When positioning a baby car seat, it should always be placed in the back seat of the vehicle, facing the rear until the baby is at least two years old or until they reach the maximum weight limit of the car seat.
If your vehicle’s airbag system is active, placing a rear-facing car seat in the front passenger seat is unsafe. Securely fasten the car seat with the seatbelt or LATCH system, and buckle your baby in snugly.
Proper car seat positioning can seem complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. A study published in the journal Pediatrics revealed that children under three years old sitting in the center rear seat are 43% safer than sitting on the side in the back.
When it comes to car seat positioning, it’s not just about where you put the seat but also how you secure your baby inside it. I remembered using GMC Terrain sometime last year and wanted my son buckled up in the middle. Doing this was a hassle because the middle rear seat had no Isofix points to install the I-size child seat. I had to research and peruse other vital information about car seat positioning to give my little one the best riding experience.
In this article, I’ll walk you through everything – from the dos to the don’ts of buckling up your child. You can always follow these guides to make sure your baby is riding in the safest possible way.
Should the Car Seat Go Behind the Driver or Passenger?
Install the car seat at the rear seat behind the front passenger because it allows you to get the child in and out of the car on the pavement side of the road. However, if you usually park on the driver’s side next to the pavement, you should install the car seat behind the driver seat.
According to Mayo Clinic, the golden rule of thumb is that the car seat placement in your vehicle should be installed in the back seat, as that’s the safest spot for your baby.
So whether you put it behind the driver or passenger, it’s all a question of which side you’re parking and which position will allow the car seat to be fitted correctly.
Baby Car Seat Positions – Illustrated
Every typical vehicle has four different positions for installing car seats. These include the front passenger seat, the rear seat behind the driver, the middle rear seat (the most recommended by Mayo Clinic), and a rear seat behind the front passenger.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics Child Passenger Safety Guidelines, these four positions are recommended to suit your child’s age and size and the type of car seat you use.
Here’s a tabular illustration for a better grasp:
|Child Age||Child Size||Type of Car seat||Position|
|Less than two years old||Infant-only or convertible car seat||Back seat, rear-facing|
|2 – 8 years old||Convertible or all-in-one car seat||Back seat, forward-facing|
|8-12 years old||Less than 4 feet 9 inches||Booster seat||Back seat|
|More than 4 feet 9 inches||Lap and shoulder seat belt||Back seat|
|13 years or older||Lap and shoulder seat belt||Front passenger seat|
We have written a separate article describing the differences between infant-only, convertible, booster, and all-in-one car seats.
So, What’s the Safest Place for A Car Seat?
The safest place for a car seat is typically in the back seat, specifically in the middle position. An injury risk evaluation research conducted by the National Insitute of Health revealed that children in the back seat are safer than in the front seat in case of a crash or occurrence that could deploy the airbag system.
If you erroneously place the car seat on the front passenger seat, the airbag, when deployed, could hit the back of the rear-facing car seat, making the baby’s head susceptible to serious injury.
Newborn Car Seat Position – Pavement Side of The Car
If you have a newborn, the best car seat position is on the pavement side of the car. That way, you can conveniently and safely put them in and take them out of the car.
Meanwhile, remember that car seats for newborns have specific height and weight compatibility. Most have a weight and height limit of 30-35 pounds and 32 inches, respectively.
So, while focusing on the safest position for newborn car seats, pay attention to the seat’s weight and height limit.
Where You Put the Infant Car Seat Also Depends on The Type of Car
The ideal place to put your infant car seat in the car ultimately depends on your vehicle type. For example, an SUV’s seating arrangement differs from a cabriolet passenger car. Here is a table to provide a basic guide:
|Car type||Seating Arrangement||Position for infant car seat|
|SUVs and Minivans||With third-row seating||Close to the middle as possible|
|With the bench in the middle row||Center of the middle row|
|With bucket seats in the middle row||In the third row of seats|
|Sedan||Rear seat in the middle|
|Cabriolet||Middle of the rear seat|
|Coupe||Middle of the rear seat|
|Pickup truck||Regular cab pickup truck with only one row of seating||Center of the passenger seat|
|Extended cab pickup truck with limited back seat space||Center of the back seat|
|Crew cab pickup truck with more back-seat space||Center of the back seat or behind the front passenger seat.|
Some vehicle types are unsafe enough to put babies and car seats in. For example, vans and trucks are two- or three-seater models, and the only sitting options here are the front passenger seats, a red zone for an infant car seat due to active airbag deployment risk. But the US Department of Transportation says it’s legal to install a car seat at a truck’s front seat, provided the seat’s width supports the car seats up to 85%.
How Are Children in The Front Seat of Cars?
It is unsafe to put your child in the car’s front seat if they are between 0 and 12 months old. The safest place to ride is the middle. If your car is narrow or uneven, it can be challenging to install it tightly in the middle. So, any of the rear seat sides will work.
Are there laws regulating whether a child can be placed in the front seat of a car? It depends on your location. We have a comprehensive article about everything you should know about car seat laws nationwide.
Where Should Rear-Facing Infant Safety Seats Be Placed?
If you use a rear-facing infant safety seat, the best position to place it is the middle of the back seat. That way, the safety seat is far from the airbag deployment area. It also makes your child safe no matter which side a collision comes from.
Remember that rear-facing infant safety seats are ideal for babies from birth until they reach around 35 pounds, depending on the model of the car seat.
When to Transition to A Forward-Facing Car Seat
The best time to move your baby from a rear-facing to a forward-facing car seat is when you see they’ve reached the highest weight or height the car seat manufacturer allows. You can find this information in the model’s owner’s manual.
You want to place your child in the forward-facing position so you can see them in your rearview mirror. I’ve always had that urge too. But it’s not the safest option.
Also, it would help if you use a convertible car seat. These models double as rear and forward facing and typically have the infant-only seat form factor, allowing the safety seat to grow with your baby.
When my little boy outgrew the rear-facing car seat position, I started using the Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) system to secure the seat and tether strap for extra stability. At this transition stage, you should adjust the harness straps to fit snugly at or above your child’s shoulder level.
Now, when your child reaches a height of 4 feet and 9 inches (nearly 1.5 meters), they can safely use an adult seat belt. This is usually between ages 8 and 12.
What Do I Do if My Child Slouches Down or To the Side in The Car Seat?
If your child slouches down or to the side in a car seat, roll a blanket tightly and place it on both sides of your child. This will make them sit upright.
The best way to prevent slouching is to place a tightly rolled receiving blanket on both sides of your child. Using other inserts that don’t come with the car seat is not recommended.
Slouching is one of the concerning issues regarding car seat positioning. The padding at both sides will prevent the child from slumping down or to the side. This leads us to the next point.
Securing Your Baby’s Head in The Car Seat
If you’re not using car seats with this feature, you need to pad the sides and the area around your baby’s head and neck with a tightly-rolled blanket so that no matter the position of the car seat, your baby breathes well. But how do you get the balancing right? Set the seat at a 45-degree angle!
Set the Seat at A 45-Degree Angle
Positioning your baby’s car seat, especially for an infant, has much to do with balance. If you position it too flat, your baby could slide through the harness straps below the shoulders. If you place it too upright, they could have difficulty breathing as the head flops forward.
So, take advantage of the built-in rear-facing recline angle indicators as a guide to properly balance the gear. You may not find it in all rear-facing car seats, but models like Graco 4Ever multimode and Graco SnugRide SnugLock DLX Platinum have these features.
You want to place the seat at a 45-degree angle so the baby’s head rests at least 2 inches below the top of the car seat. As your baby grows, you can position them more upright.
Position the Chest Clip at The Armpit Level
To keep your child safe:
- Ensure you position the chest clip of your baby’s car seat at the armpit level.
- Don’t let it wander down to their belly button or chin.
- Think of the chest clip as a superhero’s utility belt, keeping your little one securely in their seat.
- Make sure the car seat is appropriate for your type of vehicle.
Make Sure the Car Seat Is Appropriate for Your Type of Vehicle
To ensure a safe ride, make sure your little one’s car seat is appropriate for your type of vehicle. A rear-facing infant seat is excellent for a sedan, while a convertible seat can work in sedans and SUVs. A high-back booster or a combination seat is the way for more oversized vehicles like vans or trucks.
But no matter the kind of car you have, what matters most is that you keep your child secure, following the car seat manufacturer’s instructions in the manual and the proper installation procedures.
Ensure the Car Seat Is Tight
Another important aspect of proper car seat positioning is checking its installation and stability. Here are the areas that need attention:
- Check the seat belt or LATCH system’s tightness: Ensure you adequately secure the seat belt or LATCH system to the car’s anchor points. If using the seat belt, ensure it is tightly buckled and pulled to remove any slack.
- Verify the angle of the car seat: Most car seats have specific guidelines for the correct installation angle. Check the instructions to confirm that the car seat is installed at the correct angle.
- Test for side-to-side movement: After installing the car seat, give it a firm tug from side to side. It is too loose if it moves more than an inch in either direction.
- Check for front-to-back movement: Push the car seat firmly from the front towards the back of the car seat. It is too loose if it moves more than an inch in either direction.
Do Not Use a Car Seat that Has Been Modified or Altered in Any Way
Lastly, manufacturers design and test car seats to meet specific safety standards. Any modification to the seat can compromise its ability to protect a child in the event of a crash. Modifying the seat can affect its fit, interaction with the vehicle’s safety systems, distribution of forces in a crash, and level of protection.
When moving your baby from the hospital or birth care to your home, your neighbors may lend you a car seat. With this precaution in mind, you want only to use second-hand car seats if you know their history.
When it comes to car seat positioning, safety is paramount. While it may be tempting to place your child in the front seat or behind the driver for convenience, the safest place for a car seat is in the back seat, preferably in the middle. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and consider the type of vehicle you have.
So, next time you hit the road with your little one, remember to put safety first and buckle up that car seat in the correct position.
Whenever you feel unsure about the installation or positioning you’ve done with your baby’s car seat, you can contact a local certified Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) for guidance.