At SafeWise, we pride ourselves on being safety experts. However, no one is a better expert at child safety than a parent. We were lucky enough to talk to Gloria Del Castillo, a child passenger safety expert at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and senior outreach specialist for Buckle Up for Life. When it comes to child safety in the car, here’s what she had to say:
Why do car seat regulations exist and how do they protect infants and toddlers?
All car seat manufacturers in the U.S. are required to meet the same performance standards issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Car seat regulations ensure that all children will receive appropriate protection, no matter what brand or style of car seat parents and caretakers choose. Some seats may be more expensive than others based on fabric, padding or other bells and whistles, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are safer.
Car seat safety guidelines usually change with technology about every five years. Updates are published by different outlets like the Child Passenger Safety Board, NHTSA, The American Academy of Pediatrics and safety coalitions all over the USA. You also can follow Buckle Up for Life on Facebook for updates.
Why are booster seats so important?
Booster seats are essential for young children because seat belts, designed for adult bodies, can ride up around their waists or necks, potentially causing injury during a crash. Children under 4’9” should sit in booster seats, which elevate them so that seat belts can protect them correctly.
As an extremely safety-conscious mom who works in the trauma department at a children’s hospital, I remember wanting my kids to love their booster seats, so I bought them the comfiest models I could find. After all, they were going to be sitting on them for a very long time. One important thing to keep in mind is that high back boosters are a must—no head rests or low back seats.
Nearly 9 in 10 parents move children from a booster to a seat belt before they reach the recommended height¹. Please don’t be one of them!
Is it safe to use a hand-me-down car seats or re-use the same car seat you used from an older child?
If you can help it, you should not use a car seat if you are not familiar with its history. For instance, the car seat may have gone through a car crash. Hand-me-downs may be convenient, but when it comes to car seats, they’re not worth the risk.
Car seats degrade with time. That’s why they have an expiration date, just like a carton of milk. The integrity of the fabric in the straps and the plastic in the seat itself break down, compromising its ability to protect your child in the event of a crash. If you do use a second-hand seat, you can check the seat’s expiration date, which can usually be found on a sticker affixed to the seat and on the registration card.
Are there any products or car seat features you recommend to entertain toddlers who get bored or restless in their car seat?
I think each parent knows what works best for their child. For mine, it was music. I learned to adjust their moods with music. If I wanted them to be excited and pumped up about going to the park, I played them funky music and if I wanted them to stop screaming and fall asleep, I played some cool and smooth Norah Jones. Never failed.
If your child wants to use a regular seatbelt like older kids, are there ways to make car and booster seats seem like a “big kid thing?”
The reality is that children should ride in a booster seat until they’re 4’9”, even if they think it’s not cool. Some kids feel babyish in the booster as they get older, especially if they have older siblings who aren’t using a booster seat.
Try making your kids safety conscious. Explain to them why they need to be in a booster seat in terms they can understand. Tell them how important it is for the seat belt to fit them properly. Ask them what in between their hips and the top of their heads that is worth protecting. They will tell you EVERYTHING themselves: “there is my heart and my stomach and my lungs and my brain and my…” and that’s it.
What are some of your personal must-have features for car seats that make getting in and out easier, faster, and more comfortable for children?
For infant seats I really like the ones that have the reclining level indicator on the base, and I absolutely prefer those that latch easily into the base. There’s nothing worse than struggling with a car seat that doesn’t want to latch into the base in the middle of a parking lot in the winter.
For the older kids who can get in and out of the car seat by themselves and are growing at the speed of lightning, I prefer self-adjusting straps. They are so convenient! You don’t have to dismantle the entire car seat to bring it up to the next level and they work really well.
How can parents who are transferring a car seat from one car to another make sure it is adjusted properly each time? Any other tips for avoiding user error?
We know it can be difficult to install and re-install a car seat, but it’s important to do it right.
First tip: if you can, simply get a second base for your infant seat. This way reinstalling won’t be an issue.
If you are transferring and reinstalling, there are two tests we encourage parents to do to help make sure a car sear is properly adjusted. First, take the “inch test”. Grab the car seat towards the back and bottom and give it a good tug side to side and front to back. If the seat moves more than an inch in either direction, tighten it. Once your child is buckled into the seat, take the “pinch test”. Pinch the webbing near the child’s shoulder. If you can pinch a wrinkle in the fabric, snug the strap up a bit more.
You can find more resources, including animated videos to help you install your car seat (available on mobile for those backseat moments) and a local search tool to find a child passenger safety technician in your area at BuckleUpForLife.org.
Gloria Del Castillo is a child passenger safety expert at Cincinnati Children’s and senior outreach specialist for Buckle Up for Life. With Toyota, she helped create the program in 2004 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Gloria’s expertise as a child educator, trauma specialist, program developer, published author, Hispanic advocate and vigilant mother has been widely featured in the national media, including by USA Today, Huffington Post and Univision. She is also a featured expert on The Bump.
¹SafeKids Worldwide, 2014
Find more info about the right carseat for your child in our Carseat Buyers Guide