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Child car seats explained

Nov 16, 2021

At some point as a young driver, you may need to drive with children in the car. They might be your children, nieces or nephews, or the children of your friends. You know that you and any fellow adult passengers need to wear seatbelts – but what about the little ones? What seats or seatbelts do they require?

Strap in, as we explain child car seats and how driving safely could help to lower your young driver insurance.

Toddler being put in carseat

Child car seats: a brief introduction

There are a range of child car seats available, for each stage of development from a newborn baby until roughly the age of 12, when children become eligible to wear a normal car seatbelt without any additional protection.

These seats are an essential part of a child’s safety while travelling. When properly fitted, a child car seat will help to prevent a child from being thrown about inside the vehicle or, worse, thrown from it if there is a crash. These seats will also absorb some of the impact, greatly reducing the risk of injury.

Making sure that each occupant of your car is wearing the correct seatbelt or sitting in the right car seat is an essential part of your safe driver behaviour. It should form part of your basic checklist for driving, along with arranging for some specialist young driver insurance.

Seatbelts and the law

First of all: what is the law around child car seats? It’s fairly clear: with a few exceptions, children must use a child car seat, properly fixed, until they reach the age of 12 or a height of 135cm – whichever of those come first.

Some experts, such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA – via their extremely helpful Child Car Seats website), recommend that children should continue to wear a seatbelt until they reach a height of 150cm.

From that point on, they may wear an adult seatbelt.

How to choose a child car seat?

When it comes to choosing the right car seat for a child, you have two options: to select based on their height, or their weight. As we’ll see, both ways have their advantages.

Height-based seats

Known as ‘i-Size’ seats, height-based seats vary in size depending, as their name suggests, on the height of the child.

These ‘i-Size’ seats will fit in cars that feature Isofix fitting points – although you should still always check whether a particular seat is approved for use in your car. You’ll find a useful page for checking on the Compatibility page of ROSPA’s Child Car Seats website.

Height-based child car seats must be EU-approved. This will be indicated by their label, which will show a capital ‘E’ within a circle and then ‘R129’.

Weight-based seats

A more common way to work out the correct car seat for a child is to use their weight as the deciding factor.

Broadly, children from 0kg to 10kg must be in a lie-flat baby carrier, a rear-facing baby carrier, or a rear-facing baby seat with harness.

Next, children from 9kg to 18kg (there is always some overlap between stages) may use either a rear- or forward-facing baby seat (these must be rear-facing until the child reaches 15 months old), plus either a harness or a safety shield.

Children weighing 15kg to 22g and above have an extra option: they can be in a rear or forward-facing seat, which can now include a high-backed booster seat – again, a seatbelt, harness or safety shield must complement the seat.

These options are repeated for children weighing 22kg to 36kg, except that from 22kg upwards another option is introduced: a backless booster cushion.

Again, only EU-approved weight-based child seats are permitted here in the UK. You can recognise these by the capital ‘E’ in a circle and ‘ECE R44’ designation.

Man putting car seat in car

Child seats by age

Rearward-facing baby seats

All babies and infants in cars (up to the age of 15 months, as we have seen) must be carried in rear-facing baby seats. This should come as no surprise, as placing a baby or infant in a rear-facing seat will reduce their risk of death or injury in a crash by 90%, compared to using no restraint at all.

But why rear-facing in particular? At this very early age, support for the baby’s still delicate head, neck and spine is crucial – and rear-facing seats will provide more of this protection than forward-facing models.

Given this, the advice is actually to keep your baby in a rear-facing seat for as long as you can. You should only make the move to a forward-facing seat when the baby or infant is able to sit up without help, and has also grown beyond the maximum height or weight for the seat.

Another important feature of rear-facing baby seats is their energy-absorbing interior, meaning that any residual impact from the crash is absorbed by the seat. They will also feature a three- or five-point harness that will hold your baby in place as snugly as possible.

How to install rear-facing seats

Before each drive, you should take a moment to strap the baby in and adjust the harness – they should be well restrained but comfortable. Just how tight the harness should be each time will depend on the child’s size – and on how many layers they are wearing that day!

The top of the harness should sit around an inch below the baby’s shoulder. It should be fairly tight – as a guideline, you should be able to get just one or two fingers into the gap between the harness and the baby’s chest.

By the way, you can put your rearward-facing seat in the rear or front of the car – but it’ll be safer in the back. And never put them in the front passenger seat if your car has an active passenger airbag.

Forward-facing seats

When the child outgrows their rear-facing seat, they’ll move into the world of forward-facing child seats – and they should start with a Group 1 forward-facing seat, as these have their own internal harness (basically, a seatbelt within the child car seat itself), rather than relying on the car’s seatbelts.

This internal harness is a valuable safety feature and, in the event of a crash, the child will be better protected than they would be using a normal car seatbelt.

The straps in these seats are crucial, as they help in spreading any impact from a crash over a wider area of the child’s chest and pelvis, vastly reducing the potential of injury to one particular area.

As with the younger, rear-facing seats we mentioned above, you should always take a moment to ensure that your child is firmly but comfortably strapped in, and that the harness is adjusted to the correct tightness.

And, again, check that the top of the harness sits around an inch above the child’s shoulder – and that you can just fit a finger or two in the gap between it and the child’s chest.

On some forward-facing seats, you will be able to slide the back part up or down, so that the child has the right back and neck support at each stage of their development.

Incidentally, one of the benefits we are able to offer with our young driver insurance is cover of up to £300, in the event that your child car seat is stolen or damaged in an accident.

Booster seats

When your child outgrows their Group 1 forward-facing seat, they should then move to a Group 2 or Group 3 high-backed booster seat. The difference here is that these seats do not have their own, internal harness to hold the child in place.

Instead, you use the car’s built-in seatbelt. The booster seat’s function is to raise the child’s seating position so that your car seatbelt fits them properly.

You should place the belt across the child’s pelvis, chest and shoulder, and it should be worn as tightly as possible. Make sure that the lap belt section is over the pelvic region, rather than the stomach, and that the diagonal strap rests over their shoulder, not across the neck.

These high-backed booster seats also feature side ‘wings’ that will help to protect the child’s head in any impact scenario. Some of them, again, will have an adjustable back and/or head rest, which you will be able to raise or lower according to its occupant’s size.

And, once again, you can put your booster seat in the front or back of the car – but the back is safer, especially if your car has passenger airbags.

You should keep your child in a high-backed booster seat until they outgrow it, according to either height or weight.

Booster cushions

When your child reaches the upper limit of child car seat requirements, you may wish to opt for a booster cushion. This will either be your current booster seat with the back removed, if it can be – or a stand-alone, backless booster cushion.

Your child will probably be quite keen on the move to a booster cushion, as they will feel less restrained and more grown up. However, it’s worth noting that ROSPA do not recommend backless booster cushions, as the removal of a back and side wings means a loss of protection, leaving your child at greater risk of sustaining head and side injuries.

Another disadvantage of these cushions is that they make it more difficult to position the diagonal strap of a car seatbelt correctly across the shoulder.

Child being buckled into car seat

What about children with medical conditions or disabilities?

Children with medical conditions or disabilities must still travel in the appropriate child car seats for their size or weight. However, they may use a disabled person’s seatbelt – or a child restraint that has been specifically designed for their particular needs.

To keep yourself on the right side of the law, you should ask your doctor to provide an exemption certificate to show that the child is not able to use the standard restraint or seatbelt because of their medical condition.

Tips for driving with little ones

Here at Smartdriverclub Insurance, we recommend safe, careful driving at all times, whether you have children in the car with you or not. Driving safely and responsibly is the smart choice on so many levels. At a very basic level, it makes you a safe presence on the road – for yourself, for the passengers in your car, and for other road users.

If you do regularly drive with little ones, check out these top tips for driving with children so you can plan a safe, stress-free journey.

They include things like:

  • Always allow children to enter the car via one of the doors nearest the kerb to keep them away from traffic
  • Always remember to use child locks in your car if you have them.
  • Plan how you’ll keep them occupied during the journey so they don’t become a distraction to you.

Telematics, safer driving – and cheaper car insurance

Another benefit of driving carefully is that good driving behaviour can help to bring down your car insurance premiums. That’s because, here at Smartdriverclub, our young driver insurance uses telematics – which means fitting a Smartplug or black box into your car.

 The black box monitors your driving style, taking into account things like speed, acceleration and braking.

It assesses how safe your driving style is, recommends ways in which you can improve and calculates your young driver insurance premium based on those habits and, by extension, your risk of being involved in an accident.

At Smartdriverclub, we then use this data to reward good driving behaviour with discounts when it comes to renewal.

Other benefits of insuring through Smartdriverclub include:

  • 24/7 crash assistance, sending you help when you need it most
  • Theft tracking, so we can track your car’s location if it’s stolen
  • Optional extras like motor legal protection and breakdown cover

Contact us to find out more about how good driving behaviour could earn you cheaper car insurance.