Car Seat Safety

Baby in car seat
Caregiver fastening car seat for child
Child helping another child with fastening their seatbelt

Buckle Up! Program

C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital Buckle Up! Program is here to make sure your child is in the right seat, that it is installed correctly, and your child is harnessed safely in the seat. Certified Child Passenger Safety Technicians and Instructors work one on one with families to show them how to properly install a car seat in their vehicle as well as how to buckle children in their seats. To better serve the community, most of our events require appointments. Appointments take approximately 30 minutes per seat. We encourage expectant parents to call at the beginning of the third trimester to schedule an appointment. For appointments or car seat questions, please call the Buckle Up! hotline at 734-763-2251 or 734-763-5063 (Español).

Child Passenger Safety Basics

Child safety seats provide the best protection for infants and young children. However, correctly installing a child safety seat can be challenging, especially with the wide variety of child safety seats, vehicles, and seat belt systems available today.

It's important to follow these guidelines:

Child Restraint Recommendations

All children under 13 should be buckled in the backseat.

Rear-facing carseat

Newborns - 4 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 they reach the top height or weight limit for that seat, or at least age two. Information about height and weight restrictions can be found on a label on the side of the car seat.

Forward-facing carseat

2 - 7 Years

Once your child outgrows the rear-facing car seat, they should travel in a forward-facing car seat with a harness. Five-point harnesses are best for toddlers and kids because they help distribute crash forces over a wider area, and keep children more consistently restrained as they mature. 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 the seat manufacturer.

Booster seat

4 - 12 Years

Once your child outgrows the forward-facing car seat with a harness, it’s time to travel in a booster seat in the back seat. Booster seats are designed to make the adult seat belt fit a child properly. The lap belt must lie snugly across the upper thighs, not the stomach. The shoulder belt should lie snug across the shoulder and chest and not cross the neck or face. When considering if your child is ready for a booster seat or transition to the adult seat belt, make sure they can stay properly positioned for the entire ride. Typically, a child no longer needs a booster seat when they are 4 feet 9 inches tall. 

Buckle Up! Video Library 


Certified Child Passenger Safety Instructors from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital Injury Prevention Program review the proper installation and harnessing of rear-facing car seats.


Certified Child Passenger Safety Instructors from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital Injury Prevention Program review the proper installation and harnessing of forward-facing car seats.

Booster Seats & Seat Belt Use

Certified Child Passenger Safety Instructors from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital Injury Prevention Program review the proper installation of a booster seat and seat belt use.      

Things to Remember

Inappropriately sized car seat

Always use a seat that is appropriate for your child’s weight and height. Every seat will have a sticker on the side with height and weight limits for that seat. Children grow fast, check for proper fit often. 

Child with too much bulky clothing in carseat

Take off the wraps. Remove bulky clothing or blankets before placing the child in the car seat. Never place blankets underneath or behind the child or under the harness. Don’t use inserts that didn’t come with the car seat, as they aren’t crash-tested and safety can’t be guaranteed.

Rear-facing car seat at a 45 degree angle

Position rear-facing seats at the correct angle. Read the manufacturer’s instructions to determine the correct angle (normally 30 to 45 degrees), indicated by an arrow, level or other angle indicator on the car seat.

Forward-facing carseat flush with vehicle seat

Aligning forward-facing seats. Most forward-facing seats should be flush with the back of the seat of the car. Always check the owner’s manual to find out if the manufacturer permits a semi-reclined position.

Harnessed child in carseat

Keep them harnessed. All infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing safety seat until they are 2 years old or until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by the car seat manufacturer. Once your child is forward-facing, they should stay in a 5-point harness as long as possible, until they outgrow the height and weight limits of that seat. 

Unrestrained child

Never let children ride unrestrained. Keep your child in a harnessed car seat until they outgrow the height and weight limits of that seat. Make sure they are in a booster seat until the adult seat belt fits them properly. Seat belts for everyone else, even adults in the backseat! 

Rear-Facing Seats

In a crash, a rear-facing car seat cradles and moves with the child to reduce stress on fragile necks and spinal cords. Remember that bones develop strength with age, not size, so even if your child is big for their age, their spine still needs to be protected.  

Types of Rear-Facing Seats:

Steps for Securing Your Child

If your child is in the car seat, but not in the car, keep them harnessed tightly. That will maintain good positioning for breathing and reduce the risk of strangulation by the harness retainer clip. As a general rule, baby should not be in their car seat for more than two hours at a time in or out of the car.

Rear-facing carseat installed using rear-facing belt path. Child's head is >1" from top of seat. Height of harness is below shoulder level, chest clip is at armpit level. Harness fits snugly so no slack can be pinched.
Car seat with tightly rolled receiving blankets on either side of child. Second image shows improper placement of receiving blankets.

Forward-Facing Seats

Types of Forward-Facing Seats:

As babies grow into toddlers, they often want to adjust the harness straps and clips themselves, so it is more important than ever to ensure that they are properly harnessed and stay that way the whole ride. 

To secure your child in a forward-facing car seat:

Child in forward-facing carseat using correct belt path. Harness is above shoulder level. Chest clip is armpit level, and harness is snug so no excess can be pinched. The top of child's ears are below the top of the car seat shell.

Belt-Positioning Booster Seats

All children whose weight or height is above the limit for their car seat’s harness should use a belt-positioning booster seat until the vehicle seatbelt fits properly, typically when they are 4 feet 9 inches tall. 

Why use booster seats?

Booster seats are designed to better position a child to make the adult seatbelt fit them properly. There are two types of booster seats: high-back and backless. The high-back features built-in head and neck restraints. The backless booster relies on head and neck protection built into the vehicle’s seat (the seat’s headrest). As long as the seat has a headrest and the seat belt fits properly, either a high back or backless booster seat is appropriate. 

Things to keep in mind when using a booster seat:

Child in high back booster seat with properly fitting seat belt.

Seat Belts

Once your child outgrows a booster seat (usually 4 feet 9 inches or taller) you still want to make sure that the vehicle’s safety belt is being worn the way it was designed and tested. Before moving them out of the booster seat, make sure the child passes the 5-step test:

Child with properly fitting seat belt.

Installation Methods

Seat Belts

Seat belts are a tried and true way to install car seats. In order to get a good install, the seat belt must lock. Usually if you slowly pull the seat belt out all the way, and feed it back in, the seat belt will lock. This ensures when you tighten the seat belt around the car seat, it will stay tight. If your car was made before 1996, you may need to use a locking clip. Make an appointment with a Child Passenger Safety Technician to be sure. 


Some child restraints come with a built-in locking mechanism, called a lock-off. This does the same job as the seat belt’s locking mechanism. Lock-offs can look very different from manufacturer to manufacturer, so look at the stickers on the side of the car seat or in the owner’s manual. 

Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH)

LATCH is an acronym for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. LATCH systems secure a child safety seat to the vehicle’s rear seats using straps from the child safety seat that connect to special metal anchors built into designated positions in the vehicle. However, unless both the vehicle and the child safety seat are designed to use the LATCH system, the vehicle’s seat belt will need to be used to secure the child safety seat instead. The LATCH system and the vehicle’s seat belt system should not be used together.

Tether Attachment 

For forward-facing seats, you should use both the lower attachments or the seatbelt and the tether strap that comes out of the top of the car seat. The tether reduces the forward motion of the seat in a crash. Most seats do not use a tether when used rear-facing. Read your child safety seat instructions to be sure. 

If you’re not sure where to find these hooks in your vehicle, read the manufacturer’s instructions to determine if it is equipped with the LATCH system, to locate the anchors, and look up the recommended weight restrictions.  

Note: Installing child safety seats with either the vehicle’s seat belt or the LATCH system is equally safe as long as the child safety seat is installed correctly. The seat should move less than an inch at the side where it’s buckled in. 

Special Needs

Premature infants and children with respiratory difficulties, orthopedic challenges, neurological and behavioral problems may require special child restraints. Learn more ▸

Avoid These Dangerous Mistakes

Avoid: Unrestrained child with driver

Unrestrained: Never hold a child on your lap in a moving car, even if you are buckled in – especially in the front seat.  No human is strong enough to hold a child in the event of a crash, and injury and death are much more common after an ejection. Even if they aren’t thrown from the car, an unrestrained child is placed at additional risk from the vehicle’s air bags. Children should always be properly restrained in the back seat. 

Avoid: Partially-restrained child

Partially Restrained: Never use seat belts other than as intended – with both the shoulder belt resting on the collarbone and lap belt across the tops of the thighs.

Avoid: Hard items that are unsecured in the vehicle

Projectiles: Hard toys and loose items can become dangerous projectiles during hard braking and crash situations. Keep an assortment of soft toys and plush animals ready for in-car entertainment. Don’t hang toys from infant seat handles. They can become loose in a crash.

Children and Air Bags

There’s a good reason that all car manufacturers are required to display warning labels regarding inflatable restraint systems, or air bags. They are designed to inflate with tremendous force and speed, and can cause serious injury or death to children, especially to infants in rear-facing child safety seats. Children under 13 should always be properly restrained in the back seat. This gives them time for their bones to fully develop.

Some cars have inflatable seat belts. If your car has these, check the owner’s manuals of the car seat and the vehicle to make sure it’s safe to use to install a car seat. 

All inflatable restraint systems are required to have an air bag warning label. If you’re not sure about your vehicle, look for warning labels on seat belts, sun visors or the sides of the seat.

Need Help? Get a professional opinion.

A certified child passenger safety technician can check the installation of your child safety seat and answer questions. 

Call 734-763-2251 or 734-763-5063 (Español) to schedule a car seat check appointment in Washtenaw County.