How to choose the right child car seat for your baby

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A child's car seat is one of the most important purchases new parents will make, which is why knowing what to look for when you buy one is essential

The Department of Transport’s latest report on road casualties in the UK revealed there were 2,070 children (aged 0-15) killed or seriously injured in the year ending September 2016, which shows how important it is to make sure they’re in the right seat.

With the introduction of the EU i-Size guide regulation and the updated laws on child car seats in effect from February 2017, it might be difficult for you to choose what is best for your child and most suitable for your vehicle.

The new laws mean manufacturers aren’t allowed to introduce new models of backless booster seats for children who weigh less than 22kg (3st 3lbs) or are shorter than 125cm (4ft 1”). However, this doesn’t affect existing models.

You could be fined up to £500 if you allow a child to travel in your car without a car seat. The potential fine also applies to those not using booster seats if they’re required.

Knowing the rules around car seats is essential for anyone who travels with children in their vehicle.

Car seats - the law

There's far more than just age to consider when it comes to car seats, weight and height are the all important factors.

What the law says:

“Children must normally use car seats until they are 12 years old or 135cm tall - whichever comes first. If a child is over 12 or more than 135cm tall they must wear a seatbelt.

“The only car seats which can be used in the UK are those which are EU-approved and have a label showing capital ‘E’ in a circle and ‘R129’ for height-based seats, or ‘ECE R44’ for weight-based ones.”

You should keep your baby in a rearward-facing seat for as long as possible, this is considered the safest option, current EU legislation states this is considered to be until they are 13kg and can sit up unaided.

Rear facing is considered to be safest because it offers the most protection for head, neck and vital organs.

There are two recognised ways to decide which car seat your child needs, either based on height or weight.

Height:

  • The i-Size regulation was introduced in July 2013 and is intended to encourage parents to keep their children in rearward facing seats for longer - preferably until they are at least 15 months old
  • Once your child is 15 months or older they can use a forward facing seat
  • You must check the seat is suitable for your child’s height - the retailer you purchase the seat from will advise you on this.

Weight:

  • For children up to 9kg a rear-facing, lie-flat baby carrier or baby seat should be used
  • If your child weighs 13kg and can sit up unaided, EU legislation considers it appropriate for a child to be moved to a forward facing position, using a harness or safety shield
  • It is only acceptable before 13kg if your child weighs 9kg and if their head AND feet poke over the edges of the car seat.

Which child car seat should I choose?

If there was just one seat for each stage of your child's development then life would be easy but as we all know, life is very rarely easy.

There are thousands of designs on the market, a plethora of colours and shapes all supposedly the ideal seat for your little darling - so how on earth do you choose?

First and foremost, the seat must have a label showing a capital E in a circle to show it is EU-approved and safe to use in the UK.

You can use a child car seat only if your car has a diagonal belt strap, or provided that the seat is:

  • designed specifically for use with a lap seatbelt
  • fitted using ISOFIX anchor points.

Remember, you can’t fit a child seat in side-facing seats

Car seat types explained

Rearward-facing baby seats (newborn to 13kg)

This seat faces towards the rear of the car and fits in either the front or back passenger seats - only fit to the front seat if the airbag has been deactivated. An airbag could cause injury or even death to a child.

An adjustable harness and the adult seatbelt keep the baby strapped in place.

New babies should lie flat when sleeping, as carriers prop the baby in an upright position they should not be left to sleep for longer than two hours in them.

Combination seat (newborn to 18kg)

Once baby reaches 13kg they can be moved into a forward facing seat which can be fitted to the front or rear passenger seat.

This seat would remain fixed in the car and wouldn't be suitable to carry the baby around in.

Forward facing seat (9kg - 18kg)

Similar to rearward facing seats, forward facing seats are used on the back seat and can only be used in the front if there isn't an airbag fitted or if the airbag is turned off.

The seat has a harness and is fixed in place by the adult seatbelt.

Booster and backrest seat (15kg - 36kg)

Designed for use with a full adult seatbelt (not just a lap belt), these raise a child's seating position.

Booster seat (22kg - 36kg - roughly from six -11 years)

It's safest to use a booster seat in the rear of the car but they can be used in the front provided the front airbag isn't activated. It's important the seat is correctly adjusted as they don’t come with integral harnesses to hold the child in place.

Booster seats shouldn’t be used for children shorter than 125cm or weighing less than 22kg, and from March 2017 manufacturers will no longer be allowed to produce booster seats intended for children that don’t fit those requirements.

ISOFIX

  • ISOFIX is intended to make fitting car seats as easy as possible
  • New cars are made with ISOFIX points built into them and child seat manufacturers build ISOFIX fitting points into their seats. It essentially means car seats can be plugged into ISOFIX points in the car
  • Contact your car's manufacturer to find out if your car has ISOFIX points. You can contact the manufacturer through RoSPA's website.

When can a child travel without a car seat?

Even though it is mandatory for all kids to travel in a suitable child car seat, there are some circumstances which make an exception:

  • In taxis , minicabs and vans - if there is no child seat provided, the children can travel wearing a seatbelt, if they’re three or older, or without one if they’re under three
  • In minibuses and coaches - children can travel without a child car seat or seatbelt, if not fitted, however, they should be placed in rear seats
  • Unexpected journeys - if you need to take an unexpected journey that is over a short distance, the child, aged three or over, can use an adult seatbelt. If the child is younger, unexpected trips are not recommended
  • If a vehicle doesn’t have a child car seat or a fitted seatbelt, the children must be in the back seat.

The three most important points are:

1. The belt should be worn as tightly as possible

2. The lap belt should go over the pelvic region, not the stomach

3. The diagonal strap should rest over the shoulder, not the neck.

Each time you fasten your child in to their seat:

  • Allow plenty of time to check the seat and secure your child
  • If the seat has a harness, ensure the harness is secure, you should only be able to fit one or two fingers between the child's chest and the harness
  • If using a booster seat, the adult seatbelt should rest on your child's shoulder, not neck and from hip bone to hip bone - never tuck the diagonal seatbelt under your child's arm.

Car seat buyers’ guide

Follow our checklist before parting with your cash:

  • Will the seat be used to carry your baby from the car or will you be leaving the seat in the car?
  • Do you want a combined carrier and travel system?
  • It's not just the age of the child that counts, make sure you know their weight and size
  • Disconnect the passenger seat airbag if you want to put the car seat in the front of the car
  • Remember, not all car seats fit all cars! Make sure the seat you’ve chosen fits your make and model
  • Most retailers let you try before you buy. Mothercare, among others, has trained fitters.

Buying new or second hand?

Having a baby most definitely doesn't come cheap and hand-me-downs can sometimes be a great alternative to splashing the cash on expensive, new items. However, the safest advice is not to buy or use a second-hand child car seat.

It's impossible to know if it's been involved in an accident as damage is not always visible. There's also the fact the instruction manual may be missing which will make it harder to fit safely.

Buying new is the safest option for your baby.

Travelling while pregnant

In the eyes of the law, being pregnant is no excuse for not wearing a seatbelt. In the UK, all pregnant women must wear a seatbelt while travelling in a car, whether they are in the front or back of the vehicle.

There are some rare circumstances where a doctor may deem you medically exempt and you will be given a Certificate of Exemption from Compulsory Seat Belt Wearing. You'll need to keep the certificate in the car with you at all times, inform your insurer and show it to the police if asked.

The Department for Transport's leaflet on the subject explains the exemptions.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) provides the following guidelines on the correct way to wear a seatbelt when pregnant:

  • Place the diagonal strap between the breasts, resting the strap over the shoulder
  • The lap strap should go across the hips, fitting comfortably beneath the bump
  • It's safer for pregnant women and the unborn child to wear a lap and diagonal seat belt, rather than a lap only belt
  • In cars fitted with air bags, the front seat should be pushed back as far as possible.

Keeping children safe

Thankfully, the laws around car seats and child restraints have changed dramatically over the last 10 years and it's now compulsory for children of all ages to be safely secured into a car.

Knowing the law is the best way to know you're doing everything you can keep your young passengers as safe as possible.

Summary of the law:

Drivers Seatbelts MUST be worn if fitted.

Responsibility - driver

Children under three years

Appropriate child restraint MUST be used in the front seat and/or in the rear seats.

Responsibility - driver

Children aged three-11 and under 1.35 metres

In the front seat a child restraint MUST be used. In the rear seat a child restraint MUST be used if seatbelts fitted.

Responsibility - driver

Children aged 12-13 or over 1.35 metres

Adult seatbelts MUST be worn if available - both in the front passenger and rear seats. Responsibility - driver

Adult passengers, 14 years and upwards Adult seatbelts MUST be used if available - both in the front passenger and rear seats. Responsibility – passenger

Disabled drivers/passengers

Disabled drivers and passengers are required to wear a seatbelt, unless a medical condition doesn’t allow it. The vehicle should also be adapted according to the person’s needs.

If your vehicle doesn’t have seatbelts:

You won’t be allowed to carry any children under the age of three in it, and children older than that are required to sit in the back seats.

You can be fined up to £500 if you don't wear a seatbelt when you're supposed to. As the driver, it's your responsibility to make sure all passengers aged 14 and below are wearing correct seatbelts.

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