Car seats are designed to keep babies and young children safe, but a car seat is only safe when it’s used properly. The latest Consumer Reports guidelines for infant car seats, based on recent crash test results, could lead to a big change for new parents.
The advocacy group released its new infant car seat guidelines this week, hitting the parenting contingent of the Facebook community like a tidal wave. After crash-testing infant seats and rear-facing convertible seats with a 22-pound dummy that represented a 1-year-old child, Consumer Reports discovered that more than half of the infant seats posed a serious head injury risk when the dummy’s head hit the back of the front seat. Of the 25 convertible car seats tested, 24 didn’t have the same head trauma result, leading the group to recommend that parents upgrade infants to a convertible car seat by their first birthday.
These findings come on the heels of another recent car seat change to improve safety. Starting in 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that all children are kept rear facing until they are at least 2 years old, with older kids kept in booster seats until they meet height requirements up to the age of 12.
No matter how helpful these guidelines from reputable organizations like Consumer Reports and the AAP may be, there’s a big problem in translating this information to new parents. Unless parents see the information shared on social media or receive guidance from a pediatrician, many new parents may not be aware of the recent car seat changes in the past five years. On top of that, car seats come in all shapes and sizes and are notoriously installed wrong — up to 75 percent of car seats may be used incorrectly. But 96 percent of parents would swear by their car seat installation, which means car seat awareness campaigns still have a long way to go.
For parents of infants, these new Consumer Reports standards are sure to be a game changer. The new recommendations focus primarily on height — emphasizing that infant and rear-facing-only seats that are not convertible normally cap out at a weight limit between 30 and 35 pounds. Most parents make the mistake of focusing on weight limit, when height limit really matters because a baby’s head can hit the seat in a crash. Babies are more likely to grow out of infant seats by height before they reach the weight limit. (A full breakdown can be found in the Consumer Reports Car Seat Buying Guide under “types and timeline.”)
Consumer Reports now suggests making the switch to a convertible car seat much earlier, since parents will need one anyway to keep a child rear facing until age 2. While many parents swear by using a convertible car seat from birth to save the hassle of a switch, it’s important to remember that not all convertible car seats will provide adequate support for a newborn, so do your research first. Find out about a car seat’s safety ratings, size limits and length of use before buying. And even after upgrading to a convertible car seat, a child must still be strapped in properly to receive the greatest safety benefits. Harness straps should lie flat and be placed through the slots at or below a child’s shoulders to properly restrain in a rear-facing seat.
This car seat conundrum — with new guidelines that seem to be popping up every year — can be overwhelming for a new parent, to say the least. But what this advice means is not buying an extra car seat (since a child will need a convertible seat eventually), but rather making the transition earlier, as a baby’s height is a major factor in determining car seat safety. And as Consumer Reports emphasizes, safety always trumps convenience.