The safest way for children to travel in cars is in a child car seat that is suitable for their weight and size, and is correctly fitted in the car.
The law says that children must use a child car seat until they’re 12 years old or 135cm tall, whichever comes first.
Only EU-approved child car seats can be used in the UK. These have a label showing a capital ‘E’ in a circle.
A properly fitted child car seat will help to prevent your child from being thrown about inside the vehicle, or ejected from it, if there is a crash. It will also absorb some of the impact force, and provide some protection from objects intruding into the passenger compartment.
A seat belt on its own will not properly fit your child, until they are at least 135 cm (4’6″) tall, although it’s better to wait until they are 150 cm (5ft) or taller before moving them to the seat belt on its own.
There are many different types of car seats divided into categories according to the weight of the child. Whilst they broadly correspond to age categories, it is the weight that is most important when choosing the right car seat. There are rearward facing baby seats, forward facing seats, booster seats, booster cushions and Isofix seats.
Height-based car seats are known as ‘i-Size’ seats. They must be rear-facing until your child is over 15 months old. Your child can use a forward-facing car seat when they’re over 15 months old.
You must check the seat to make sure it’s suitable for the height of your child.
Choosing and using child car seats
There are very many different types of child car seats available, so take your time when choosing. Visit shops and look around on websites to get a good idea of what seats are available and which ones are likely to be the most suitable for your child and your car.
It is best to take your child and your car with you when choosing your child car seat, and to find a retailer with staff trained in choosing and fitting child car seats. Try to find a retailer who will help you try the seat in your car before you buy it.
In summary, the child car seat you choose, must:
- Conform to the United Nations standard, ECE Regulation 44.04 (or R 44.03) or to the new i-size regulation, R129. Look for the ‘E’ mark label on the seat.
- Be suitable for your child’s weight and size
- Be correctly fitted according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
For a handy checklist to help decide which car seat may be right for your child, head over to ROSPA’s official Car Seats website here. There is also useful advice about buying second hand child seats, replacing a seat after an accident and lots of other useful information.
Fitting a child car seat
You must only use a child car seat if your car’s seat belt has a diagonal strap, unless the car seat is either:
- specifically designed for use with a lap seat belt
- fitted using ISOFIX anchor points
You must also:
- deactivate any front airbags before fitting a rear-facing baby seat in a front seat
- not fit a child car seat in side-facing seats
Children with disabilities or medical conditions
The same rules apply for children with disabilities or medical conditions, but they can use a disabled person’s seat belt or a child restraint designed for their needs.
A doctor can issue an exemption certificate if a child is unable to use a restraint or seat belt because of their condition.
A child can travel without a child car seat in limited circumstances. Click here for more details and information on these circumstances.
Guidance for the length of time that children can sit in a car seat
You can seek advice from the child seat manufacturers about the length of time children should spend in their seat, or speak to a medical professional such as your GP who may be able to give specific advice.
It is recommended that you avoid travelling in cars with pre-term and young babies for long distances. Research into the link between car seats and SIDS found young babies may be at risk of breathing difficulties if they travel while sitting in an upright position for too long. You can read more about this on the Lullaby Trust website.
Of course, it’s sensible for you as a driver to take a break after two hours of continuous driving. It will stop you from becoming too tired, and will also give your child a break from the car seat.
There has been research warning of the dangers of carrying children in child seats for long periods of time, but this refers to much longer periods than a car journey, and children who are premature or have a low birth weight.