You put a lot of thought into your newborn’s rear-facing car seat. It was a key item on your baby registry and how you got your little one safely home from the hospital.
Now that your baby isn’t such a baby anymore though, you’re starting to wonder if it’s time for a forward-facing car seat. Perhaps your little one has already reached the weight and height limit for their rear-facing seat and you’re wondering what’s next.
Or maybe they’re not at the size limits just yet, but you think enough time has passed and you’d like to know if you can flip them around to face forward.
Whatever your situation, we’ve got you covered with info on when it’s recommended to use a forward-facing car seat as well as some tips to make sure that you’re getting it installed properly.
In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released new recommendations for car seat safety. As part of these recommendations, they removed their previous age-based recommendation that children remain rear facing in car seats until the age of 2.
The AAP now suggests that children remain rear facing until they reach their rear-facing car seat’s weight/height limits which, for most children, will leave them rear-facing beyond the previous age recommendation. This is based on research that rear-facing offers safer support for the head, neck, and back.
What does this mean for you? Well, until your child has met the weight/height limits of their rear-facing car seat AND met the requirements of any state laws, it is preferable to keep them rear facing. Once your child has reached the weight or height limits for their rear-facing seat — likely sometime after age 3 — they’re ready for forward facing.
Are there laws about rear facing?
Car seat laws vary by your location, depending on country, state, province, or territory. Check your local laws to ensure that you are in compliance.
What about their legs?
Many parents express concern about the fact that their child seems cramped or that their legs must be folded before they have reached the maximum height or weight for their rear-facing seat.
Children can safely sit with their legs crossed, extended, or hanging over the sides of their rear-facing seat. Leg injuries for rear-facing children are “very rare,” according to the AAP.
Once your child has graduated to a forward-facing car seat, it’s recommended they remain in it until they reach the height and weight limit of their seat. This can be quite some time as forward-facing car seats can hold anywhere from 60 to 100 pounds depending on the model!
It’s important to also keep in mind that even after your child has outgrown their forward-facing car seat, they should still use a booster seat to ensure your car’s seat belt system fits them properly.
Children aren’t ready to use the seatbelt alone until they’re around
All certified car seats meet safety requirements regardless of the price. The best seat is one that fits your child, fits your vehicle, and is properly installed!
That said, here are some options available to choose from when selecting the best seat for your child.
Types of seats
Rear facing only
These are generally the bucket-style infant seats that most parents use for their newborns. These seats often come with a base that is installed in the car that couples with a removable seat portion. The seats can often be paired with strollers as part of a travel system. These seats are designed to be carried outside of the car so they typically feature lower weight and height limits.
Once your baby has reached the limit for their rear-facing only seat, often that’s 35 pounds or 35 inches, they can move into a combination convertible or 3-in-1 seat with a higher weight and height limit.
Most convertible car seats can be used in the rear-facing position until a child reaches the weight limit, typically 40 to 50 pounds. At that point, the seat can be converted into a forward-facing car seat.
These seats are larger and designed to stay installed in the vehicle. They feature 5-point harnesses, which feature straps that have 5 contact points — both shoulders, both hips, and crotch.
All-in-1 or 3-in-1
Taking the convertible car seat one step further, the 3-in-1 car seat can be used as a rear-facing car seat, a forward-facing car seat, and a booster seat. While purchasing a 3-in-1 can seem like you’ve hit the car seat lottery (no more car seat buying decisions to make!), it’s important to remember that you’ll still need to stay on top of the manufacturer’s height and weight requirements for each stage.
You’ll also need to properly convert the car seat into all of the different types of seats (rear, forward, and booster) when the time comes. For example, it’s important that when your child is rear facing the straps are set at or below your child’s shoulders, but once the seat is forward facing the straps should be at or above their shoulders.
No one ever said that parenthood was for the faint of heart!
Combination seats work first as forward-facing seats that utilize a 5-point harness, and then as booster seats that can be used with the shoulder and lap belt. Parents are encouraged to use the harness up to the height or weight maximum for their seat, as the harness helps ensure your child is sitting in the safest position.
Your child isn’t ready for a booster until they are at least 4 years old and at least 35 inches tall. (They should have outgrown their forward-facing car seat with the 5-point harness.) They also need to be capable of sitting properly in the booster, with the seatbelt strap in the correct position across their hips and chest and off their neck.
It’s important to make sure the specific guidelines your booster seat are met before advancing from a forward-facing car seat to a booster seat. There are a variety of types of booster seats from high back to low back and removable.
In general, your child should be in a high back booster seat if your car lacks headrests or the seat back is low. Encouraging your child to help choose their booster seat can ensure that it’s a comfortable fit and they will be more likely to agree to sit in it.
Your child will need a booster seat to help them properly fit your car’s seat and safety belt until they’re over 57 inches tall. (And even after they outgrow the booster seat, they should sit in the back of your car until they’re 13 years old!)
When it’s time to install a car seat, it’s important to get it right!
- Before installing, always double-check to make sure that your car seat is not expired or recalled.
- Use an appropriate mechanism to secure the car seat. You should only use either the LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children) system or the seatbelt option to secure the car seat. Make sure not to use both at the same time unless your specific car seat states both may be used simultaneously.
- Whether you use the LATCH system or seatbelt option to secure a forward-facing car seat, it’s important to always install the top tether. This adds important stability to a forward-facing car seat.
- When using the seatbelt option, it is also important to make sure the seatbelt locks to get a tight fit. In newer cars, simply pull the seat belt out all the way and allow it to retract to achieve this!
- When using a booster, always use a lap and shoulder belt, never just a lap belt.
- Regardless of how you secure the seat, ensure it is at the correct angle! (Many car seats will have markers to help you make this determination.)
- Consider taking your seat to get checked by a certified child passenger safety technician (CPST) or at least watching an instructional video to double-check your work.
- Register your car seat, so you receive recall and safety updates.
- Remember to use the car seat every time your child is in the car and to make the harness appropriately snug. Do not place your child in their car seat in a bulky winter coat as this can create too much space between the harness and their body to be effective. If the car is cold, consider draping the coat over the top of your child once they’re buckled in.
- Car seats are designed to be used at a specific angle. They aren’t meant for sleeping outside the car. Babies should always be placed to sleep on their backs, on a flat surface for safety.
Car seats are something you’ve likely been thinking about since long before your baby was even born! Before getting rid of the infant rear-facing car seat you spent so much time researching, take the time to double-check the height and weight allotment.
If your child can continue to face the back of the car, it’s probably best to allow them to continue facing that way even if they are older than 2. Once you move to a forward-facing car seat, double-check that it is properly installed and fits correctly in your vehicle.
Remember, when in doubt, chat with a CPST to feel confident in hitting the open road with your little one in tow!