle of the child's chest and shoulder and stays off the neck.
How can a parent determine when they can safely move their child from a car to a booster seat?
Cass Herring is a child passenger safety certification technical advisor for Safe Kids Worldwide, an organization dedicated to protecting kids from accidental and unintentional injuries. Once the child has outgrown the forward-facing seat with a harness and fits in the minimum height, weight and age (if specified) requirements for the booster seat then a fit test can be done to determine if the child is ready for a booster. Herring tells Yahoo Life. "To determine if the booster is a good fit, caregivers should look to see that when the seat belt is routed and buckled correctly, the lap portion of the belt is low and across the hips and not across the abdomen, the shoulder belt is across the chest and contacts the shoulder and the child is able to remain in the correct position the entire ride."
Ultimately, Herring shares it's absolutely critical to follow both state laws and the age, height and weight guidelines of the car seat manufacturer.
When is a child ready to safely ride in a vehicle without a booster seat?
"The child can transition to using the seat belt without a booster when the seat belt fits them appropriately," Herring explains. "To test, a child should be able [to check off certain safety question boxes] and remain in position the entire ride."
Herring says if the answer to one of these safety questions is "no," then a child is not ready for a booster:
Can they sit with their back against the seat without slouching?
Do their knees bend naturally over the seat?
Can they keep their feet flat on the floor?
Is the lap belt snug across the upper thighs and low on the hips?
Is the seatbelt across the chest and not across the face or neck?
Explaining to an older child why they still need to use a booster seat can prove to be a challenge. "Children are fantastically curious and talking to them about the benefits of a booster seat can be very helpful," Herring shares. "One great tip is showing them how the booster seat raises them up and allows them to see better looking out of the window."
"Involve children in the process," she adds. "Let them pick out a color or feature that they might want on their booster."
For Jenny Cruz, mother of a 6-year-old, the transition from car seat to booster has been smooth. "I wasn't nervous, she was pretty tall, and the larger car seat wasn't comfortable for her," Cruz says. "She always did well with staying strapped in the seat and not trying to get out of it."
Cruz says she made the switch with her daughter around age 5. "The booster seat was easier for her to sit in and she was more comfortable: We talked about the seat belt and why it's for safety reasons, so she's done pretty well with it."
Tarah Chieffi, a mom of 3, says her kids are tall, so she was eager to make the switch once she knew it was safe so they'd feel more comfortable on car rides. "I wasn't concerned if they were big enough to transition," she says. "I based it on their height and age."
For her first two kids, Chieffi says she waited until they turned 4 to make the change. "Only our youngest is still in a five-point harness car seat and after successfully switching our two older kids to booster seats, it feels even easier to make the decision for our third," she says. "You always worry more with your first kid because you haven't been through it before, but once you have some experience, it makes it easier."
Car safety seat laws by state:
Alabama: Alabama car seat laws require children between the ages of 1 and 15 to be restrained in some way. Newborns and infants younger than 1 must be in a convertible seat in a rear-facing position whereas children ages 1 through 5 can be in a front-facing seat. The car seat ages require 5- and 6-year-old children to be retrained in a booster seat, but any child older than 6 years old may be in seat belts only.
Alaska: Children ages 8 and younger who have outgrown car seats must be seated in a booster, but children younger than 8 years old for whom seat belts fit correctly without a booster may ride without it.
Arizona: Arizona car seat laws require all children younger than 8 and shorter than 4’9” tall to be secured in some type of child restraint system in moving vehicles. Children younger than 5 must be in a convertible car seat or another type of safety restraint regardless of height.
Arkansas: Children must ride in an age-appropriate seat until they reach 60 pounds.
California: California child car seat safety laws take into account the child's height and weight when determining an appropriate seat. Children should remain in a child restraint device as long as possible or until they are 12 or 13 years old.
Colorado: Children from birth to age 15 must use some type of safety restraint when in a vehicle traveling down a highway.
Connecticut: Connecticut child car seat laws require children and teens to be buckled in an appropriate child restraint based on their age, weight and height. However, only the car or booster seat weight and age restrictions for child restraints are taken into consideration by the law.
Delaware: Delaware requires children to be secured in a child restraint device while riding in vehicles until they are 8 years old. However, children younger than 8 who exceed the booster seat weight of 64 pounds may sit with a seat belt only.
Florida: Florida requires anyone who operates a motor vehicle with a child passenger younger than 6 years old to secure them in a federally-approved child restraint. Their weight has no bearing on this requirement.
Georgia: Georgia car seat laws state that all children younger than 8 years old and shorter than 57 inches in height cannot sit in the front of a vehicle due to the threat an airbag poses to their health. Any child younger than 8 may either use a car seat or a booster when appropriate.
Hawaii: Hawaii car seat laws require all children younger than 4 to be in a car seat while riding in any vehicle. Children between the ages of 4 through 7 may ride in either a car seat or a booster seat while in any vehicle.
Idaho: Idaho requires the use of any appropriate restraint for a child up to the age of 7.
Illinois: Illinois car seat laws require all drivers who are transporting children younger than 8 years old to properly restrain those children. This could mean utilizing a car seat or a booster seat, based upon the age, weight and height of the child.
Indiana: Indiana car seat laws require all children younger than 8 to use a child car seat or a booster seat.
Iowa: Iowa child car seat laws require all children from birth until the age of 1 to ride in a rear-facing child restraint system. The child must also weigh at least 20 pounds to switch to a forward-facing system. Car seat laws include any child younger than 6 to use a child restraint system.
Kansas: Kansas requires a driver transporting a child passenger to adhere to the child restraint rules based on age, weight and height.
Kentucky: Kentucky car seat laws require any child 40 inches tall or less to use a child restraint system. Car seat safety rules dictate that any child younger than 8 and between 40 and 57 inches tall must ride in a child booster seat. However, any child taller than 57 inches does not require a booster, regardless of age.
Louisiana: Louisiana requires all children younger than 6 or weighing 60 pounds or less to be restrained in child restraint systems, which can include car seats or booster seats. The booster seat weight requirements end for any child who is at least 6 years of age or weighs more than 60 pounds.
Maine: Maine car seat safety laws require a child car seat for all children who weigh less than 40 pounds. A federally approved car seat or child booster seat must be used by all children who weigh between 40 and 79 pounds and who are younger than 8.
Maryland: Maryland requires all children younger than 8 to use a child restraint system, based on the child's weight and height.
Massachusetts: In Massachusetts, child passengers are required to be fastened and secured within an approved booster seat or restraint until they are at least 8 years old or 57 inches tall.
Michigan: Michigan child safety seat laws require that children ages 4 and younger ride in a car seat in the rear of the car. Children must be properly buckled in a booster seat or car seat up until the age of 8 years old, or if the child is at least 4 feet 9 inches tall.
Minnesota: Minnesota requires that all children under the age of 8 ride in either a federally-approved car seat or booster seat, unless the child is at least 4 feet 9 inches tall.
Mississippi: The Mississippi State Department of Health has released recommendations based on a child's age for the type of seats they should be using.
Missouri: Missouri requires that all children under the age of 4 be secured in an approved car seat and all children under 16 be properly restrained in a vehicle.
Montana: The booster seat law in Montana states that a child under the age of 8, weighing less than 60 pounds must be restrained in a proper child safety seat in a motor vehicle.
Nebraska: Nebraska requires all children up to 8 years of age be secured in a federally-approved child safety seat.
Nevada: Nevada car seat laws state that any child younger than 6, weighing less than 60 pounds must be secured in a federally-approved child safety system.
New Hampshire: New Hampshire guidelines state any child younger than 6 must be secured by a federally-approved child restraint.
New Jersey: New Jersey laws require every child riding as a passenger in a vehicle younger than 8 years of age or shorter than 57 inches tall must be secured in the rear seat of a vehicle.
New Mexico: New Mexico laws state that all children must ride in a size-appropriate car seat or booster seat until their 7th birthday, no matter their size. Every child, regardless of age, must use a car seat until they weigh at least 60 pounds.
New York: New York car seat laws indicate the age or size a child must be before he or she can begin using an adult seat belt. All safety seats and booster seats must comply with federal vehicle safety standards.
North Carolina: Car seat laws in North Carolina apply to all children in the state who are younger than 16 years of age or weigh less than 80 pounds.
North Dakota: North Dakota car seat requirements vary depending on the height and weight of the child as well as the recommendation of the product manufacturer.
Ohio: Ohio laws require that all child passengers sit on an appropriately-sized safety or booster seat until they meet minimum height requirements or turn 8.
Oklahoma: Drivers must abide by the car seat laws in Oklahoma whenever they operate a motor vehicle with a child passenger who is younger than 8 or shorter than four feet nine inches tall.
Oregon: Oregon laws require that all child passengers use an appropriately-sized safety seat whenever they ride in a motor vehicle. Once a child exceeds the car and booster seat age or height requirements, they may use an adult seat belt.
Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania requires that all children must use an acceptable type of child restraint device whenever they ride in a vehicle until they turn 8.
Rhode Island: Rhode Island car seat laws require a car or booster seat if a child is younger than 8 years of age, shorter than 57 inches tall and lighter than 80 pounds in weight.
South Carolina: South Carolina requires a car seat for a child passenger who is younger than 8 years of age. Children who are at least 57 inches tall or 8 years of age may use an adult safety belt if the lap belt can fit snugly across their thighs and hips and the shoulder belt can rest against their chest.
South Dakota: South Dakota requires all children who are younger than 5 and weigh less than 40 pounds to use an approved safety seat. In most cases, children can wear an adult seat belt once they reach four foot nine inches tall.
Tennessee: Tennessee car seat laws require all young passengers to use a properly-fitted child restraint system whenever they travel by motor vehicle. In most cases, restraint systems include a child car seat or booster seat.
Texas: Texas laws require all children who are younger than 8 or shorter than four feet nine inches tall to use a car or booster seat. Once children reach four feet nine inches tall, they may use an adult safety belt when traveling in a motor vehicle.
Utah: Utah car seat laws apply to all child passengers who are younger than 8 and shorter than 57 inches tall.
Vermont: Most laws for car seats in Vermont are based on a child's weight, height or age. Children between 8 and 15 years of age may ride with an adult seat belt with or without a booster seat as appropriate.
Virginia: Car seat regulations in Virginia are based on a child's age rather than weight. Age-appropriate child restraint devices are required for all children until their 8th birthday.
Washington: Washington requires all children to use an age-appropriate car seat until they are either 8 years of age or reach a height of four feet and nine inches.
Washington, D.C.: Washington, D.C. requires all drivers to use a child restraint seat when transporting children who are younger than 3 years of age. Children younger than 8 years of age must use an age-appropriate car seat, toddler seat or booster seat that utilizes a seat belt with a lap and shoulder strap.
West Virginia: Per West Virginia law, all children younger than 8 must ride in an age-appropriate car seat or booster seat.
Wisconsin: Wisconsin car seat laws state that all children younger than 8 or shorter than four feet and nine inches in height must ride in a safety seat that is appropriate for their size.
Wyoming: Wyoming laws require all children to ride in an age-appropriate safety seat until their 9th birthday.
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