Why Car Seats Are Important: Separating Fact From Fiction
Most of us think we’re pretty careful parents, doing everything necessary to ensure our kids’ safety. But using car seats for children seems to be a huge blind spot for many of us — partly because we’re misinformed about why car seats are important and how to use them. So, here’s where we separate facts about car seats from fiction.
Why car seats are important
At low speeds, arms simply can do what car seats can do. (False.)
While we all like to think we are the safest, most protective force for our children, we’re not when we’re inside a moving vehicle. It’s basic physics: In a crash, our body weight is multiplied by the speed at which we travel. That means in a 30 kph crash, a 60 kg adult becomes a 1200 kg force – more than enough weight to crush the child in one’s arms. That is, if you even manage to keep hold of the child, which is unlikely; in the same 30 kph crash, a 2.7-kg infant turns into a 54-kg force against the arms holding it. That’s like a tiny baby suddenly turning into a Great Dane in your arms. This is the biggest reason why car seats are important: In an accident, the laws of physics turn us into crushing threats to kids in our arms and laps; car seats for children are specifically designed not to be dangerous.
Even an unrestrained older child is in danger: In a 20-kph crash, an average 4-year-old weighing 18 kg will hit anything – another person’s limbs or body, the seat in front of them, the windshield – with the same force as a 360-kg object, like a golf cart. (To learn more about crash force and calculate your own or your child’s crash force, try this handy calculator. Or watch this video simulation of an unrestrained child in a low-speed crash.)
Kids hate riding in car seats. (True — but only some.)
It is developmentally appropriate for older babies and toddlers – who are learning to explore their world and test boundaries – to not like being confined in a car seat. But after all we’ve learned above, we would argue that’s not a reason not to use one. After all, we don’t let kids call the shots when it comes to eating veggies, taking a bath, washing hands and all the other ways we keep them safe and healthy.
While a crying baby in a car is no one’s idea of fun, isn’t it better to have a temporarily disgruntled child than an injured or worse child? And here’s the thing about car seats: The more you make them a normal part of daily life, the less your child will resist.
Read more on getting a baby who hates his car seat to use one.
A newborn is too delicate to use a car seat. (False.)
In fact, newborns and infants, at the tiniest and most delicate stage of life, are precisely who should travel in a car seat. In addition to the physics described above, infants and babies under 2 are at an extra disadvantage in an unrestrained car crash: Their skull bones have not yet fused together, nor have their neck and spine fully developed, leaving them extra vulnerable to brain damage from head injuries (which are the most common injuries sustained by children in motor vehicle accidents).
Kids outgrow car seats. (True — but not at the age we thought.)
It’s true that car seats are only effective for children within certain age and weight ranges, but that only means kids’ car seat needs change, rather than disappear, as they grow. Only once a child is 5 feet tall can he or she use an adult seat belt directly.
Until then, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines state that infants should use rear-facing seats until their head outgrows the top of the seat, which is generally around 2 years. Then, the child should switch to a forward-facing seat until that, too, is outgrown, generally around 4 years. Then, the child should switch to a booster seat until he or she is 5 feet tall, which is generally around 8 years.
The good news is changing your child’s safety gear doesn’t have to break the bank; many car seats are designed to convert as your child grows. (Check out this useful online resource for choosing your first car seat.)
Younger siblings can use hand-me-down car seats. (True — but only to a point.)
Most car seats for children have an expiration date, so when using hand-me-downs make sure to check all the important information. If any of the straps or buckles are damaged, the seat’s ability to protect your child is compromised.
The next time you hear someone wonder why car seats are important, you can answer: Like many safety precautions, the value of a car seat isn’t realized until an accident occurs. But car seats save lives in a way we, as parents, can’t — and that’s a fact.