How To Install a Child Safety Seat

Child safety seats greatly reduce the risks of fatal injury in infants and toddlers riding in motor vehicles, according the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Just as you would click your own seatbelt to keep yourself safe, you should always buckle your child into the right car seat for their age and size. Below we'll help you find the right seat and install it safely.

For detailed state-specific information and guidelines for your child's safety seat, you can also jump over to our Safety Laws section.

Choosing the Right Child Safety Seat

Choosing the safest seat for your child can be confusing . The NHTSA has set some guidelines to help you understand the best way to keep your child safe, and also provides an interactive tool to help you choose the best car seat for your child's age, weight, and height.

General guidelines are as follows:

  • Infant rear-facing:
    • Children under 1 year old.
    • Features a harness strap system and a cradle design to protect a child's neck and spine in a crash.
  • Child rear-facing:
    • Children 1 to 3 years old.
    • Keep seat in a rear-facing position until child has reached height or weight maximum recommended by seat manufacturer.
  • Front-facing:
    • Children 4 to 7 years old, OR children under 4 years old who have outgrown their seat's height and weight maximum.
    • Feature a tether strap system that is much safer than a standard seatbelt for young children.
  • Booster seat:
    • Children 8 to 12 years old, OR children under 8 years old who have outgrown their seat's height and weight maximum.
    • Designed to add extra height so the car's seat belt fits your child properly.

Car Seat Installation Tips

Don't be intimidated by the seat once you take it out of the box. While installation may vary slightly from vehicle, there are some basics that always apply.

  • Read the instructions. Don't try guessing—read the directions thoroughly and make sure you clearly understand how to securely install the car seat.
  • Position car seats in the back seat. This is the safest location in the car for a child to ride.
  • Reference your vehicle's manual. Some cars have lower anchors built into the seats that can be used to attach a safety seat. Older cars may not have these and require the seat belt to secure the car seat. The owner's manual will help you find what you need.
  • Lock the seat belt. If your vehicle doesn't have lower anchors, refer to your owner's manual to find out how to lock a seat belt once the seat is in place.
  • Secure tightly. Once the safety seat is in place and attached with either the seat belt or lower anchors, wiggle it side to side, back and forth. It should not move more than 1 inch in any direction.
  • Adjust the recline angle. For rear-facing seats, it is important that the base of your car seat is level to prevent your child's head from flopping forward. Most seats will have indicators on the side to help.
  • Connect the tether strap. Forward-facing seats have an extra strap at the top as an added safety measure. Double-check your vehicle and attach and tighten the tether strap if possible to prevent head movement in the event of a crash.

Position Your Child Safely

Once your seat is installed, you still need to place your child into it properly to ensure their safety. Below are specifics for the harness system in both rear- and front-facing seats.

  • Remove bulky clothing or unnecessary layers.
  • Place your child so their backside is flush against the seat without arching or slouching.
  • All straps should lie flat against your child without twists or knots.
  • Straps should be snug but not too tight.
  • The chest clip should sit level with their armpits.
  • The shoulder straps should connect to the seat at or directly below their shoulders.

Safety Seat Inspection

Even if you follow all the directions perfectly, and you've checked off all of our safety tips, it is wise to have your work inspected. There are child safety seat inspection locations across the country where an expert will make sure your child will be safe when buckled in.

The NHTSA offers a seat inspection location finder for you to quickly and easily find an inspection facility near you.

More Child Seat Safety Tips

Here are a few additional tips all drivers should keep in mind when it comes to child seat safety.

  • Use a car seat every time your child rides in a motor vehicle.
  • If you're transferring your seat to a different car, refer to that car's manual for specific installation directions.
  • Keep your child in a rear-facing seat as long as possible—it's the safest traveling position.
  • Size, not age, should be the key factor in moving your child to the next seat type.
  • The back seat is the safest place in your vehicle for a child to ride for age 12 years old and under.
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