Mary Bridge Children's Hospital

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Center for Childhood Safety For information, call 253-403-1234

Keeping kids safe in the car

What child safety seat does my child need?

That depends on several factors including the age, weight, and height of your child. If your child has special health care or behavioral needs, these must also be taken into consideration.


Washington State Law requires you to restrain your child properly in the car. The most recent state law requires:

Car Seat Safety
  • Vehicle occupants of any age must be restrained properly. The driver is responsible for properly securing all passengers under age 16.
  • Children under age 13 must ride in the back seat, whenever practical to do so.
  • Children under age 8 or 4’9” tall must ride in an appropriate child restraint system (i.e. car seat or booster seat). Child restraint systems must be used according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

For infants (0-12 months)

  • Infants must ride in a rear-facing car seat.
  • Infant seats are convenient for newborns and young babies- most have a base that installs in the vehicle, while the seat can be snapped in and out and used as an infant carrier.
  • Convertible seats are larger and remain installed in the vehicle. Most have higher weight and height limits than infant seats. Always install it in the rear-facing position for infants.

For toddlers (1-2 years)

  • Children under age 2 are safest in a rear-facing car seat. Choose a convertible seat with high rear-facing limits (30-35lbs).
  • When your child reaches the rear-facing limits of their convertible seat, the next step is a forward-facing seat.
  • Under no circumstances should a child ride forward-facing before reaching age 1 and 20 pounds.

For preschoolers (3-5 years)

  • Children are safest in a 5-point harness.
  • If your child outgrows their car seat before age 4 or 40 pounds, consider moving to a seat with a harness system that will accommodate their size.
  • The next step is a booster seat. These should always used with both a lap and shoulder seat belt.

For school-agers (6+ years)

  • Your school-ager needs to use a child restraint system (car seat or booster) until the adult lap/shoulder belt can fit properly.
  • When your child reaches age 8 or 4’9” tall-use the “Seat Belt Readiness Test” to determine if they are ready to ride in an adult seat belt:
    • Can your child sit comfortably against the vehicle’s seat back?
    • Can your child’s knee bend at the edge of the seat?
    • Does the lap belt fit low across the upper thighs?
    • Does the shoulder belt fit across the center of the shoulder and chest?
    • Can your child stay seated comfortably in this position for the entire ride?

If the answer is “no” to any of these questions, your child should remain in a booster seat.

  • Make sure your child always wears their seat belt correctly, and rides in the back seat until age 13.

I've heard that 80 percent to 90 percent of car seats are used incorrectly. What am I doing wrong?

Unfortunately, choosing and using a car seat correctly isn’t as easy as it should be. But a properly installed car seat reduces fatal injury by up to 71 percent, so this is an important thing to get right!

The only way to know for sure that your child is in the right car seat, and that you are using it correctly, is to have it checked by an experienced Child Passenger Safety Technician.

Call the Mary Bridge Car Seat Help Line at 253-403-1417 to be referred to an upcoming event in your area. In the meantime, follow your instruction manuals and consider the following:

Choose the right seat

  • The “best car seat” is one that fits your child, fits your vehicle, fits your budget, and one that you can use correctly every time.
  • Choose a seat that is appropriate for your child’s current age and size ( not a seat he or she will “grow into”). Moving to the next stage too early may leave your child unprotected in a crash.
  • Decide which features are important to you: Low weight and height limits for a small newborn? High weight and height limits for larger children? Harnesses that adjust easily? Push-button LATCH connectors? Plush padding? Cup holders? Fancy fabrics?
  • Try car seats in your vehicle before you buy – not every car seat seat is compatible with every car. If you cannot achieve the proper tightness and recline angle – don’t purchase that seat.
  • Be wary of used car seats – they can be recalled, damaged, expired, or have missing parts.

Buckle Up

  • Make sure you can adjust the harnesses on your child’s car seat easily.
  • For rear-facing car seats: route the harness through the nearest slot that is “at or below” your child’s shoulder.
  • For forward-facing car seats: route the harness through the nearest slot that is “at or above” your child’s shoulder.
  • Adjust the harness snugly against the child’s body. If you can pinch the harness between your fingers (at the child’s collarbone) it is too loose.
  • Place the harness retainer clip at armpit level.
  • Do not add any “after-market products” that didn’t come with the car seat (additional padding, harness covers, belt-tighteners, etc)

Installing a car seat in your vehicle

Location: Consult your vehicle owner’s manual for any restrictions regarding where you can install a car seat. Washington law requires that children ride in the back seat, whenever practical to do so. Never install a rear-facing seat by a front passenger airbag.

Angle: Consult your car seat instruction manual for guidance regarding achieving the proper angle. Rear-facing car seats are installed in a reclined position, check your seat for a level indicator. Forward-facing car seats are usually installed in an upright position.

Tightness: Consult your car seat instruction manual for guidance regarding how and where to guide your seat belt or LATCH straps through your car seat. Push down on the car seat while tightening the seat belt or LATCH straps.

Lock your seat belt, or use a locking clip or built-in lock-off.

Test tightness by grasping the car seat next to the belt path – if you can move it more than one inch from side-to-side, tighten belt again. If you are unable to achieve a tight fit – try a different seating position or a different car seat.

Is there anything else I need to know?

YES! This is only a quick guide, it does not include every possible piece of information you’ll need to restrain your child perfectly.

Do your best. Choose your child’s car seat carefully, follow your car seat instruction manual and your vehicle owner’s manual, and if you have any further questions.

Call the Mary Bridge Car Seat Help Line at 253-403-1417.