Car seat rules for babies are generally pretty simple. They pretty much need one. Now, obviously, there are questions -- do they sit in the middle or side? Do they need to be backward or forward? Are convertible seats or bucket seats safer? -- but in general, baby car safety has less variables and less room for error than car seats for older kids.
In recent years, it also seems like car seat rules are changing more rapidly. Many states are raising the height and weight limits for kids in car seats, while it can also be daunting to shop for an older child in a car seat. Do you go high back? Do you go low? How much should it be?
When we are pregnant, we have the time to pore over Consumer Reports and stay current on all the news. We have baby showers and opportunities to speak with experts who are current on all things baby and safety. But as our kids grow, it becomes harder and harder to stay on top of the rules, especially as our older kids fight us on them.
"I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen parents install the seat correctly from the beginning," says Kit Orloff, a certified children's car seat technician who has appeared on numerous morning news shows as well as ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition as a child safety expert.
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To her -- and many other safety experts -- the number of mistakes parents make when seating older children is astounding. After spending five weeks with the Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), she found only two seats had been installed correctly. Scary, indeed.
Here are 10 of the most common mistakes and misconceptions experts say parents have about car seats and older kids right now:
- Girls and boys are the same: "Girls are more susceptible to higher injury and death than boys because they don’t develop their pelvic and pubic bones until adolescence," says Orloff. As the mom of a 5-year-old girl, I was surprised to learn this, but I am glad I know it now.
- Sleeping is fine in a booster: "The seat belt should be on the shoulder not on the neck. It should sit across the hip bones and not on the belly," says Amanda Adams, a prevention specialist at Sullivan County, New York's Board of Cooperative Educational Services. As we all know, when a child falls asleep in the car, they move out of position and the seat belt is likely to cut across the neck or belly or, even worse, slip under them so only their bottom half is strapped in to the seat.
- All boosters are the same: A high back booster is much, much safer, says Allana Pinkerton, the Child Passenger Safety Technician for Diono, a well-known car seat manufacturer. The high back offers seat belt positioning, which is the single most important part of any booster. If a child is going to fall asleep or move around, they shouldn't be in a low back booster. "People need to stop being afraid of a seat that is heavier," Orloff says. In an accident, a heavier seat offers more protection.
- Use the 5-point harness as long as you can: This is especially dangerous thinking in combination seats like the Britax Frontier or the Diono Radian. Both are highly rated seats, but they need to be used correctly. There is a weight limit for using the 5-point harness and after that, Pinkerton says, it is safer to use the seat belt.
- Saying it's OK "just this once": "The general rule is a 5-point harness is better than a 3-point one and a high back is better than a booster and a booster is better than not having one," says Pinkerton. It's true. Even if you carry a $20 booster from Wal-Mart for carpooling, it's better than nothing, Pinkerton says. "Just because a child says, 'I don't have to do this in my car' is not a reason to not enforce your rules. You CAN say, 'Well, I am sorry, but in my car this is the rule.'"
- Not reading the car manual: Obviously people read the car seat manual (right? right?), but they don't always read the car one. The car also has weight limits and should always be consulted when installing any seat.
- Trusting the LATCH anchors: The LATCH anchors (Lower Anchor and Tethers) that have been required in cars since 2001 are great. To a point. When a child and a seat have a combined weight of 65 pounds, the safety cannot be guaranteed. As of 2014, car seat makers will no longer be able to recommend that parents DO use them. Keep track of your child's weight combined with the car seat. It might save his or her life.
- Letting kids decide: The fact is, some kids might turn 12 before they reach 80 pounds. “You might have a 10-year-old who is 60 pounds," Pinkerton says. Unfortunately, they are going to have to suck it up and stay in the booster, annoying as it may seem. It does matter for their safety, and if you bend on the rule once, it's all over.
- Putting the baby in the middle: It used to be that when you had older children and a baby, the baby always got the middle. In fact, that is wrong, says Orloff. With older kids on the sides, their heads can move forward quit a bit. "We don’t want their heads colliding with someone else’s head," says Orloff. "The outboard position with infants is not something we worry as much about anymore."
Do you make any of these errors?