Sep. 19, 2012 at 10:18 AM ET
There are five common mistakes that parents and caregivers make when installing a car seat, according to a new survey from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Safe Kids released to mark Child Passenger Safety Week this week. These are:
1. Using the wrong harness slot. In the rear-facing position, the harness should be placed at or below your child's shoulders. Forward-facing, it should be at or above your child's shoulders.
2. Positioning the chest clip too low. It should be located at armpit level.
3. Loose car seat installation. The seat shouldn't move more than 2 inches in any direction—front-to-back or side-to-side. (To learn the correct way to install a car seat, read the seat's instruction manual and visit safercar.gov/therightseat.)
4. Loose harness. There should not be any slack between your child's body and the harness.
5. An unsafe seat belt. Having the seat belt in a booster seat rest on your child's abdomen, neck or face.
Another common mistake: Having kids in the wrong type of seat for their age. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the NHTSA recommend that kids not "move up" to the next type of seat until they've fully outgrown the one they're in. Here's what you need to know about kids and car seats at every age.
Newborn to at least 2 years old: rear facing
Babies should stay in a rear-facing position until they are at least 2 years old (because the spinal cord gets stronger with age), but it's safer if they stay rear-facing for as long as possible, until they reach the seat's stated weight and height maximums (note: these days, there are convertible seats that will accommodate even larger babies in a rear-facing position). "In the rear-facing position, the spine and neck are more protected in the event of a crash," Walker says. Parents worry that the seat is unsafe if the baby’s feet can touch the vehicle seat, she explains, but that has no consequence. In a crash, the seat compresses around the baby, protecting her head, neck and spine. In the very unlikely event that her legs or feet are injured, the injuries would be much less serious than one affecting the head, neck or spine.
From about 2 years until they outgrow the harness/seat: forward facing
Many newer forward-facing car seats accommodate children who weigh as much as 85 pounds. "We recommend that kids stay in a seat with a harness until they reach the maximum weight or height allowed by the manufacturer," Walker says.
School-aged kids up to 80 pounds: in a booster
When your child exceeds a car seat’s weight or height requirements, his shoulders are above the car seat’s top harness slots, or his ears are above the top of the car seat, it’s time to switch to a booster seat. Children are safely restrained in a booster until they weigh at least 80 and up to 100 pounds, and are between 8 and 12 years old. "Seat belts are designed to restrain people who are 4'9" tall and weigh at least 80 pounds," says Walker, "so kids need to be in boosters until then." If your older child is uncomfortable riding in a booster with a back and slots for the seatbelt, switch him to a backless booster so the seatbelt crosses his shoulders and lap in the proper position. Keep your child in the back seat until the age of 12.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.