Car crashes are a leading cause of death for children. Many times deaths and injuries can be prevented by proper use of car seats, boosters, and seat belts. Child safety seats reduce the risk of fatal injuries by 71% for infants (children younger than one year old) and by 54% for toddlers (children age one to four years old) in passenger cars.

University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital is focused on preventing injuries and death by helping parents understand the proper ways to keep children of all ages safe in a vehicle. The safest child restraint fits your child, fits your vehicle, and is used correctly every time you travel.

Our thanks to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for permitting us to use the information below.

Car Seat Recommendations for Children

There are many car seat choices on the market. Use the information below to help you choose a car seat that best meets your child’s needs.

Select a car seat based on your child’s age and size, and choose a seat that fits in your vehicle and use it every time.

  • Always refer to your specific car seat manufacturer’s instructions; read the vehicle owner’s manual on how to install the car seat using the seat belt or LATCH system; and check height and weight limits.
  • To maximize safety, keep your child in the car seat for as long as possible, as long as the child fits within the manufacturer’s height and weight requirements.
  • Keep your child in the back seat at least through age 12.

Types of Restraints

  • A rear-facing car seat is the best seat for your young child to use. It has a harness and in a crash, cradles and moves with your child to reduce the stress to the child's fragile neck and spinal cord.
  • A forward-facing car seat has a harness and tether that limits your child's forward movement during a crash.
  • A booster seat positions the seat belt so that it fits properly over the stronger parts of your child's body.
  • A seat belt should lie across the upper thighs and be snug across the shoulder and chest to restrain the child safely in a crash. It should not rest on the stomach area or across the neck.

By Age

Birth – 12 months

Your child under age 1 should always ride in a rear-facing car seat. There are different types of rear-facing car seats: Infant-only seats can only be used rear-facing. Convertible and 3-in-1 car seats typically have higher height and weight limits for the rear-facing position, allowing you to keep your child rear-facing for a longer period of time.

1 – 3 years

Keep your child rear-facing as long as possible. It’s the best way to keep him or her safe. Your child should remain in a rear-facing car seat until he or she reaches the top height or weight limit allowed by your car seat’s manufacturer. Once your child outgrows the rear-facing car seat, your child is ready to travel in a forward-facing car seat with a harness.

4 – 7 years

Keep your child in a forward-facing car seat with a harness until he or she reaches the top height or weight limit allowed by your car seat’s manufacturer. Once your child outgrows the forward-facing car seat with a harness, it’s time to travel in a booster seat, but still in the back seat.

8 – 12 years

Keep your child in a booster seat until he or she is big enough to fit in a seat belt properly. For a seat belt to fit properly the lap belt must lie snugly across the upper thighs, not the stomach. The shoulder belt should lie snug across the shoulder.

Helpful Resources

Learn more about car seat safety.