“In the United States, 723 children ages 12 years and younger died as occupants in motor vehicle crashes during 20165 and more than 128,000 were injured in 2016.9”— Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“In one year, more than 618,000 children ages 0-12 rode in vehicles without the use of a child safety seat or booster seat or a seat belt at least some of the time.”— Greenspan et al.
Using a car seat for your 3 year old reduces their risk of injury in a crash by 71-82% compared to seat belt use alone. 2 & 10
If you don’t currently use a car seat for your 3 year old, get one now.
Car seats save lives.
Buying the right car seat is one of the most important purchases you will make for your 3 year old. Unfortunately, I found it confusing at first, as most people do. We all hope that an accident won’t happen to us, and some of you may believe that your a safe driver so you will be fine. But the accident might not be your fault. We have all experienced reckless and unsafe drivers on the roads.
Buying the right car seat is a difficult and confusing task. It took me a lot of research to finally find the right seat for our 3 year olds. That’s what I want to share with you in this article. All the hours of research I put into finding the safest, most comfortable and best value car seat summarized for you.
WHAT CAR SEAT DID I CHOOSE AND WHY?
I decided that the best car seat for my 3 year olds was the:
After using this car seat for some time now we absolutely love it and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone (At least a few of our friends now have the same one!). It fits well and it was easy to install. I feel confident that if the worst happened that this seat would protect my 3 year olds.
It has a 50lb max weight for the rear facing position (Which was important to me as it is safest to keep them rear facing for now) and it is adjustable for leg length which also means they can sit rear facing for longer than most other seats. They also regularly use the cup holders for their drinks and snacks, which they love on longer journeys.
It also has a 5 point harness, which frankly was a must for me for safety reasons. The max weight limit if 65 lbs and it also converts into a forward facing seat, so I know they will definitely get at least a few years use out of it.
Check it out at Amazon, I think the price is great for the quality and features it has.
- 4 star NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) ease of use rating (For rear facing, which is the way we use it). Which is a fancy way of saying that it is easy to install and use. I didn’t have any issue installing it. I just read the manual to make sure I was doing it right and got it done the first time.
- Lots of adjustment points for reclining that we found useful. At first, I found that if my girls went to sleep sometimes their head would tilt forwards and look uncomfortable, so I adjusted the angle so that doesn’t happen anymore. Not all car seats have that much adjustment so you can get it just right.
- 50lb Max rear facing limit. After finding out how much safer it is for your child to sit rear facing as long as possible. It became important for me to find them a seat which would allow rear facing until they were old enough to sit forward facing safely.
- Very secure fitting. I managed to get their car seats very securely fitted into the car. The seat feels very solid and sturdy and doesn’t move around if I try to wiggle it. That filled me with confidence in the seat.
- Well padded and comfortable. We have already done a few long drives with the girls and so far there have been no complaints and a lot of sleeping going on. So I’m guessing they find it comfortable!
- 5 point harness. I would not have bought the car seat if it didn’t have a comfortable 5 point harness.
- Not too heavy and bulky. They are pretty easy for me to lift out and detach if I need to. Putting the seats back in the car and making sure they are attached and secure is very easy and straightforward.
- The cup holders are a square shape which is great for snacks but for drinks, they are a bit roomier than I would like. Although I guess that the wider opening helps the girls get their drinks back into the holder a bit easier (The odd time that they actually manage to do it).
- Taking off the padded cover to wash it was a bit fiddly the first time I did it. Once I had done it once the next time I took it off it was a breeze.
ACCESSORIES WE HAVE FOUND USEFUL
As well as buying the Graco car seat, we also bought the following accessories which have proved very useful for us:
- Headrest mirror for a rear facing car seat: This is a mirror which you attach to the back seat headrest so you can see what your 3 year old is up to while your driving. Our two also love spying on us through it, so it works as a two way thing. I couldn’t imagine using a rear facing car seat without one of these!
- Auto seat protector: This is a padded protector that your car seat sits on. It protects the seats from the extra mess a 3 year old makes and it also creates a nonslip surface for your car seat to sit on. I love the little storage pocket on the front too, it’s where I keep all their car toys in handy reach to keep them amused.
HOW TO CHOOSE A CAR SEAT FOR YOUR 3 YEAR OLD?
The ideal car seat for your 3 year old
Ideally your 3 year old would be in a rear facing car seat with a comfortable and well adjusted 5 point harness. It should have been bought new or purchased from someone you trust 100% to tell you the real history of the seat.
It should be within its expiry date and not be able to move more than 1 inch in any direction when securely fastened. If your child has reached the max weight or height limit on their car seat in the rear facing direction. Then it is time to seat them forward facing.
What kind of car seat should a 3 year old be in?
There are a few different types of car seat that you can buy:
- Rear facing only car seat: These are for young children. At this age, it is not advised that they sit forward facing. Rear facing car seats are by far the safest seat for a young child aged 0-2 years old.
- Convertible rear/forward facing car seat: These types of seats are ideal for your 3 year old6. Your child can be rear facing for as long as possible for safety reasons. When your child is ready the seat can be turned around and used safely as a forward facing seat. I bought this type of car seat and would recommend it to anyone with a 3 year old as it will grow with them.
- Booster seat: Booster seats raise your child up so the car’s seat belt can sit at the right point on their body. This type of car seat is not recommended for 3 year olds6. This is because it is far safer to have your 3 year old rear facing or if they have outgrown their rear facing seat, then you should get them a forward facing seat with a 5 point harness.
How do car seats attach?
Car seats attach to your back seat in two different ways:
- Seat belt
- Lower Anchors / LATCH system: If your car was manufactured after 2002 then it should be equipped with lower anchors for your attach your child’s car seat. If you look on your back seat where the back and seat cushions meet. You should find the anchor points there. If your child is in a forward facing car seat then you also need to find the top tether point which should be on the back of the seat.
Both attachment methods are safe. Never use both methods of attachment at once unless the manufacturer specifically tells you to in their instructions. I could be dangerous if you did.
HOW TO INSTALL A CAR SEAT FOR A 3 YEAR OLD
“72.6 percent of the 3,442 CRSs [Car seats installed] displayed one or more forms of misuse”— NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration7
Installing a car seat can feel a bit scary. It’s something that you hope you never have to use. After first installing mine I worried if I had done it correctly. As you can see in the statistic above. Most car seats are installed incorrectly. That scared me even more.
So I thought it would be helpful If I walked you through the process that I took to install my car seat safely and effectively and then have a look at the most common errors in fitting a car seat from research done by the NHTSA.
A step by step guide on fitting your 3 year old’s car seat
- The right car seat?: First of all, make sure you buy the right car seat. It has to be suitable for your child’s, age, weight, and height. Don’t be tempted to use a seat outside of their limits (even if it’s only a little bit). Your 3 year old’s safety comes first.
- Instructions: Make sure you thoroughly read the car seat and your car’s manufacturer instructions. It will save you a lot of wasted time fumbling around with fitting your seat. It will also make sure that you are fitting your car seat in the safest possible way. I was pleased that our Graco seat had easy to follow instructions for fitting.
- Back seat only: Only fit your child’s car seat on the back seat. That is where they are designed to fit. It is far safer for your 3 year old in an accident if they are in the back. Some front passenger seats have airbags fitted, which would be very dangerous for your child in a car seat.
- Attachments: Find your car’s method of attachment. Whether that is a seat belt or a lower anchor point (LATCH system). Only use both systems to attach the seat if the manufacturer specifically says in the instructions. It can be dangerous if your seat isn’t designed to be attached in that way.
- How tight?: Once you have fitted your car seat. It shouldn’t be able to move more than 1 inch in any front to back or left to right3. If your seat can move more than an inch then it needs to be more secure. I know this step can be a little frustrating. I found it took me around 20 mins of adjusting to get it fully secure. So keep working at it until you get it there.
- Shoulder straps: Should be at or below your 3 year old’s shoulders if they are rear facing. If your 3 year old is forward facing then their shoulder straps should be at or above their shoulder.
- Clothing: When sitting your 3 year old in their new car seat. Make sure they don’t have too many layers on. If they have bulky layers on like a coat, these can compress in an accident. This compression can mean the 5 point harness becomes too loose which would be very dangerous.
- Strapping them in: When you strap your 3 year old into the harness. Try and pinch the strap material on top of their shoulders. If you can pinch extra material then you need to tighten the strap for it to be safe.
- Chest strap: Make sure their chest strap is at armpit level for it to work effectively.
- Reclining angle: Your car seat should be reclined to the correct angle. Have a look at your manufacturer’s instructions. The seat will probably have set markings on the side to help you find the right amount of recline to keep your 3 year old safe and comfortable. Be careful as the amount the seat can recline can change depending on if your seat is rear or forward facing.
If you are in any doubt about installing your 3 year old’s car seat then visit the NHTSA website where they provide a service in your local area to check if you have fitted your seat correctly.
THE MOST COMMON CAR SEAT INSTALLATION MISTAKES
In a study conducted by the NHTSA7 they found people made common errors when installing their child seats. I have listed the main mistakes to avoid in order of how common they were below. Read through the list and make sure you don’t make the same errors. Some of them are very dangerous and will mean that your child’s seat isn’t as safe as it could be. So check them now.
1. Loose Installation: When installing your car seat make sure that once it is fully secured you can’t move it forward, back or side to side more than 1 inch3. If you can then you need to make it more secure. This can take a little time to adjust but you will be able to get your seat secure in the majority of cases. It took me around 20 minutes the first time I tried.
2. Installing both the seatbelt and lower anchor (LATCH) systems: Only install both attachment systems if the car seat’s manufacturer instructions specifically say so. You may think that you are making your 3 year old safer by using both, but it may actually cause your seat to be more dangerous.
3. Twisted anchor straps: If the LATCH straps are twisted when installed it may make the seat less safe. So give them a check after attaching your child’s seat.
4. Inappropriate recline positions: Most children’s car seats have multiple recline positions to make your little one as comfortable as possible. Be careful to check in your manual which recline positions you can use because they are different if the car seat is rear or forward facing. It could be dangerous to use in the wrong position.
5. Carry handle position: Make sure your car seat’s carry handle is in the correct position and safely stowed away when the seat is in use. Every seat is different and some don’t have one so check your manufacturer’s instructions.
Only 26.9% of people in the study7 secured their car seat using the LATCH system correctly. Use this list to avoid any mistakes and make sure your seat and 3 year old are as safe as they should be.
COMMON QUESTIONS ABOUT CAR SEATS FOR 3 YEAR OLDS
Rear facing or front facing car seat?
“All infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing car safety seat (CSS) as long as possible”– The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)1
The safety guidelines from the AAP are that children should be kept rear facing until they are at least 40 lbs in weight or they reach the seat manufacturer’s maximum height or weight limit for a rear facing the seat1.
This means that judging by the average size and weight of a 3 year old here in the US that most 3 year olds should still be in a rear facing car seat.
But why is rear facing safer than forward facing?
“Rear facing car seats reduce the risk of injury or death by more than 90%”— Trygg Traffik8
If you are unfortunate enough to have a car crash with your little one with you. A rear facing car seat fully supports their delicate head and neck. When a crash happens and your child is in a forward facing seat it puts a lot more strain on their delicate head and neck because of the violent forces involved.
The following 1 minute long video (YouTube Link) gives a better explanation of why it is far safer to keep your child in rear facing car seat for as long as possible.
IS IT OK TO USE A BOOSTER SEAT FOR MY 3 YEAR OLD?
No, booster seats are recommended for children who are at least 4 years old6.
You might wonder, as I did, Is my 3 year old ready to use a booster seat? Well even though you might think that moving up to a booster seat is an improvement, it is actually a drop in the level of safety for your 3 year old. Booster seats are designed to lift your child up to the right height so they can use the car’s own seat belt effectively. The problem with this is that the 5 point harness in most child seats is far safer than your car’s seat belt system for your 3 year old.
This is because a 5 point harness spreads the force of an impact from a crash. It is also more secure for your 3 year old and will reduce any dangerous movement in a crash. 5 point harnesses don’t allow much room for your 3 year old to wriggle into an unsafe position. I know I couldn’t trust my 3 year olds to sit in the correct position for a seat belt. Seat belts are much easier to unclick too!
Children’s car seats with a 5 point harness can now be bought for children as old as 6 years and even older. Even if you find a booster seat that your child might suit in terms of their weight. I would think twice about using it if they still have a suitable car seat that has a 5 point harness.
SHOULD I BUY A USED CAR SEAT FOR MY 3 YEAR OLD?
No, I would not recommend it. Unless you know and trust the person selling it to you I would think twice about saving money on this purchase. Here are some things to think about if you are keen on buying a used car seat:
- Crashes: Has the seat been involved in an accident? Maybe the seller isn’t trying to lie but they might think an accident they had was minor and won’t have affected the car seat? In my opinion, it just isn’t worth the risk. A crash might damage the car seat in a way that you can see.
- Safety recalls: Sometimes manufacturers recall car seats for safety reasons. You might have no idea if that used car seat has a dangerous safety flaw that should have been recalled.
- Age: Most car seats have an expiry date printed on them. After this date, they shouldn’t be used. This is because the materials they have been made out of cannot be guaranteed to work in the way they were intended to after this date.
- Hidden damage: That used seat that looks in perfect condition might have damage internally that you can’t see.
- Missing parts: Your seat may have extra parts that might not be included in the sale. These parts could be important for the safety of the car seat. You might never know if the seller has lost the instruction manual.
- Missing manual: You should always read the manufacturer’s manual before installing a car seat. For a car seat to be fully safe it needs to be installed in the way the manufacturer intended. If the seller has lost the manual then you should be careful and at least try and source a new manual.
I am all for saving money where you can, but I don’t think it makes sense to try saving a few dollars on something so important like your child’s car seat. If I was unfortunate enough to have a crash and I had tried to save a few dollars on a car seat. I don’t know If I could ever forgive myself.
- Check what type of car seat fitting your car has, are you going to buy a system which has a seat belt attachment or is your car newer than 2002 and has a Lower anchor / LATCH system installed?
- Keep your 3 year old rear facing for as long as possible. It is proven to be much safer.
- When they outgrow the maximum height and weight limits of their car seat in rear facing mode and they are at least 4 years old. Only then move the seat to forward facing mode and make sure to use the 5 point harness. Don’t be tempted to move them to a booster seat too early.
- Buy new and it will give you peace of mind.
Buying a car seat for your 3 year old is a big purchase. I have done hours of research for you because I feel passionate about keeping our children safe. I hope that this article can help you make the right decision on your new car seat.
Thanks for reading.
2. Arbogast KB, Durbin DR, Cornejo RA, Kallan MJ, Winston FK. An evaluation of forward-facing child restraint systems. Accident Analysis and Prevention 2004:36(4):585-9.
4. Greenspan AI, Dellinger AM, Chen J. Restraint use and seating position among children less than 13 years of age: Is it still a problem? Journal of Safety Research 2010:41;183-185.
5. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Traffic safety facts, 2016 data: occupant protection. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; 2018. Available at https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812494
6. https://www.nhtsa.gov/equipment/car-seats-and-booster-seats (car seats)
9. Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System [online]. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (producer). [2018 Sep 10].
10. Zaloshnja E, Miller TR, Hendrie D. Effectiveness of child safety seats vs safety belts for children aged 2 to 3 years. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2007:161:65-8.