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Car Seat Anatomy
Parents understand that car seats are important, lifesaving devices – but often the pads, straps, and buckles are misused or not used at all, seriously hampering the seat's ability to protect a child. This slide show will help you understand the many components of the different types of car seats and how they're meant to function for maximum safety.
We'll cover infant seats (which only face the rear), convertible seats (which can be switched from facing rear to facing forward), combination seats (which face forward and then convert to a booster seat), and booster seats (which lift your child, once she's big enough, so that she can safely wear the vehicle's seat belt).
Infant car seat
An infant car seat should be installed with the child facing the back of the vehicle. The rear-facing position is the safest and provides the most support for a child's head, neck, and spine during an accident. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises keeping children rear-facing until the age of 2, or until they reach the seat's height or weight limit.
Your car seat's labels are important, so don't remove them. They contain information about the seat's weight and height limits, whether the seat is FAA-approved (so you can take it on an airplane), where and when it was made, and its expiration date (yes, car seats do expire!). You'll need the labels, especially if your car seat is ever recalled.
The sunshade is pulled up in this photo. You can have it up to block bright light or when your child is sleeping.
Infant car seat: The shell
Car seats are made from a dense plastic that can withstand impact but won't shatter in an accident. After about six years, the plastic may no longer be strong enough and your car seat should be retired. (Look for an expiration date on the label.)
Inside the seat, under the cover, you may find pads made from a firm, resilient, shock-absorbing foam designed to both cushion your child and absorb impact in a crash.
Follow your car seat's instructions about whether the handle should be up or down during use. Each seat is different and some are designed to be used with the handle in the “up” position to absorb crash energy.
Infant car seat: The base
A properly installed infant car seat base can't move more than 1 inch in any direction once it's positioned in your back seat. Your baby's infant car seat slides into the base and locks into place. (Some infant car seats can be used without a base. Check your seat's instructions to find out if this is safe.)
You can install the base with either your car's seat belts or the LATCH system (which stands for lower anchors and tethers for children.) By law, LATCH hardware has been added to all vehicles manufactured since 2002. You'll find the lower anchor attachments on the left and right side of the bottom of the base. It's important to use the correct vehicle anchors. Using something other than the appropriate anchor could be dangerous for your child.
Make sure to read the instructions for both your car seat and your vehicle in order to ensure safe installation of the base.
Infant car seat: Seat and base, with cover
The cover and pads are made from fabric that is washable and flame resistant. When you wash them, use warm water and mild soap. Harsh chemicals like bleach can break down flame-resistant fabric treatments.
Infant car seat: Harness straps and buckles
Your child will be in a car seat with a five-point harness until she's ready for a booster seat. A five-point harness has straps that come over the shoulders and hips and attach to the buckle at the crotch strap between the legs. Once the buckle is fastened, the straps of the harness should be tight enough against your child's body that when you try to pinch a strap between your thumb and finger, your fingers slide right off (this is called the pinch test). For a rear-facing baby, the harness straps should be attached to the car seat at or below the baby's shoulders.
The chest clip holds the harness straps in place and should be even with your child's armpits. Positioning the chest clip incorrectly is one of the most common car seat safety mistakes.
Infant car seat: The pad
Some car seats come with an inner support pad that's not attached to the seat, but not being attached doesn't mean it's optional. The pad helps keep your baby's head and arms in the correct position for maximum cushioning and safety. Discontinue use of the pad at the weight suggested by the manufacturer.
Infant car seat: Seat and base
This is how you'd see the car seat if you were turning around from the front seat. In this model, pulling up on the red handle releases the seat from the base. You'd remove it so you could carry your baby in his seat when you leave your vehicle.
A rear-facing seat is semi-reclined at 30 to 45 degrees to keep your baby's airway open. Most car seats have a built-in indicator to show when they've been installed at the proper angle.
Convertible car seat
Convertible seats can be used in both the rear- and forward-facing positions (hence the name), and they're safe for newborns when used rear-facing. It's strongly recommended that you keep your child rear-facing as long as possible – at least until she turns 2, or reaches the height or weight limit for the seat's rear-facing position.
You can then switch the seat to face forward. You should keep your child in a forward-facing car seat with a harness as long as possible before transitioning to a booster seat. Your child may ride this way for several years.
Convertible car seat: The shell
The slots on the shell of the seat allow you to move the harness straps up as your child grows. Many convertible seats have very low slots to allow even the smallest babies to use them. The seats can recline, and many have shock-absorbing high-density foam.
Convertible car seat: Harness straps and buckle
Most car seats have a five-point harness with straps at a child's shoulders, hips, and crotch. When properly used, the harness keeps the child from moving forward too quickly in a violent crash.
For a forward-facing child, be sure the straps emerge from the car seat at or above the child's shoulders. The harness should be fastened tightly enough to pass the pinch test.
Convertible car seat: Side view
Unlike infant seats with a separate base, a convertible car seat is all one unit (which can make for a heavy seat). The label contains important information on weight limits and what angle the car seat should be installed at, depending on whether it's being used in the forward- or rear-facing position.
Convertible car seat: Detachable pads
Some models include pads to use with a newborn. These pads don't interfere with the harness straps and can make the seat more comfortable for your baby, especially on long trips. The pads aren't required for the safe functioning of the seat and can be removed.
Convertible car seat: Back view
In this view of the car seat you can see parts that are used to securely attach the seat to the car. You can install it with the vehicle's seat belts or with the LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children) system.
If you use the seat belt, make sure to lock the belt. In this car seat model, the lockoffs are color-coded red and blue for rear- and forward-facing positions. Decide whether you'll use LATCH or your seat belt with top tether. Don't use both at the same time, unless both the car manufacturer and car seat manufacturer say it's okay.
The tether strap at the top of the seat attaches the back of a forward-facing seat to an anchor in the car. The lower anchor attachments fasten the base of the seat to other anchors. Your car owner's manual will show you exactly where they are.
A safely installed car seat shouldn't move more than 1 inch from side to side or front to back.
Combination car seat
Once your child has outgrown his rear-facing seat, he's ready to face forward, either in a convertible car seat (see previous slides) or in a combination car seat with a five-point harness, like the one you see here. Later, when your child outgrows the harness by height or weight, the combination seat converts into a booster seat that uses the vehicle's lap and shoulder belt. Depending on the model, your child could use this seat until he weighs as much as 100 pounds.
Combination car seat: Side view
As with other car seats, the label contains important information about weight limits, proper installation, and manufacture date.
Combination car seat: The shell
On some seats, the head rest is adjustable to accommodate your growing child. High-density foam on the seat helps absorb the shock of an impact.
Combination seat: Harness straps and buckles
The five-point harness on this type of seat operates the same way it does on other car seats. Make sure it's tight enough and keep the chest clip at armpit level.
Bulky jackets and puffy coats can give a false sense of how snug the harness is. Remove your child's bulky outer garments, buckle her in and make sure the harness straps are tightened correctly, then place the jacket over her. Alternately, have her wear a light jacket and warm the car enough to keep her comfortable.
Combination car seat: Back view
Combination seats are similar to convertible seats used in the forward-facing position. You can install a combination seat with the vehicle's seat belts or with the LATCH system.
If you use LATCH, you'll need to switch to a seat belt installation once your child reaches a certain weight (40 or 48 pounds, for instance). Your vehicle's manual will advise you of this weight limit.
Your child is ready for a booster seat when he's exceeded the limits of his forward-facing seat with a five-point harness. The booster seat lifts him up and positions him to wear the vehicle's lap and shoulder belts.
Some booster seats, called backless boosters, simply raise your child on the vehicle seat. These seats should be used only if your vehicle has a headrest or seat back that comes up to the top of your child's ears or higher. Otherwise your child needs the extra support of a high-back booster, like the model you see here.
High-back booster: Side view
Some high-back boosters, like this one, can be converted to a backless booster seat that your child can use until he's 100 pounds and 57 inches tall.
High-back booster: The shell
The armrest is not just for comfort. It makes the seat safer by keeping the lap belt positioned low on your child's hips. The cup holder can hold snacks or toys.
Combination car seat: The armrest
The open armrest is comfortable for children. A cup holder can hold your child's snacks or toys.
High-back booster: Belt guides
The booster seat's belt guides position the car's seat belt correctly over your child's shoulders and hips.