Child safety seats are an essential part of family life, from the moment you and your newborn leave the hospital. Infants are required to be buckled up in rear-facing seats until they are 1 year of age and at least 20 pounds. Experts now recommend you keep your child in a rear-facing seat for as long as possible because it is five times safer than when a child rides facing the front of a vehicle.

According to California law, a child must be properly restrained in the backseat until he or she is at least 6 years old or weighs 60 pounds or more. (FYI: The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration [NHTSA] recommends that all kids 12 and under ride in the backseat.) More important details:

  • Infant car seats – These have a 20–35 pound weight limit and are designed to face the rear of the car. 
  • Convertible car seats – These are designed to be used either as a rear-facing or forward-facing seat. Once children have outgrown the rear-facing seat, says the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), they should use a forward-facing seat with a full harness as long as they fit.
  • Forward-facing seats – Depending on the model, these seats can be used with a harness for kids who weigh from 40 to 85 pounds. The AAP says it’s best for kids to ride in a seat with a harness as long as possible.
  • Belt-positioning booster seats – These seats use regular vehicle belts to secure the child (shoulder and lap belts are required) and are for school-age kids who weigh at least 30 to 40 pounds. The NHTSA advises using a booster until adult belts fit correctly (usually when a child is about 4 feet 9 inches tall and between 8 and 12 years of age).
  • Safety – Any car seat that you buy new is technically safe, thanks to Uncle Sam’s stringent crash- and fire-safety standards. But even if a car seat itself meets the federal government’s standards, it can still pose risks to safety if it’s improperly installed or used.