Take a Car Seat, Kiddo

kids without car seatsDear Mr. Dad: My wife and I are arguing about whether or not we need to put our 4-year old into a car seat on short trips. His daycare is only about 10 minutes from our house and I drop him off on my way to work. He’s a fighter and sometimes, by the time I finally get him into his seat, we could have already been at daycare. I just don’t get the point. So who’s right—me or my wife?

A: Let’s get the most important thing out of the way first: you’re wrong—hopefully you won’t be dead wrong. Worse still, you’re not alone. A new study done by Safe Kids Worldwide (safekids.org) and General Motors Foundation found that 21 percent of parents think it’s okay to skip car seats and booster seats for short drives. It isn’t. Car accidents are one of the top causes of childhood deaths.
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Hey, You Know That Seatbelt Thingy in Your Car? Start Using It!

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, car crashes are the leading cause of death—and a major cause of injury—for children under 3. And car seats are by far the easiest way to reduce those risks. In fact, proper use of car seats reduces infants’ risk of dying in a car by 71%, and by 54% for kids ages 1-4. Emphasis on the word “proper.”

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Got a car seat? Chances are you’ve installed it wrong.

Do you know whether you car seat has been recalled? And is it properly installed? Chances are the answer to both these questions is No. Most of us never have the time to check for recall notices at websites like safercar.gov and carseat.org—by you really should. And the general attitude about seat installation is once it’s done, it’s done. Unfortunately, that’s not true.

In fact, nine out of 10 child seats that get checked by fire departments, police, and highway patrol officers (the guys who run clinics on car seat installation) are installed incorrectly. The biggest problems have to do with positioning the seat in the car, attaching it, and how the child is harnessed in. All that depends on the child’s age, weight, and height, so even if your seat was perfect a few months ago, you may need to readjust it now. Plus, the perfect position in one car may be completely wrong for another.

So do yourself and your kids a favor and have a real expert give your car seat installation a thorough look through. Sure, you can do it yourself, but given the importance of what’s traveling in those car seats, isn’t it worth a second look?

Hittin’ the Road, Baby

Dear Mr. Dad: We just had a baby and are eager to introduce her to my parents. But they live quite far away and are too old to travel. How soon is it safe to fly with an infant?

A: Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule. Some experts advise waiting until the baby is at least six weeks old before flying, largely because airplanes are essentially giant, germ-filled tubes. Others say that if the baby is healthy, there’s no need to wait. Ultimately—assuming there are no health issues—you should hold off until you feel comfortable with the whole idea of traveling with an infant.

Personally, I think that four to six months is a great age to introduce babies to flying. They’re generally pretty happy to be held for hours at a time (once they start crawling, all bets are off), they sleep a lot, and don’t need a ton of stuff yet (especially if you’re breastfeeding).

Before booking your flight, have your pediatrician clear your baby for take-off. If she was born prematurely or has any respiratory conditions, she may be grounded for a while because of the low-oxygen environment in the pressurized cabins. Also, if your baby is sick, you’ll probably want to postpone the trip.

Next, check with the airline. Some have policies against newborns flying until they reach a certain age, such as 7 days old. Most airlines allow babies to fly as a “lap child” (meaning they fly free but don’t have a seat and need to stay in your lap) until age two. However, the FAA recommends buying a seat for all infants and bringing your FAA-approved car seat on board so your baby can be strapped in (rather than on your lap) because that is the safest place. (If you hold your baby, put the seat belt around your waist, and hold the baby outside of it).

A warning: Traveling with an infant is infinitely more complex than traveling solo. A delayed flight or sitting on the runway for an extra two hours may have been annoying before, but with a baby, it can be torture. Here are some tips to smooth out some of the potential bumps:

  • Pack at least one diaper for every hour of travel, plus a few extras (there’s no such thing as too many diapers).
  • If your baby is formula-fed, bring twice as much as you think you’ll need. The TSA’s 3-ounce restriction for liquids doesn’t apply to infant formula or pumped breast milk (as long as you are traveling with your baby) so you should be able to carry-on as much as you’d like. But get there extra early, in case you have to educate the screeners.
  • During flight, if your baby is in pain–especially during take-off and landing—it’s probably due to changes in ear pressure. Breastfeeding or sucking on a bottle or pacifier might help.
  • The air on planes is dry so feed your baby often to avoid dehydration.
  • Bring lots of extra clothes in case of diapers leaking, spit-up, or worse (bring some for the baby too) and a changing pad (airplane lavatories often have a tiny changing table, but it’s often easier to do it at your seat).
  • Skip the early boarding. Send one parent ahead to set things up while the other waits until the last possible second to bring the baby on board.
  • Find out the airline’s policy about gate checking strollers and car seats. Most won’t charge you, but that could change at any moment.

About Face

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m in charge of installing our 16-month old daughter’s car seat and my wife says I need to turn it around to rear-facing again because there’s a new regulation. But my daughter loves looking forward. Is it really necessary to make her face rear again?

A: Your wife is referring to the updated recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics (probably the most reliable source of information on children’s health and safety) that were published in April 2011. Until then, the APP advised parents to strap their babies into rear-facing car seats until they were at least a year old or weighed 20 pounds—whichever came latest. The new recommendation is to keep toddlers facing backwards until age two, or until they reach the maximum height and weight limits for their rear-facing car seat.

The Academy based its new policy on some recent research that indicates that rear-facing car seats better distribute the force from an impact. That, in turn, protects the baby’s delicate neck, spine, and head in the event of a crash. These findings are pretty conclusive: One of the studies, done in 2007, revealed that kids under two are 75 percent less likely to die or be severely injured in an accident if they’re facing the rear. Since 1997, the number of children killed in crashes has steadily decreased. But with 5,000 children dying as a result of auto accidents every year, crashes are still the leading cause of death for children over age four. In addition to the fatalities about 90,000 children are injured badly enough to require hospitalization and two million suffer injuries that require some kind of medical attention.

As you can see, car seats are serious business. But the Academy’s new recommendations are just guidelines and have no legal authority (at least not yet). Hopefully, though, I’ve got you convinced that you should wait a while longer before having your daughter face forward—no matter how much she wants to see where she’s going instead of where she’s been. Depending on how big she gets and what kind of seat she’s in, she may actually outgrow her rear-facing car seat before she hits two. Or, if she’s small, she may have to wait even longer.

Every state has its own car-seat regulations. Some set very specific age and weight limits (or minimums) and clearly state when it’s okay to switch from rear-facing to front-facing. Others simply require that a child be kept in a “child safety seat” up to a certain age (usually four), without specifying which way that seat should face. After that, you can switch to a booster seat until age seven or so. (The Academy, however, also revised its recommendations for older kids, advising that they stay in booster seats until they’re 57 inches tall—4 foot 9—a height some kids won’t reach before age 12.) And if you’ve looked at your car’s sun visors lately, you’ve probably seen the warnings that children under 12 or 13 should never be allowed to ride in the vehicle’s front seat.

Bottom line: Assuming that your 16-month old daughter is over 20 pounds, it’s not currently against the law to have her facing front (as long as she’s in the back seat of the car). However, why take unnecessary risks? The evidence is crystal clear on this one: she’ll be a lot safer facing the other direction.