How To Install a Child Safety Seat

Car accidents are stressful at best, and tragic at worst. Although they are the leading cause of death for young children, using the proper car seats correctly means this doesn’t have to be the case.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, child and infant car seats significantly reduce the risks of fatal injury in infants and toddlers in the event of a crash.

Keep reading to see how you can both choose and install the best car seat for your child, and take a look at our traffic safety laws page for more information on state-specific laws.

Choosing the Right Infant Car Seat

Maybe you’re a new parent and have never had to worry about purchasing a car seat before. How do you know whether your child needs a front-facing infant car seat or a booster seat?

Don’t stress—the NHTSA lightens the load of this task by offering an interactive tool to help you choose the best car seat for your child's age, weight, and height.

Read on to learn the organization’s guidelines.

  • Rear-facing infant car seats:
    • Are usually for children under 1 year old, but if your child can still fit in a rear-facing car seat until they are 1 to 3 years old the NHTSA recommends that you do so.
    • Feature a harness strap system and a cradle design to protect a child's neck and spine in a crash.
  • Front-facing car seats:
    • Are typically for 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 seats:
    • Are designed for children 8 to 12 years old, OR children under 8 years old who have outgrown their seat's height and weight maximum.
    • Are built 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 car seat installation may vary slightly from vehicle to vehicle, there are some basics that always apply.

When installing a car seat, make sure to:

  • 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 car 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 car 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 infant car 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 you are finished installing the car seat, 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.

To properly position your child in the car seat, you will need to:

  • Remove bulky clothing or unnecessary layers.
  • Place your child so their backside is flush against the seat without arching or slouching.
  • Make sure all straps should lie flat against your child without twists or knots.
  • Check that straps are snug but not too tight.
  • Verify the chest clip sits level with their armpits.
  • See that the shoulder straps 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's 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.

If you don’t know where to go, 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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