How Can I Decide If I Should Advance My Child to the Next Car Seat?


Moving a child from a rear-facing to forward-facing car seat, or from a 5-point harness to a booster seat, can be a major milestone in development that parents look forward to.  Well-meaning family members and friends may also pressure you to move your child, asking when you are going to put your child in a “big kid” seat.


Each time a child advances from one car seat to another, their risk of injury increases, especially if safety guidelines are not followed. Furthermore, it is important to note that most state laws lag years behind the most current research and recommendations, so just because something is legal in your state does not mean that it is safest for your child.


Here are some expert guidelines to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to put your child in a different car seat.


Switching From Rear-Facing to Forward-Facing

All infants must be in a rear-facing position for safety.


Infant car seats can only be installed rear-facing, and often only accommodate babies up to 20-30 pounds, depending on the model. Convertible car seats can fit infants who still need to be rear-facing but can be turned forward safely as the child grows and is used until the child is ready for a booster seat.


The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends that children remain rear-facing until they reach the maximum rear-facing height and weight limits for their car seat.


Safe Kids Worldwide urges parents to keep children rear-facing until at least 2 years of age or later because the risk of spine, head, and neck injury increases the earlier a child is turned forward.


Safe Kids Worldwide and the NHTSA both advise that when children are first transitioned to a forward-facing position, the car seat should be anchored with the top tether to keep the car seat in place in the event of an accident.


Moving From Forward-Facing 5-Point Harness to Booster Seat

Your child can safely transition to a booster seat once he or she outgrows the height and weight limits for his or her forward-facing car seat.


Once your child converts to a booster seat, the seat belt is keeping your child restrained instead of the 5-point harness, giving your child more freedom to move. Therefore, children should be able to remain seated upright in their car seats for the duration of all car trips.


When Can I Get Rid of the Safety Seat Altogether?

Safe Kids Worldwide recommends that children be able to sit with their knees at a 90-degree angle and their feet touching the floor of the car. The lap belt should fit snugly across the lower thighs and the shoulder belt should fit snugly across the shoulder and chest, not the face or neck.


Other Safety Considerations

Car seats have expiration dates, which are clearly labeled or imprinted on the side of every seat. This is because heat or cold can compromise the integrity of a car seat. If you keep a car seat for an older child to be used for a younger child, verify that the seat has not passed its expiration date before using it again.


Any car accident, even a minor fender bender, can also compromise the integrity of a car seat, so your car seat should be replaced any time you have an accident.


Register your car seat when you purchase it to be informed about any important safety recalls.


Parents are discouraged from purchasing used car seats, especially if you do not know the previous owner and can not verify that the car seat has not been in a previous accident, or that the model has not been recalled.


Where Can I Go for the Latest Information?

You can find up-to-date information on The NHTSA website or at


For additional peace of mind, certified child passenger safety technicians (CPST) are trained in proper car seat installation and will check your car seat for free. Many CPSTs are conveniently located at police departments, firehouses, or children’s hospitals. You can find and schedule an appointment with a CPST here or here.


If grandparents or other caregivers routinely transport your child, make sure the car seat they use meets safety guidelines and is properly installed in their vehicle, or that they also know how to properly secure your seat into their car.