MacKenzie - posted on 01/01/2009 ( 5 moms have responded )
Carseats are very confusing. Many parents don't know which step to take next and when. Hopefully this post will help clear things up a bit.
An infant seat is one that only rear-faces, usually has a base, and fits newborns and small infants best. There are lots of different types on store shelves today. Some seats only have a 3pt harness, some have rear adjusters (meaning you have to loosen and tighten the harness behind the seat), some have 5pt harnesses with front adjusters, some have great padding for newborns, some don't. When you go to purchase your seat there are things to consider when shopping for one. It's best to choose a seat that has a 5pt harness (meaning that they are 5 pts that contact the shell of the seat. Over each shoulder, each hip, and buckle between the legs), and a front harness adjuster (usually a strap that comes out of the front of the seat). These seats hold the baby in the seat best.
An infant seat is outgrown when 1 of 2 things happens... The baby's head comes within 1in of the top of the seat shell (the hard plastic not the cover)... OR when baby reaches the weight limit. Read your owners manual to determine the weight limit on your specific seat. After the infant seat is outgrown, it is time to move to a Rear-facing Convertible seat.
Note: Babies should remain rear-facing until the limits of their convertible seat. Most children are between 2-3 years old. The reason for this is because their spinal column does not fully mature until they are around 4 years old. Before that the spine is weak. If you are in a crash and your child is forward facing they are at a higher risk of spinal cord injury, because their head is heavy and puts a lot of strain on the spinal cord. When the bone is not hard enough to protect it. Think about how an adult feels with whiplash... Well whiplash on a small child could turn into a spinal cord injury, and it could be permanent or worse. By keeping a child rear-facing it prevents the whiplash effect. The carseat absorbs all the impact instead of the child.
Which harness slot should I be using?
When a baby/child is rear-facing you should be using the slot that is at or below the shoulder.
A convertible seat is one that will rear-face and forward face. Most convertibles will rear-face to between 30-35lbs (don't purchase one that has a 20 or 22lb rear-facing limit. It's a waste of money). Most will forward face to only 40lbs with a harness, however there are now several models and manufactures that have convertible seats that will harness above 40lbs. You may consider this when your are shopping for your convertible seat. Beware of seats that are "3 in 1" seats. These seats do not currently harness above 40lbs, the box can be deceiving to the buyer. Avoid seats that have a over head shield (bar that comes down over the child's head). These are not as safe as a 5pt harness. When shopping for a convertible look for seats that have a 5pt harness and front harness adjuster. After that consider seats that harness to higher weight limits.
Children should riding rear-facing in their convertible until they reach the rear-facing weight limit OR when their head is within one inch of the top of the shell. Then you may flip it forward facing. They have outgrown forward facing when 1 of 3 things is reached. When the forward facing weight limit is reached, OR when the top of their shoulders go above the top harness slots (*see note), OR when the tips of the ears go above the shell. Once one of those is reached it's on to the next step. This is where it becomes more confusing for parents.
*Note: The "3-1" seats on the market have a bar on the back of the seat that you adjust to slide the harness up and down according to where your child's shoulders are. Note in the instruction book that the VERY top slot on the back is to be used only when the seat is in belt position booster mode. This is with the seat belt. You cannot use the seat with the harness in that slot. The other slots can be rather low, so consider this when shopping. I recommend taking a tape measure with you and measuring slot heights on seats. The taller the slots, the longer you are likely to be able to use the seat.
The Next Step:
Depending on which convertible seat your child is moving from, how old your child is, and how mature your child is, there are 3 different ways you can go. I'm going to try and map them out best I can for you. If your child is under the age of 4 DO NOT put him/her into a belt positioning booster seat using only a seat belt. Children under this age are not mature enough (physically or mentally) to ride correctly each and every ride. Even if you think your child is, remember that their spinal cord does not fully mature until they are around age 4. They need the upper body restraint of a 5pt harness. It is best for a child to remain in a harness until at least age 4 at a bare minimum. The longer after that the better.
A combo seat is one that uses a 5pt harness, and then converts to a belt positioning booster seat after a certain weight is reached. If your child is under age 4, and has outgrown their convertible seat, a combo seat is a good option for you to go. When shopping for a combo seat take several things into consideration. If your child outgrew his convertible by reaching the 40lb weight limit (or is close to 40lbs), then you need to look for a seat that uses the harness above 40lbs (make sure it says "uses a 5pt harness to XXlbs). There are now several on the market. If your child outgrew their convertible by height (shoulders above the top slots, or ears above the shell), then you need to make sure you purchase a seat that has higher harness slots (tape measure!).
A great combo seat: Graco Nautilus (uses a harness to 65lbs, has highest harness slots for combo seats on the market. Converts to a high back booster, and a no back booster until 100lbs)
A combo seat is outgrown when the child's shoulders go above the top slots, then can be converted to belt position booster mode.
Forward Facing Harness Only Seat
These are seats that harness above 40lbs, and do not convert to a belt position booster seat. There are very few of these seats on the market. Many are special needs seats for children that need to be in a harness for an extended period of time. These are also a great option for parents that want to keep their child in a harness for as long as possible.
A great forward facing harness only seat: Britax Regent (harnesses to 80lbs, 5pt harness, front adjuster)
This seat is outgrown when the weight limit is reached OR when the shoulder go above the top slots.
Belt Positioning Booster Seat
The last step in your child's carseat ladder, is a belt position booster seat. Remember that children need to be at least 4 years old and over 40lbs before being placed in a belt position booster seat. Belt position booster seats are used with the lap and shoulder seat belt over the child. Do NOT use a lap belt only with a belt position booster seat if you have only lap belts then ask about options. When shopping for a bpb look for seats that have nice open belt guides so that the shoulder belt may slide freely in the guide. Some seats have added side impact protection. Some have wings to help support a sleeping child. There are 2 types of belt position booster seats; High Back, and No Back.
Children should ride in a high back booster until they are at least 7 years old. They need the added upper body protection, and it helps keep the shoulder belt in the proper position.
A no back booster may be used for older children that don't want to show their friends they ride in a booster still.
Most children need to ride in a booster until they are somewhere between 8-12 years old. They need to be around 4ft 9in tall. And need to pass this 5-step test:
1. Does the child sit all the way back against the auto seat?
2. Do the child's knees bend comfortably at the edge of the auto sea?.
3. Is the lap belt touching the top of the thighs, not the tummy?
4. Is the shoulder belt centered on the shoulder and chest?
5. Can the child stay seated like this for the whole trip?
Avoid moving your child out of his/her seat to soon. There is no magic age. State laws are often bare minimum's and not what is best for your child. Just because the law says that at age 6 he/she can ride in a seat belt only, does not mean that it is safe for them to do so (generally speaking). Remember that your child's safety comes first, and you never know when a drunk driver will cross the center line and hit you head on. Don't chance it, make your child ride safely in his/her seat each and every single ride. Even in the neighborhood!
If you have any questions, please feel free to ask! Thank you for taking the time to read my long winded post. :o)