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Car Safety: Infants


Car travel should be a safe and pleasant time for you and your baby. It is a good time for you to talk to your baby and teach your baby how enjoyable car travel can be. By law, infants and children must ride in crash-tested, child restraints – not in your lap, not in a portable crib, or car bed. Infants must be placed in a rear-facing child safety seat (not an Infant Seat) from birth until they are at least 1 year of age and weigh at least 20 pounds. Make sure the Car Safety Seat you select fits your child – a smaller child could slip out of a seat that is too large.

About child safety seats

  • Infants should ride in rear-facing car seats until they are at least 1 year of age and weigh at least 20 pounds. This is the best way to protect the infant's neck. The rear middle seat is always the safest place for your infant, even if you are the only adult in the car.
  • Some safety seats can not be installed properly in some cars. Check before you buy a car seat to make sure that it will work with your vehicle.
  • Make sure the car seat is installed correctly in the car. Carefully read the instructions for how to install the safety seat correctly. Check your owner’s manual to make sure you know where to install the seat in your vehicle. Never accept a used safety seat that is missing any parts or instructions, is more than 10 years old, or one that has been in a crash.
  • If you aren't sure if your seat fits properly in your car, contact a children's hospital or local fire department. Many of them have a child seat loaner program and can help you find a seat that fits properly and help you install it correctly. Your car insurance company may also offer a child seat loaner program. You can also contact your state highway safety program.
  • For specific questions about how to install and use your car seat, call SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. at 800-745-SAFE (Spanish at 800-747-SANO, Web site http://www.carseat.org) or the National Auto Safety Hotline at 888-327-4236, Web site http://www.nhtsa.gov).
  • Infants with special health problems or medical conditions may need other restraint systems. Talk with your healthcare provider or contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Auto Safety Hotline.
  • Keep harness straps very snug to allow no more than 1 inch movement from side to side or front to back. Make the harness clips even with the baby's armpits.
  • Support a tiny infant by placing rolled towels, diapers, or receiving blankets on both sides of the safety seat to keep the head from falling side to side. Or buy a head support.

Car Travel

  • In cold weather, instead of a bulky snowsuit, dress the baby in a lightweight jacket and hat and tuck a blanket around the baby for warmth.
  • Interact with your baby when she is awake and behaving nicely (quiet, jabbering, or looking around). Sing or hum songs, or talk about what you are doing or where you are going. Your baby will learn to enjoy car travel because you are fun to ride with. If your baby has a favorite blanket, place it within her reach.
  • Carry 1 or 2 soft, stuffed toys that are played with only in the car. This helps decrease boredom. Remember your baby's attention span is very short. Don't expect her to stay occupied for more than a couple of minutes at a young age.
  • As your child gets older, Ignore yelling, screaming, and begging. The instant your baby is quiet, begin talking or singing to her again. Do not take your child out of the safety seat because she is crying. Doing so will only teach her to keep crying until you take her out. Try to take her out only when she is quiet.
  • Older brothers and sisters should also be expected to behave in the car and ride with their seat belts fastened correctly. If your child grows up always riding with a seat belt on, it will become a habit.
  • Before a long trip, be sure your baby is fed and freshly diapered.
  • During longer trips, allow for frequent rest stops. Take infants out of car seats and place them on their back or abdomen to relax muscles.
  • If you think your child needs feeding or a diaper change, try to stop before she starts to fuss.
  • If your baby is going to travel in a car with other drivers (grandparent, aunt, uncle, or baby sitter), make sure they use the safety seat, and make sure it is installed correctly.
  • Park where you can remove your child from the car on the sidewalk side away from traffic.
  • Never leave a child unattended in a parked car even for a minute.
  • Do not have loose packages or heavy or sharp objects in the car. A sudden stop can cause them to shift and injure passengers.
  • Children can get burns from hot seatbelts and harness buckles. Cover metal parts during hot weather.
  • Put shades on the windows in the back to protect your baby from bright sun. Don’t use a hood to protect your infant from the sun because it can reduce the airflow around baby’s head and lead to overheating.
  • Make sure all doors are locked before staring the car. As your child gets older, teach never to play with doors and locks.

If your child outgrows the child safety seat before his or her first birthday, use a convertible car seat in the rear-facing position. Sometime around 12 months of age, you will need to either switch to a toddler safety seat or change the riding position of the convertible car seat. Read the directions that came with the seat or ask your healthcare provider when to switch to a toddler safety seat. Your child should continue to use a child safety seat until she is about 8 to 10 years old. Booster seats are available for children who are more than 4 years of age.

It is illegal for a child to ride in the car without being securely buckled into a safety seat. It is illegal because it is very, very dangerous. Please do what is best for your child —use a safety seat during every car ride.

For more information, see the Child Passenger Safety section on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Web site: http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov


Written by E. Christophersen, PhD, author of "Pediatric Compliance: A Guide for the Primary Care Physician.".
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-01-28
Last reviewed: 2009-12-01

This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.

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