Graduating from one car seat to the next

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No two four-year-olds are alike, so why do we expect them to use the same type of car seat? Age has nothing to do with it, says Kristen Gane, manager of programs at Safe Kids Canada, the national injury prevention program at SickKids Hospital in Toronto. “Milestones are all done by age, so many parents think, ‘Oh great, he’s four, let’s put him into a booster seat.’ We want to steer parents away from that thinking. When it comes to car seats, they should be thinking only of a child’s height and weight.” 
Most provinces and territories have car seat laws, but they vary and can be confusing. Instead of focusing on the law, Kristen recommends parents follow a few simple tips: 
  • Know your child’s height and weight (and measure them frequently as growth spurts can happen seemingly overnight). 
  • Put them in a car seat that accommodates their height and weight, and keep them in each stage of car seat for as long as possible. For example, many provincial laws mandate that children move from a rear-facing seat to a front-facing one when their weight exceeds 22 lbs. But many rear-facing car seats are now designed for much taller and heavier children. Safe Kids Canada recommends using those models. 
“Rear seats are 75 percent more protective than forward-facing seats,” says Kristen. “Parents are sometimes in a hurry to get their child to the next stage, but they should keep them in a car seat until they reach that seat’s maximum allowable height and weight.” 
That same theory goes for moving the child from a front-facing seat to a booster, and from a booster to using the seat belt alone. All car seats have the height and weight criteria listed in the manual, and the Safe Kids Canada website also lists every car seat available for sale in Canada and its criteria. (For more on the website, see box.) 
Make sure the seat is properly installed. This is as important as making sure your child is the right size for it. Common mistakes picked up by police spot checks include not having the tether strap done up, the shoulder harness being too loose (you should be able to fit no more than one finger through the strap at the collar bone) and the shoulder clip not slid up to the top of the chest. 
“We always ask parents to take 20 or 30 minutes and read the manual before installing the car seat,” says Kristen. “If you still have concerns, have it checked at a car seat clinic so you can be assured that it’s done right.”

Is buying or selling a used car seat a good idea? 

Selling a used car seat is legal in Canada, but Safe Kids Canada (SKC) discourages parents from buying used. “The seat may look good, but you don’t know its history,” says SKC’s Kristen Gane. “If it’s been in a car accident, the velocity of the crash may have affected the stability of the plastic. If the seller is someone you know [and you know the history of the car seat], then it’s probably fine, but we have problems with people buying from people they don’t know.” The warranty is also with the original purchaser, so any recalls would not come to you. 
If you do buy a used car seat, make sure it includes the original manual with the expiry date, and that all the components of the seat are there. Expiry dates recognize that temperature fluctuations in Canada can also negatively impact the stability of the plastic. 
If you do choose to get rid of a car seat that is no longer safe, make sure you render it unusable when you put it on the curb by cutting the padding and the straps. “You don’t want anyone taking it out of the garbage and using it.”

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February/March 2012.

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