Carseat guidelines have evolved over time but surveys suggest there is still a lot of confusion about the most recent recommendations.
A recent survey by car seat brand Chicco found 42% of parents incorrectly believe10-year-olds are too old for car seats and 40% turn their child's seat to forward-facing as soon as the child's legs seem cramped, which is often years too early.
When it comes to car seats everything is based on weight, not age or our assumptions about comfort.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has an updated version of its car seat safety recommendations available online. Car seat safety can sometimes feel overwhelming (especially for first-time parents), but when we break it down, it gets really simple.
Here are five ways to keep your children as safe as you can when they're in the car:
1. Keep them rear-facing as long as possible
2. Make sure you're using the seat correctly
Car seats can be tricky. Every seat is different and every car is different. That's why it's so important that parents take the time to read the manual and even seek help from a car seat installation specialist if needed.
We can't do it right if we don't know how to do it, so read up before you install.
Joseph Colella, Director of Child Passenger Safety for the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, previously told Motherly that parents should start thinking correct usage when shopping for a seat. He recommends shopping at stores that allow you to test the models in your own car before the purchase is complete.
Ask the hospital staff for help if you're unsure about your car seat when taking your newborn home for the first time, but don't stop there.
Colella told Motherly the biggest car seat installation error moms and dads make is not tightening the seat securely enough (remember, no coats in the car seat) and not using the top tether strap when making the move to forward-facing car seats.
"You should not be able to move the seat more than one inch side to side or forward at the seat belt path," Colella says—so if you can't get it to that level of lock-down, seek out a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician near you, or ask if your local fire department offers car seat clinics.
3. Keep them in a car seat for as long as possible
It's not just the use of rear-facing seats the AAP wants parents to extend, but also the use of car seats in general. Once your child outgrows the rear-facing limits of their car seat, keep them in a forward-facing car safety seat with a harness for as long as you can.
Many modern car seats have weight limits of 65 pounds or more, so kids can stay in them for quite some time.
Earlier this year one mom, Sarah Sutton, told Motherly how glad she was that she kept her older kids, ages 6 and 5, in their forward-facing car seats even after they started complaining about them.
"Alayna and Liam were wanting to move to boosters as 'car seats are for babies,'" Sutton explained, adding that when she and her children were in a collision, all four were safely strapped into car seats that saved their lives . She's thankful she hadn't let her older kids switch to boosters.
"I am so glad I kept them in a five-point harness and will continue to do so for as long as I can," Sutton said.
4. Use belt-positioning booster seats until they're 4 feet, 9 inches tall
The AAP says that when kids like Alayna and Liam finally do max out that 65 pound or so weight limit on their forward facing seats, they should move into a belt-positioning booster seat until the vehicle belt fits properly. "This is often when they have reached at least 4 feet 9 inches in height and are 8 to 12 years old," the AAP notes.
Your middle-schooler may not be thrilled about riding in a booster, but it is the safest bet until they truly grow into the adult seatbelt.
5. If they're under 13, they sit in the back
The AAP says kids under 13 should always ride in the backseat. The Centers for Disease Control and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration agree. Many states have laws requiring children to be seated in the back seat (although in some cases exceptions are made if the back seat is already full of children or if the vehicle has no back seat).
Statistically, the back seat is the safest place to be in a collision, so our kids should stay back there for as long as possible.
[A version of this post was originally published August 31, 2018. It has been updated.]