Car Seat Grads: How Soon is Too Soon?
It’s that time of year again, when Father’s Day and school graduations and (lots & lots of) traffic all seem to join together to give us the big middle finger. Don’t get me wrong—I get as teary-eyed as the next parent looking at the start of school year versus end of school year chalkboard pictures. I can’t help but think how big my kids are getting and that I wish time would slow down. It’s only natural that with all this growing and graduating that I should also move my kiddo to the next stage of car seat safety. Right?
Whoaaaaaaaaa, mama. Hold the brakes.
Most people choose to use an infant seat to bring their baby home from the hospital. This stage of car seat is always the shortest. Some parents will use this car seat until the baby outgrows either the height or weight limit. But others may choose to move their baby to the convertible seat earlier. This is the one stage where it’s ok to move to the next stage when you want to. Once baby can sit unassisted, most convertible car seats will fit them very well.
Convertible car seats vary in the time they can be used based on their limits and the child’s size. But many of these seats will last for 5-6 years. These start as rear-facing car seats and convert into forward-facing car seats. We recommend that children ride in the rear-facing position until one of the maximum limits is reached. While many convertible seats have 40 pounds rear-facing limits, there are some with limits as high as 50 pounds. Most convertible car seats have 65 pounds and 49 inch limits for the forward-facing mode, so this stage will often be used until the child is ready for a booster seat (age 5+).
This is an optional stage that not all kids will need. This is for forward-facing kids whose parents want to give the convertible car seat to a younger sibling. The seats in this stage start as forward-facing harnessed seats and they may have high back and backless booster modes as well. There are not as many options in this category since it’s not sold as often, making it less of a priority for car seat manufacturers to produce this type of car seat.
Once a child has outgrown their harnessed car seat, they will need a booster. If your child is not at least 5 years old, they are probably not ready for this stage of seat. Head to the combination seat options until they are older. This stage will be used for many years until the child can pass the 5-step seat belt test, which usually happens around 10-12 years of age. There are high-back and backless boosters to choose from. We recommend using a high back booster until it’s outgrown whenever possible before moving to the backless booster.
Adult Seat Belt
The last stage is when an adolescent can fit into the adult seat belt. This happens when the individual can meet five criteria. The individual should be scooted all the way back in the seat. In this position, their knees should bend over the seat and their feet should be flat on the floor. This criteria ensures that the individual will not slump to be more comfortable, which would place the lap belt on the soft tissue instead of the upper thighs. The lap belt needs to be on their upper thighs and the shoulder belt should be flat on the shoulder, not hovering or cutting into their neck. If the individual does not meet all of these criteria, they should continue using a booster. It’s possible to fit in some vehicles before others as it depends on how tall the vehicle seat is and the seat belt geometry.
Unless your child is physically, mentally, and emotionally prepared for the next car seat stage, they are not ready for graduation.
This is one of the biggest misuses I see in the world of car seat safety; moving our kids to the next stage too soon. From rear-facing to an adult seat belt, here’s the biggest rule to keep in mind pre-stage-graduation:
Children are meant to stay in each car seat stage for as long as possible. It starts with rear-facing (have they outgrown the limits of their convertible seat?), but it doesn’t stop there. When your littles are in a forward-facing seat harnessed seat, they’re meant to stay in that for as long as possible, too. Think your harnessed kids are ready for a booster seat? Can you sit properly for 100% of the ride with a shoulder belt (‘cause I still struggle with this!)? Are booster riders ready for an adult seat belt? Have they passed the five-step test? (Link to the YouTube video here.) Is your big kid asking to sit in the front seat (spoiler alert: it’s over 12 years of age!)?
Are you ready for the hard truth?
The higher the stage, the more dangerous. Let that sink in.
Get your kid a new backpack. Let them have their first sleepover. Give them a little extra screen time. Celebrate summer and the end of another school year with a trip to a water park. Don’t celebrate it with a trip to Target to buy a seat they are not yet ready to be in.
Bottom line: There are lots of milestones to celebrate. Car seat stage graduation is not one of them. You spend a lot of money of car seats—use them until your child reaches that seat’s stated age, height and/or weight limit. Where your child sits matters.
Sorry kids, mama is taking the wheel on this one.
Why does my 10-year-old still ride in a booster seat?
Because that is what is safest! Your big kid may be ready to ditch their booster car seat but, not so fast! Car seat safety doesn’t stop when your child hits big kid status. What is safest isn’t always what is convenient or even what your state’s booster seat requirement is. In this video, I take you through the 5-Step Test to determine if your kiddo can safely and correctly ride in the vehicle seat without riding in a booster seat. The road to car seat safety is a long one. Let’s make sure you aren’t speeding ahead too quickly.
Check out my video Ages & Stages to be sure your big kid’s journey is a safe one. From high back booster seat to car safety belt, you’ve got this!
How do you know it’s time to graduate your child?
Take the guesswork out of graduating from one seat to the next with our Car Seat Safety Progression eBook. It includes a car seat safety road map, a cheat sheet for your glovebox, and more! From baby to big kid, you’ll feel confident and safe at every stage. Child safety seats are confusing. We’re here to help!
Head over to our Shopify page for our in-depth car seat safety courses & resources for parents of infants to big kids, including buying kits (what car seat should I buy?), an airplane travel course (everything you need to know — from arriving at the airport to getting your rental car), and in-depth courses (think car seat installation and use) for both the infant stage and the toddler stage.
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