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The Informed Parent

Updated Car Seat Guidelines

by Lori A. Livingston, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Aug. 18, 2008

We all spend a lot of time every day in our cars, and we never question the value of protecting ourselves with a seatbelt. For parent, the most important way to protect our children from accidents is by securing them in a proper car seat. There are hundreds of choices of car seats and specific “rules” on how and when to use each kind. This is sure to be overwhelming for even the most savvy parents.

Here is a summary of the most recent 2008 guidelines set by the American Academy of Pediatrics, as simply put as possible.

Infant Seats: Rear Facing

  1. ALWAYS rear facing until 1 year of age AND weight of at least 20 pounds.
  2. Two options:
    Infant only seats: small size with carrying handles, often part of a stroller system. Holds maximum weight of 22 to 30 pounds.

    Convertible seats: use rear facing then “convert” to forward facing for an older child. No carrying handle. Higher weight limits, so better for bigger babies. Three different HARNESS TYPES: 5 point, overhead shield and T-shield harnesses. There is no difference in the safety of the harness types.

Toddlers and Preschoolers: Forward Facing With A Harness

  1. ONLY for a child over 1 year of age AND 20 pounds.
  2. Use until 4 years old and about 40 pounds.
  3. Three standard types of seats:
    Convertible seats: changes from rear facing (for infants) to forward facing with a harness.

    Forward facing toddler seat: harness seat, usually holds up to 40 to 80 pound child.

    Combo forward facing/Booster seat: use as a harness seat up to 4 years old and 40 pounds, then “convert” to booster seat by removing harness.

School Age: Booster Seat

  1. ONLY  for a child over 4 years old and about 40 pounds.
  2. Booster seats raise a child up so that the adult seat belt (lap and shoulder belt) fits properly across the chest.
  3. They must be used with a lap and shoulder belt in the back seat (NEVER a lap only belt).
  4. High back booster seats offer more head and neck protection and are more useful in vehicles without headrests or with low seat backs.
  5. Backless booster seats are easier to move from car to car.

Older Children: Seat Belt

  1. Usually safe to use the adult seat belt (lap and shoulder belt) in the BACK SEAT of the car between 8 and 12 years of age and height of at least 4 feet 9 inches (57 inches).
  2. The shoulder belt must lie across the middle of the chest and shoulders, not near the neck or throat.
  3. The lap belt must lie low across the upper thighs, not across the belly.
  4. NEVER “share” seat belts across 2 people.
  5. NEVER tuck the shoulder belt under the arm or behind the back.
  6. Children should sit in the back seat until at least 12 years of age.

Shopping Tips

  1. No one car seat is the “best” or “safest”.
  2. A higher price does not mean the seat is safer or easier to use.
  3. NEVER use a car seat that:
    • Is too old
    • Has visible cracks on it.
    • Does not have a label with date of manufacture and model number.
    • Does not come with instructions.
    • Is missing parts.
    • Was recalled.
    • Has been in a moderate or severe car crash.

Installation Tips

  1. Make sure the seat is installed tightly in the vehicle and that the harness fits the child snugly.
  2. ALWAYS follow the instructions for your specific car seat.
  3. NEVER place a car seat in the front seat of the vehicle.
  4. If your car was made after 2002, it likely came with the LATCH system which is used to secure the car seat. Both the vehicle and the car seat must have the LATCH system to work together properly.
  5. Make sure the seat is at the correct angle so that your infant’s head does not flop forward. 
  6. When on an airplane, use the appropriate car seat for age and weight until 4 years of age, then the airplane seatbelt can be used alone.
  7. If you need help installing your car seat there may be a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) in your area that can help. See, or call 888-327-4326.

For this information and more, visit, the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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