Guide to child car seats

By law, children under the age of 7 should be placed in a car seat. This guide explains what you should know about different types of child car seats.

Guide to child car seats

New Zealand law requires children under the age of seven to be in a car seat, so they are safely secured. However, it must also be the appropriate car seat for their age, size, and development. If you can’t put a child in an approved car seat, they can’t travel in the vehicle.

We’ve put together a guide on the different types of car seats to suit children at different stages of development to help you understand what’s required before travelling with a child.

  1. Capsules

car seat while travelling

Capsules are small and convenient and come with a carrying handle. It’s typically the first seat a newborn will use and many capsules are safe to use up to 13kg. You can find capsules that also clip onto stroller wheels or come with a detachable base that remains secured in the vehicle. This is convenient because you can move your little one to and from your vehicle without disturbing them if they’re asleep. Capsules should always be placed in the back seat.

Children are safer in the car when they’re rear-facing. Infants and toddlers are more at risk of head and spinal cord injuries in an accident because they have an immature spine, neck, head, and pelvis. In most crash situations, the shell of the car seat supports and cushions the baby’s body and keeps its spine straight.

It’s a good idea to use a rear-facing convertible car seat once your child has outgrown an infant capsule. All child restraints (capsules, convertibles, and booster seats) have limits that a child must fit within to be able to use that seat. A child will outgrow a capsule when they reach the upper limits of the restraint, regardless of their age, and this will change depending on the size and weight of the child. As all babies grow at different rates, a larger baby will reach the upper limits before a smaller baby.

  1. Convertible seats

car seat while travelling

A convertible child seat is often designed to be used for many years, so you get more use from it. This could span infants through to older children and sometimes up to school age.

Convertible seats can be placed in two positions: rear-facing and forward-facing. For infants, you should always opt for rear-facing while, for toddlers, you can place them forward-facing. They also come with adjustable harnesses, headrests, and padding so they can be adapted as your little one grows.

Convertible car seats tend to stay permanently in the vehicle and your baby will need to be placed in and taken out of the car seat. This means you’ll need to wake them up when you move them from the vehicle, which can be frustrating, especially if it’s taken a while to get them to settle.

  1. Other types of forward-facing restraints

Aside from convertible seats, there are other types of forward-facing restraints, such as:

  • Forward-facing only seats
  • Combination booster seats with a built-in harness.

Most front-facing seats sold in New Zealand have upper tether straps and an anchor point in the vehicle to secure them. You should ensure the harness straps sit snugly on your child’s body. Double-check that they’re not twisted and they’re in the correct position on your child’s shoulders. Check and follow your manufacturer’s instructions.

Some restraints come with a chest clip. These clips should sit across the chest at armpit level, not any lower or higher. If your car seat doesn’t come with a chest clip, you don’t need to add one.

  1. Booster seats

car booster seat while travelling

When your child outgrows the manufacturer’s height and weight restrictions of their front-facing seat, it’s time to move them to a booster seat. There are three different types:

  • full back booster seats
  • convertible booster seats (front-facing seats that can be transformed into boosters)
  • half boosters, or booster cushions for big kids.

All these types of seats use the seatbelt as the restraint. Booster seats tend to suit children from 15 to 36 kg (up to about 11 years). It raises the child so the car’s diagonal safety belt fits properly across their shoulder.

The booster seat also has guides that position the lap belt correctly as well as side wings to protect the child’s head from side impact. Some booster seats use an ‘anti-submarining’ strap, which hooks onto the lap belt to stop the child from sliding forwards and underneath the safety belt during a crash.

You should never use a backless booster seat, as it can rotate in a side-impact crash and it offers no protection to the child’s head or torso. In recognition of this, Australian and New Zealand standards no longer certifies backless booster seats.

What happens after the booster seat?

The next step is to move your child to a full adult restraint which can happen legally after seven years of age, although most children need a booster until they are 12. Your child should stay in a booster until they are 148cm tall and can pass the 5-point test:

  1. Your child can sit right back in their seat.
  2. Their legs bend comfortably over the edge of the seat.
  3. The shoulder belt comes over their shoulder, not against their neck.
  4. The lap belt sits low on their thighs, not around the stomach.
  5. Your child can stay seated like this for the whole trip.

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