Have you noticed your child’s head protruding above their car seat? It’s happening, mama. It’s probably time to start looking for a new car seat.
Your child’s inevitable growth isn’t the only reason for an upgrade. Car accidents, expiration dates, and other things can mean it’s time to go shopping as well.
So, when is the right time to switch your child’s car seat? We’re going to answer just that for you along with all of your other burning questions about switching car seats.
Chances are high that you’re here because your child never seems to stop growing. This is by no means a bad thing. But it can come as quite a surprise when you find they don’t fit in their car seat anymore.
For example, in Ohio, children under 4 years are required to be seated in a child restraint system, or five-point harness. Between the ages of 4 and 8, your child is legally allowed to use a booster seat (although most children aren’t mature enough to sit still in a booster until age 5, and most likely will need to use the booster past age 8). From ages 8 to 15, children are required to be in a child restraint or seat belt depending on their height and weight (1).
It’s important to remember that state laws are usually the bare minimum standard for car seat safety. Many laws are outdated. The best practice is to max out the height and weight limits of your car seat before moving to the next stage.
Editor's Note:Kristen Gardiner, CPST
When exactly do you switch your child due to height/weight limits? It actually varies depending on the car seat. Many manufacturers are designing their seats to last longer, with some being convertible seats or all-in-one seats (infant seat to booster). Keep in mind your child’s age, height, and weight when choosing the right seat.
Infant Seat Restrictions
Most infant seats will accommodate your child up to around 22 to 35 pounds or more (2). This may seem like you can use the seat for longer (my 3-year-old has just now hit the 34-pound mark) but be aware that height comes into play, too.
There isn’t one set height limit for a seat because it depends on the height of the particular infant seat back. A good sign you need to switch is if there’s no longer an inch of space between the top of your child’s head and the top of their seat. Check your manual for further information on height limits.
Safe Kids Worldwide recommends that children should ride rear-facing until at least age two or longer (3). This means if you child outgrows the infant car seat before age two, you’ll likely need to purchase a convertible seat next.
Convertible Seat Restrictions
When it comes to convertible car seats, the weight and height restrictions will vary greatly. While many convertible car seats will accommodate up to 65 pounds, some will go even further as they’re considered “all-in-one” seats (4).
I went poking around various websites and found some all-in-one seats that could be used all the way up until your child reaches 100+ pounds.
Convertible seats are meant to last much longer than infant seats, so you’ll find that a lot of car seat manufacturers make convertible seats with higher backs to accommodate your child for longer. Each mode (rear-facing, forward-facing, and booster for all-in-one seats) will have its own set of height and weight limits. When the child exceeds one of these limits (either height or weight), the seat is outgrown in that “mode,” and you can move to the next one. Your car seat manual will also state other criteria that will indicate when the seat is outgrown, such as harness strap placement and the buckle position.
Sometimes the ranges of acceptable height and weight for different modes(like rear-facing or forward-facing) will overlap. This means that the car seat manufacturer permits a child of that size and weight to use the car seat in either mode. Experts still recommend that you keep your child in each phase of the car seat as long as possible before moving to the next one.
Forward-Facing Car Seat Restrictions
Once your child outgrows the rear-facing limits on their car seat, they are ready to face forward. Your car seat manual will tell you when the seat is outgrown forward-facing by height and weight. Additionally, you’ll want to keep an eye on the position of the harness and headrest to see if your child is close to outgrowing the seat.
Proper positioning of the harness (when forward-facing) means that the harness straps reach the harness slot at or above your child’s shoulders. When the straps are on the highest slot and are no longer at or above the shoulders, it’s time to move to a booster. Your child’s ears should also be below the top of the headrest when forward-facing.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends children use a five-point harness up until they turn 7 years old (5). A five-point harness is a very safe option for your child because it spreads forces from a crash over a wide area of the body, reducing the amount of impact at each point of contact. It also forces the child to sit in the proper position as opposed to a booster seat where they have more freedom to wiggle around into potentially unsafe positions.
Booster Seat Restrictions
Booster seats are good for your child once they reach at least 40 pounds. You’ll find that there are a few different styles of booster seats. Some are backless and some have a high-back. High-back booster seats give a little more support to younger booster riders and kids who tend to fall asleep in the car.
Many booster seats are made now to accommodate children upwards of 100 pounds. The main point of booster seats is to position your child so the seatbelt falls correctly across their body.
A seatbelt should lie firmly on the middle of your child’s shoulder and the lap belt should sit low on their thighs (6). Make sure the seat belt is not twisted. Most booster seats also come with belt guides to help you get the correct fit too.
Expired Car Seats
If you happened to glance at the mysterious date printed on the side of your child’s car seat and it’s passed, you need a new seat. What many people don’t realize is that car seats do expire and their expiration dates need to be paid attention to.
Car seats expire for a few different reasons (7):
- Materials break down over time: Car seats are mostly plastic. Over time, the constant temperature changes will cause the plastic to deteriorate as it’s constantly expanding and contracting. The metal of the car seat frame can also rust over time.
- Wear and tear: Car seats go through a lot on a day-to-day basis. They’re constantly being taken out and reinstalled and they’re subject to plenty of messes, both solid and liquid, speeding up its deterioration over time.
- Replacement parts stop being produced: After so many years, car seat manufacturers stop making replacement parts for certain seats.
- Safety standards change: Safety standards are constantly evolving to ensure your child’s safety. With these changing standards, certain car seats may no longer meet all of the safety guidelines.
You’ll also want to consider switching car seats if you get into an accident. If you have been involved in a car crash which was moderate or severe, your child’s seat will need to be changed (8).
There are, however, instances where the seat may be usable even after a crash, and this would be the case for some “minor” accidents. A minor car accident can be classified as:
- Any accident where the driver was able to drive away from the crash site.
- The door nearest the car seat was not hit or damaged.
- No passengers sustained any injuries.
- Air bags were not deployed.
- There is no visible damage to the car seat.
If all of the above statements are true about your car accident, it would be identified as “minor”. Some car seat manufacturers still require you to replace your car seat even after a “minor” crash, so always check your manual. If you have any doubt, play it safe and contact a CPST (Child Passenger Safety Technician) nearest you. They should be able to help you draw a conclusion.
How to Properly Dispose of the Old Car Seat
So what do you do with the old car seat when you get a new one? Some big-box stores, like Target, normally have a few “trade-in” events throughout the year. This is where you bring your old seat to be recycled and they give you a discount on new gear.
- Locate your nearest recycling center: Ask your local recycling center whether they accept car seats and how they would like to receive them.Find a center that accepts car seats here.
- Check if they accept plastic from car seats: Call the center and ask their specific guidelines for car seats. Some may want you to just bring the naked frame and others may want it completely broken down first.
- Remove the cover and any foam padding: These aren’t recyclable so they can go right in the garbage.
- Cut the harness straps and remove them: This will also need to be thrown away.
- Separate the metal from the plastic: Depending on your recycling center’s guidelines, you may not have to do this. If you do, you’ll probably need a screwdriver to take it apart.
If the seat can’t be recycled, it should still be broken down to the bare base and have “UNSAFE” or “EXPIRED” written clearly on it. This will deter anybody from picking it up from the garbage.
It’s Time to Make the Switch
Whether it’s a car accident, expiration date, or simply your child growing faster than you can keep up, switching to new car seats is part of the parenting journey. It can sometimes be hard to tell when to switch, though.
Hopefully, we were able to equip you with the information you need to sort out this little milestone. Exciting but scary, we know. Now take that confidence and be prepared when the time comes to switch seats.