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Mom, why do I still have to sit in this “baby” car seat?

Categories: Motor Vehicle Safety

Guest blogger – Arlene Greenspan, DrPH, MS, MPH
Senior Scientist, Motor Vehicle Injury Prevention Team, NCIPC

For the most up-to-date child passenger safety guidelines, please visit our Child Passenger Safety web page.

Family with children in carseats

"Although installing and correctly using car and booster seats may seem simple enough, NHTSA estimates that close to 3 out of 4 parents do not restrain their children correctly."

My sons, Jason and Kenny, are now 17 and 21 and when I think back about their infant and toddler car seat experience, I think about how far we have come in addressing traffic safety issues.  By the time my sons were 2 or 3 years old, children were already in booster seats.  And by 3 or 4 years of age, adult seat belt use was common.  While children are now using car and booster seats longer, one thing hasn’t changed; children want to be “big kids”.

I remember fighting with each of my children about staying in a booster seat longer (at that time age 5 was considered old to be in a booster seat), and they would whine and say that none of their friends were in booster seats anymore.  Does this sound familiar to you?  Most of my friends with young children now tell me that their children want to sit in adult seat belts before the recommended age, height, and weight.  Because I am a child traffic safety researcher, they ask me, “Is that okay?  They are only a few inches shorter than the recommended height or they are almost 8 years old.”  At this point, I remind my friends that keeping their children in car or booster seats is not only better for their children, but also better for them as drivers; reducing distractions that may occur with the greater movement allowed using an adult seat belt.  In addition, making the seat your child’s “special place” may help gain his or her acceptance.  Well, times may have changed, even if children’s mantras haven’t.  The good news is that the age of these complaints has shifted from children ages 3 or 4 year to ages 5, 6 or even 7.   While we are generally keeping kids in car safety seats longer, it is still not long enough.   In fact, in one CDC study, we estimated that during a 30 day period an estimated 8 million children less than 8 years old used adult seat belts prematurely.

Mother with son in a booster seat

"Once children are able to sit forward-facing in their car seat, that is what they should use until they reach the height and weight limits of their seat. Then they should use booster seats until they are about 4 feet 9 inches tall."

To add to the confusion about when to move to the next stage of car or booster seat, recommendations have shifted from definite age and weight guidelines to parameters based on a combination of age, weight, height, and the height and weight limits of the car seat your child uses.   Child car and booster seat specialists no longer recommend that parents turn their car seats forward-facing when their baby turns one year and reaches 20 pounds.  The recommendations now suggest that it is safest to leave babies rear-facing as long as possible after they turn one year and 20 pounds and wait until they reach the height and weight limits of the car seat for the rear-facing position.   Once children are able to sit forward-facing in their car seat, that is what they should use until they reach the height and weight limits of their seat.   Then they should use booster seats until they are about 4 feet 9 inches tall.  While guidelines suggest that children usually reach 4 feet 9 inches at about 8 years of age, we know that most children are not yet 4 feet 9 inches when they first turn 8 years old. 

When children are too small for adult seatbelts, the lap portion of the belt usually rides high over the child’s stomach instead of the top portion of their thighs and the shoulder portion often cuts across their neck.   While a seatbelt is more protection than riding unrestrained, children who prematurely use adult seatbelts are at greater risk for abdominal, spinal cord, and brain injuries if they are in a traffic crash.  Guidelines have been established to help parents decide which type of car or booster seat is most appropriate.

NHTSA Child Passenger Safety Week, September 19-25, 2010

In honor of National Child Passenger Safety Week, September 19 – 25, NHTSA will be sponsoring National Seat Check Day on Saturday, September 25. Certified technicians will be available to inspect your child safety seat, free of charge.

Another difference between now and when my boys were small is the abundance of choices for car and booster seats and the development of the LATCH system.  While with more choices it may be easier for parents to buy a car or booster seat that fits their needs and budget, correctly installing car seats can be a challenge, varying by type of seat and method of installation.  Does my car have a LATCH system or should I use the vehicle seat belt?  Are the straps correctly set for my child?  Is it time for my child to go to the next stage of car seat?    Although installing and correctly using car and booster seats may seem simple enough, NHTSA estimates that close to 3 out of 4 parents do not restrain their children correctly.  In honor of National Child Passenger Safety Week, September 19 – 25, NHTSA will be sponsoring National Seat Check Day on Saturday, September 25.  Certified technicians will be available to inspect your child safety seat, free of charge.  Find a location nearest to you.

So what do you do when your child complains about wanting to ride using an adult seatbelt, like his or her friends and previous explanations for staying in a car or booster seat no longer works?  This is never easy, but what I did then—as well as today, when my teen wants to drive home late at night or carry several of his friends as passengers—is tell him that he can’t.  And when he continues complaining, I tell him that the reason the answer is no is because I love him and want to keep him safe.  The tears, tantrums, and anger may not stop that moment, but they do eventually subside and you know that you are doing everything you can to protect your child.

Dr. Arlene Greenspan, DrPH, MS, MPH, is a Senior Scientist on the Motor Vehicle Injury Prevention Team at the CDC National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC).
Read more about Dr. Greenspan…

Public Comments

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this blog is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

  1. September 21, 2010 at 11:11 am ET  -   Lane Holman

    Thanks for your blog post! We also have extended family members who are quite lackadaisical about the whole booster-seat idea for older kids — nice to get a bit of “ammo” from a subject-matter expert.

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  2. September 21, 2010 at 12:09 pm ET  -   David Sleet

    Child safety seats are good for more than just safety. Child safety seats are a good way to maintain control of your child in the car. Emphasize that it is their “special seat….just for you…its your very own”. It lets them see out of the window, it gives them a sense of ownership, they can sleep in it, they can play in it. Make it part of their extended world outside the home. That way they are more likely to accept it as a norm when they travel.

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  3. September 24, 2010 at 1:03 pm ET  -   Toxic Reverend

    Consumer Reports
    Child Car Seats Safety Ratings Report
    http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/babies-kids/baby-toddler/car-seats/index.htm

    Blessings.

    Link to this comment

  4. March 2, 2011 at 8:10 pm ET  -   Adio Royster

    When I read posts like these, I think about where we were as a country on this subject. Think about how many deaths that could have been prevented in the numerous decades before 2011. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but I’m glad to be living in an age now where these kinds of safety measures exist.

    If I ever have children, one of my main purchases will be a child safety seat (behind important things like a crib, food and clothing, of course). A child is something so precious and so vulnerable at early stages that it’s important to protect them as much as possible to prevent serious injuries or death.

    “It’s always hard when a parent outlives their child.”

    I can’t speak on this statement as I don’t have kids, but I imagine that it’s 100% truth.

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  5. October 18, 2011 at 6:47 pm ET  -   Antonio C.

    My son never used to make comments such as “I don’t want to ride in my car seat” or “I’m too grown-up for my car seat” etc., because I never let this be an issue. Children up to a certain age have to ride in proper car seats period. No discussion about it. I think that if you never let this issue become one from the moment your kids are born, you will have nothing to worry about. If they do, however, complain, you always have the choice of saying that it’s either in the car seat or no ride at all :)
    Just my two cents, anyway.

    Antonio (webmaster of Best Baby Car Seat)

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