Parents want to keep their kids safe, and as CPSTs it’s our job to help them do just that. Parents often ask us to point them to the safest seat on the market. There’s no simple answer to that question: the safest seat is the one that fits your child, fits your car, and that you use correctly every time. Age, height, and weight all matter when choosing a seat that fits your little. Research shows that children under age 2, no matter their size, should be in rear facing seats, and older children need boosters until they pass the 5 step test.
But these safety rules don’t mean that there aren’t often multiple safe choices for the same child and these rules don’t describe every situation. When we are choosing the safest seat for a child, we must often balance many factors other than his age, height, and weight. Who else is riding in the car? How big is the back seat? How old is the car, and how do the seat belts lock? All these different factors make choosing the right seat for a child a complicated decision, and not one that stays the same from day to day. The right seat for the same child might be different depending on different situations. What does that mean practically? I’m going to outline a few scenarios where the same children are well protected in different seats.
Scenario 1: Everyday Travel
Here we have a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old. The three-year-old is 43 pounds and 42 inches tall and safely riding rear facing in a Diono Rainier. The 6-year-old is 67 pounds and 52 inches tall and safely restrained in a Britax Frontier 85 in highback booster mode. Rear facing is the safest way to ride and this 3-year-old is still under the rear facing limits for the Rainier so he will stay that way until he outgrows it. The Rainier installs nice and upright with the angle adjuster in this car, leaving plenty of room for even a moderately tall adult to drive.
Scenario 2: Road Trip!
Here are the same kids in the same car, also properly restrained, both riding forward facing in harnessed seats. The 3-year-old is now riding forward facing in the Diono Rainier (which will need to be a permanent switch quite soon), and the 6-year-old is in the same Britax Frontier 85, this time with the 5 point harness. Both seats are installed with the seat belts and top tethers as both children have outgrown the LATCH function by weight. Even though this six-year-old is mature enough to sit in a booster, which is easier for elementary school drop off, a harnessed seat is still a better choice for him on a long trip where he might slump over when sleeping.
Scenario 3: Travel and Carpool
Here are the same kids again. Now the 3-year-old is riding forward facing in the Britax Frontier while the 6-year-old is in a backless Graco Turbobooster. When we get to school, he can easily unbuckle his backless booster and take it in with him, stow it with his back pack, and he’ll be ready to safely go to a friend’s house after school.
Children need to be properly restrained on airplanes and in rental cars and taxis. We often travel by plane and by train, using cars at our destination. The 3-year-old needs a child restraint on the plane, but the 6-year-old is big enough to fit well in the plane’s seat belt. Often the easiest way to have the 6-year-old safe in the car at our destination is for him to carry his backless booster on board the plane and stow it under the seat in front of him (boosters are never used on board planes, as belt positioning boosters require lap-shoulder belts). Since we carry a restraint for each child, we know that both children will be properly restrained in a rental car, whether our checked luggage makes it to our destination or not.
Scenario 4: Three Across
When family members come to visit, we often need to transport three adults and two children. That means one lucky grown-up gets to sit next to the kids. Here is our safe solution to a car full of people: the 3-year-old is rear facing in a Clek Fllo, and the 6-year-old is riding in another backless booster, the BubbleBum, which unlike the rather wide TurboBooster, allows us to fit three adults and two children in our wagon. This set-up also works when we have a visiting 6-year-old in the back seat: the BubbleBum fits between a rear facing seat and our Britax Frontier, which we prefer to use in harness mode as it is easier to buckle in the front than have a booster rider reach down to buckle.
All of these set-ups are safe choices right now for these kids in this car and they all offer different advantages. Though the youngest children should be properly restrained in rear facing seats, a convertible and a rear facing only seat can both properly protect even newborns. Rear facing is the safest way to ride, so this (very big) 3-year-old will stay in the Diono Rainier and Clek Fllo until he outgrows them, but that day is coming very soon. This 6-year-old is mature enough to stay in position in a booster for daily travel, but the Frontier in harness mode offers extra insurance against falling asleep and slumping out of position. For a plane trip a backless booster is easier to bring on board and store under the seat for safe travel at our destination. And to keep everyone, even the adults, safe in the car we can use narrower seats like the BubbleBum.
In car seats, as in other parts of parenting, the devil is in the details. Considering all the factors of any particular scenario is the best way to keep everyone riding as safe as possible. Each kid has multiple safe options; being flexible is the key to choosing the safest seat for any child on any particular ride.