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How do I keep my preschooler safe in a front-facing car seat?

By Beth Gibson on November 1, 2020

Last month, we at GibsonSingleton wrote about how to use a rear-facing car seat for infants and toddlers. But what about when your child outgrows that and starts preschool?

By as early as two-years-old, your child may be ready to switch to a front-facing seat. Using one can be confusing though. That’s why we have another guide – to help make sure your child fits snuggly into his seat and is safe wherever you go.

When should I transition my child to a front-facing car seat?

Every rear-facing car seat has safety guidelines to make sure it’s effective in a collision. These guidelines are based on the baby’s weight and height, and they vary by manufacturer. If your child fits into your rear-facing seat’s recommended guidelines, the car seat’s harness should keep them secure during a collision, while also making sure he’s comfortable.

Most children transition out of rear-facing car seats between the ages of two to three, or when they outgrow the seat’s height and weight requirements, usually around preschool.

Generally, children between one and seven ride in a front-facing car seat, according to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA). Like rear-facing seats, front-facing seats have specific weight and height guidelines, so check the manufacturer’s recommendations before buying one.

You can also look up the best car seats by brand and size with the NHTSA’s Car Seat Finder. Just enter your child’s age, height, and weight, and the Finder will show you the best car seats for him or her.

How are front-facing car seats different from rear-racing seats?

Both front and rear-facing car seats are designed to protect your child in a collision, but in different ways.

Because infants and toddlers do not have fully formed bones and muscles, they are fragile and can easily be injured in an accident. But rear-facing car seats minimize their risk by at least 80%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

If you are ever in a rear-end or side-impact accident, and your child is in a rear-facing seat, the force of the other car should push your child into the padded cushions of the car seat, decreasing the likelihood of injury. And, a rear-facing car seat’s harness is engineered to hold your child’s head and neck in place during an accident, no matter which direction you are hit from.

Front-facing car seats work similarly, and they also account for your child’s weight and size. Children older than two have stronger necks, larger torsos, and wider hips, so their bodies can absorb an impact more easily. (That’s why they can get up from most falls fairly easily.) So, instead of focusing on the head and neck, the harness on a front-facing car seat holds your child in place by their shoulders and hips.

Is installing forward-facing seats also different?

Installing a front-facing car seat is not too different from installing a rear-facing one.

But, rear-facing seats tend to lean a child backward, while forward-facing seats hold your child upright to accommodate their longer legs. Also, with forward-facing seats, you can attach the car seat as one unit, so you do not need to install the base separately.

For a convertible car seat, how do I change a rear-facing one into a forward-facing one?

Some car seats are marketed as “convertible” or “all-in-one” car seats, meaning they can be used in a rear-facing or front-facing position. “Combination” car seats can be used as front-facing car seats or booster seats.

Your car seat’s instructions and your vehicle’s manual will explain your best installation process.  But we give you general guidelines below. If you have questions, visit NHTSA’s website for specifics on installing a convertible, combination, or all-in-one car seat.

What should I do before I change a convertible seat from rear- to front-facing?

When changing a convertible car seat from rear- to front-facing, follow two important steps before you install it:

  1. Adjust the car seat’s angle on the bottom of the seat so it is upright. When the seat is sitting flat on the ground, the back should stand straight up or lean backward at a very slight angle.
  2. Move the car seat’s harness straps so they are at or above your child’s shoulders.

How do I install a forward-facing seat?

There are two main ways to install a forward-facing seat depending on whether you use the seatbelts or the lower anchors to secure the seat.

If you are installing a forward-facing car seat with a seat belt:

  1. After adjusting the car seat’s straps and angle, place it on the back seat and face it forward.
  2. Thread the car seat’s strap through the forward-facing belt path. Make sure the strap does not have any kinks or twists.
  3. Buckle the seat belt in place and pull on it to ensure it is locked in place.
  4. Push your weight down on the car seat’s base until it fits firmly against the back seat. You should not be able to move the seat more than 1 inch in either direction.
  5. Take the car seat’s tether and thread it between the headrest and back seat so that it dangles over the back of the seat.
  6. Connect the tether to the tether anchor located on the backside of your vehicle’s seat.
  7. Tighten the tether to ensure it is secure to the anchor and will not allow the car seat to move forward.

If you are installing a forward-facing car seat with a lower anchor, you should:

The process is generally the same for lower anchors, and the NHTSA’s website has specific instructions on installing a convertible, combination, or all-in-one car seat.

What are the steps for placing my child in the car seat properly?

Whether you are using seat belts or lower anchors, follow these steps to place your child in the car seat:

  1. Set your child in the car seat with their bottom flat against the seat and back upright.
  2. Loop the harness straps over your child’s shoulders so that they lay flat and do not have any kinks or twists. The straps should fit through the loops located beside your child’s shoulders.
  3. Connect the harness and chest clip so that it is secure and snug against your child’s chest. You should not be able to pinch any extra material on the straps near your child’s shoulder.
  4. Place the chest clip at armpit level. This holds the harness straps in place on the child’s chest and shoulders.

What should I avoid doing?

Just like with a rear-facing car seat, avoid wrapping your child in a blanket or having them wear bulky clothing like jackets when putting them into a car seat. Instead, buckle your child into the car seat without the extra clothing, then place it over them. This ensures that the harness is secure against their body.

Looking for a new car seat? Enter our contest!

We at GibsonSingleton have just finished the first month of our “Car Seats for Kids” giveaway and we still have two more months left. That means you have two more chances to win a new car seat! This contest is open to anyone who is expecting a child or already has an infant, toddler, preschooler, or elementary-aged child. OR you can enter a friend, family member, or coworker who has a child.

Just in time for holiday travel, we are giving away a car seat at the end of November and December. So visit our Facebook page, www.facebook.com/GibsonSingleton, and nominate yourself or someone else for our giveaway!

We will provide more safety information on our blog and Facebook page next month, so you can learn more about keeping your family safe in the car. If you have any questions, please contact me, Beth Gibson, at [email protected] and (804) 413-6777.

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