When can a baby sit forward-facing in a car seat

How to Use a Baby Car Seat Safely

These days, before putting your baby in a car, you have to know a lot about car seats and vehicle safety. This article will introduce some valuable guidance about children’s car seats and how to use them safely.

In the case of car seats, it’s important to consider that newborn babies do not yet have the developmental capabilities to hold up their own head or stay in a sitting position. Here are some things parents can do to help their babies’ development in this area:

Cute young girl smiling in her car seat

Head and Neck Control

Hold the baby upright: You can hold your baby upright for a few minutes at a time, supporting their head at first, until they have the neck strength to hold their own heads steady.

Use carrier packs: You can carry your baby in a carrier pack as soon as they have adequate head control, and this can further help them develop strength in their neck and control over their head movements.

Upward stimulation: “Tummy time” is very important for babies development. You can place you child on their stomach, then hold or shake something interesting above them. Babies will naturally look up toward the sound. This can also be done by making an interesting noise above their head.


Sitting is a skill that children will be working on during the period from about six to eight months. At first, babies will only be able to sit alone, unsupported, for a few seconds at a time. Slowly these periods will grow longer. By nine months of age or so, most babies will probably be able to sit without support for long periods. Here are some ways to encourage sitting:

Hold them: You can hold your baby in a sitting position, supporting their head and neck if needed.

Prop them up: You can try propping your baby in a sitting position in a soft, safe place, or against a piece of stable furniture, such as a couch or chair.

Sit them on the floor: You can put your baby in a sitting position on the floor with their legs open and their hands in front on the floor between their legs. Try to get them to hold in this position for a few seconds.

Pull them into position: You can gently pull your baby from a lying to a sitting position (this exercise also encourages head/neck control).

baby looking through car window

Tips for Using a Rear-Facing Seat:

  • Place the harnesses from your rear-facing seat in the slots that are at or below your child’s shoulders.
  • Ensure that the harness is snug (you should not be able to pinch any slack between your fingers when testing the harness straps over the child’s shoulders) and that the retainer clip is placed at the center of the chest, even with your child’s armpits.
  • Make sure the car safety seat is installed tightly in the vehicle with either lower anchors or a locked seat belt. If you can move the seat at the belt path more than an inch side to side or front to back, it’s not tight enough. 
  • Never place a rear-facing seat in the front seat of a vehicle that has an active front passenger airbag. If the airbag inflates, it will hit the back of the car safety seat, right against your child’s head, and could cause serious injury or death.
  • If you are using a convertible or all-in-one seat in the rear-facing position, make sure the seat belt or lower anchor webbing is routed through the correct belt path. Check the instructions that came with the car safety seat to be sure.
  • Make sure the seat is at the correct angle so your child’s head does not flop forward. Check the instructions to find out the correct angle for your seat and how to adjust the angle if needed. All rear-facing seats have built-in recline indicators.
  • Check the car safety seat instructions and vehicle owner’s manual about whether the car seat may come into contact with back of the vehicle seat in front of it. 

Learn What is a Seat Back Failure? by Carlson Law.

What do I do if my child slouches down or to the side in the car seat?
You can try placing a tightly rolled receiving blanket on both sides of your child. Many manufacturers allow the use of a tightly rolled small diaper or cloth between the crotch strap and your child, if necessary, to prevent slouching. Do not place padding under or behind your child or use any sort of car safety seat insert unless it came with the seat or was made by the manufacturer for use with that specific seat.
Do preemies need a special car seat?​

​A car safety seat should be approved for a baby’s weight. Very small babies who can sit safely in a semi-reclined position usually fit better in rear-facing–only seats. Babies born preterm should be screened while still in the hospital to make sure they can sit safely in a semi-reclined position. Babies who need to lie flat during travel should ride in a car bed that meets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213. They should be screened again while in the hospital to make sure they can lie safely in the car bed.

Children should use rear-facing car seats in the back seat until at least age two and for as long as possible (even up to age four) to the rear-facing height and weight limits for the seat. If your car seat has a rear-facing weight limit of 22 pounds or less, you should change to a convertible car seat with higher rear-facing limits and keep rear-facing for longer. Leg crowding is expected and okay. It does not cause harm as long as the child is within the weight and height limits for the seat.

car seats
Baby car seats in the store

Car Seats

A car seat used correctly can save your baby’s life. Car crashes are the most common injury to children. Follow these tips when choosing the right car seat for your baby:

  • Check the car seat label for the date of manufacture and expiry date. If the expiry date is not on the seat, read the car seat manual to find the expiration date. Note that expiration dates change from seat to seat.
  • Make sure the car seat has not been involved in a car crash or dropped from a height of one meter (3 feet) or more.
  • You must have all its parts and the instructions on how to use it and install it.
  • It must display a National Safety Mark.
  • Make sure the car seat is in good condition:
    Free of cracks or chips in the molded plastic.
    Free of warping, rust or broken rivets in the frame.
    Free of cuts, frayed edges or broken stitches in the harness straps.
    Free of rips in the seat’s padding.
    That all the harness buckles work properly.
Travel with baby in the car, young father fixing the baby car seat

Using a Car Seat

  • Place your baby in a rear-facing car seat.
  • Read the instructions to find out how to properly install your car seat.
  • The safest place is in the back seat, but may not be the middle depending on the model of the vehicle. If the back middle seat has access to the trunk or does have UAS clips, for example, it may be better to place the car seat behind the passenger or driver. The passenger side is recommended as it is curbside when the car is parked along a street.
  • NSM sample—the unique number assigned. The car seat’s harness straps and buckles are supposed to be snug.
  • Ensure that when secured, the harness strap cannot be pinched more than one inch at the baby’s collar bone.
  • The chest clip should be at your baby’s armpit level.
  • Read the car seat manual to find out how the carry handle should be positioned in the vehicle for proper installation.
  • Change the car seat when your baby has reached the limits as outlined in the car seat manual.

Further Reading

  • For an excellent challenge to the myth of bonding please see Diane Eyer, Mother Infant-Bonding: Scientific Fiction, (New Haven: Yale University Press. 1992).
  • National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. (April 1997.)
  • The Hawk Eye (August 28, 1997).
  • “The Family Bed: Sleeping with the Young & the Restless,” Forward. (Aug. 9, 1996).
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