Car seat dilemma - is it time to change?

Knowing the right time to move from one type of car seat to another can cause confusion for a lot of parents. The law on child restraints talks about the age of children, whereas best practice guidelines talks about the size of children. No wonder some parents are left wondering why there is a difference and what the best thing is to do!

What the law states and what is recommend as being safe are not necessarily the same. The difference is that the law sets anabsolute minimum by using age as a practical guide. Best practice recommendations from those in the know tell us how we can keep our children travelling safely for as long as possible beyond what is the minimum required by law.

To find out more about choosing and using the right child car seats, watch Nino’s Child Restraint Challenge video series below. The series is available in English, Arabic, Cambodian, Dari, Karen, Persian and Somali.

Watch our car seat video series

Tips on using rearward facing car seats

Tips on using forward facing restraints

Tips on using booster seats

When is the right time to change your child's car seat?

To put it simply, the right time to change to a new child car seat is when a child outgrows the one they’re currently using. If they’ve met the minimum age requirements for the next seat but still fit in their existing seat then it’s safest to keep using their current one until they outgrow it. There is danger in moving a child into the next seat too early because it is less likely to protect them properly in a crash if it they don’t fit into it properly.

the right time to change to a new child car seat is when a child outgrows the one they’re currently using
Illustration of a child using a rear facing child restraint


Current restraints make the assessment easy with shoulder height markers. You can check if your child still fits in their seat by seeing if your child’s shoulders fit between the shoulder height markers clearly labelled on the restraint. For seats without theses markers, you can work out if children are ready to change seats by checking a few things.

Moving from a rearward facing car seat to forward facing

To work out when it’s time to change rearward facing child car seats to forward facing, check if your child’s shoulders pass the highest slot on the seat.

check if your child's shoulders pass the highest slot on the car seat

At the time, my son wasn’t tall enough to fit into a forward facing seat until he was 8 months old. He’s not particularly small, he’s actually Mr Average in terms of height. I could have turned him around at 6 months and not been guilty of doing anything illegal but if I did, he wouldn’t have been travelling as safely as possible.

Now, things can get a little tricky here because there are options – not all seats are created equal. Some rear facing car seats will accommodate taller babies. The same baby will outgrow another restraint earlier. The key here is to keep them is the seat they’re using until it no longer fits and explore options of seats with taller backs before moving on to the next restraint category. This is of course something that’s best decided at the time of purchase.

Illustration of a child using a forward facing car restraint

 

Moving from a forward facing car seat to a booster

It’s safe to move children into a booster seat when their shoulders are more than 2.5cm above the highest slot on their forward facing child car seat. On current seats, you can check if your child’s shoulders are within the range of the shoulder height markers.

move children into a booster seat when their shoulders are more than 2.5cm above the highest slot on forward facing child car seat

This is the stage that my son is at now. He’s 4 years old and the law allows me to move him into a booster seat but he has another slot to go before it’s safe for him to travel this way. If I had to guess he’d be much closer to 5 before I will change his car seat to a booster seat.

There are options in the forward facing category too. The height on the back of a forward facing seat can vary from one brand to another. It’s good practice to explore options of using forward facing child car seats for as long as possible before transitioning to a booster. Again from a practical perspective it’s something that’s best considered at the time of purchase.

Illustration of a child using a booster seat


Moving from a booster seat into an adult seatbelt

adult seatbelts are designed for people who are at least 145cm tall

When our babies are little, parents tend to err on the side of caution with child seats. This is in stark contrast to years later at the booster or seatbelt stage when safety is often not given as much consideration as convenience. They’re not our fragile babies anymore. They may protest by claims of being a big boy or girl, they’re likely to have started school and may even compare themselves to their friends.

Using an adult seatbelt is not a rite of passage. It’s about safety and safety is not based on age.

Remember child car seats 101 – what is legal and what is recommended as being safe are not necessarily the same. The law tells us the legal minimum age, but to keep our children safe we need to follow best practice. Best practice means we need to look at how big our children are, not how old they are. Children have the best chance of getting the right seatbelt fit if they only start using one when they’ve out grown their booster seat. This may not happen until they’re 8, 9 or even 10 years old.

Adult seatbelts are designed for people who are at least 145cm tall. This shouldn’t be confused with children who are 7 years old.

5 steps to travelling safely in an adult seatbelt

Remember that seats will vary from car to car. In addition, the middle seat may offer a better fit than the outside seats so it’s worth checking what seating position is best for your child. Stick to the second row too. It’s safest for children to stay out of the front seat until they are older than 12 years of age.

Experts also recommend that children should be about 145cm tall before they start using an adult seatbelt.

children should be about 145cm tall before they start using an adult seatbelt

Work out if your child can move from a car seat to an adult seatbelt with the 5 step test

  1. Check that your child has their back flat against the back of the seat
  2. When sitting all the way back with their back flat, their legs should be able to bend over the seat edge
  3. The seatbelt should run over the middle of the child’s shoulder and not dig into their neck
  4. The seatbelt should sit low and firm across the child’s hips and touch their thighs
  5. This position should be comfortable and allow the child to sit in this position for the whole trip.
Illustration of a child fitting securely with a seatbelt
Written by Elvira Lazar, Research and Policy Officer
May 26, 2016