Each year, many children are injured – or die – in car accidents.
An appropriate child restraint (car seat) is the best protection your child has when they’re travelling in a vehicle, so it's important you choose the right car seat and install it correctly to keep them safe.
Under New Zealand law, the driver is responsible for making sure any child under seven years old is properly restrained in a car seat that’s appropriate for their age, size and development. Children must not travel in the vehicle if you can't put them in an approved child restraint.
Approved child restraints include:
- infant restraints (often called baby capsules) for young babies
- restraints for older babies, toddlers and preschool children (often called car seats)
- booster seats for preschool and school-aged children
- child safety harnesses (used with or without a booster seat) for preschool and school-aged children.
The NZTA has an excellent series of videos in English and Te Reo about buying, installing, and maintaining child restraints.
Rear-facing child restraints
Rear-facing seats go in the back seat facing the rear of the car, so your baby’s looking out the back window.
All infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing car seat for as long as possible – until the child has reached the maximum weight and/or height allowed by the manufacturer of their child restraint. We recommend you use them until your child is at least two.
Children are safer in the car when they’re rear-facing. Infants and toddlers are more at risk of head and spinal cord injuries because they have an immature spine, neck, head, and pelvis.
In most crash situations, the shell of the car seat supports and cushions the baby’s body and keeps their spine straight.
It’s a good idea to use a rear-facing convertible car seat once your child has outgrown the infant capsule.
You need to have your car seat ready when you leave hospital after giving birth.
Before using your rear-facing car seat
Before your baby is born, talk to a child restraint technician to make sure you get the right child restraint for your child, vehicle and circumstances, then:
- hire or buy an approved rear-facing child restraint. You can get convertible car seats that allow your baby to be rear-facing to a higher weight and length, and then convert to a forward-facing restraint.
- contact your Plunket injury prevention team for more information:
NZTA also has a list of certified child restraint technicians you can contact.
If you’re installing it yourself:
- make sure it’s in the back seat facing the back window of the car
- always follow the manufacturer’s instructions
- rear-facing car seats should be installed at around a 45-degree angle
- check it fits firmly against the seat and can’t wobble - if it doesn’t fit firmly, seek advice from a certified child restraint technician.
- visit the NZTA website for information on installing car seats properly.
There are different ways of installing a rear-facing restraint, depending on the make and model. If in doubt, get help from a certified child restraint technician.
Never put your baby’s car seat in the front seat if it has an airbag. If an airbag goes off while your baby’s in the seat it could seriously injure them.
Using a rear-facing car seat
Make sure you’re not using any extra padding or inserts in the car seat unless they’re approved by the manufacturer of the restraint and used according to the instructions.
Always check the manufacturer’s instructions about the placement of the harness, but as a general guide:
- for the AS/NZS standard the harness comes over the child’s shoulders level with, or just above, the top of the shoulders
- for the American standard, the harness comes over the child's shoulders level with, or below, the top of the shoulders
- for the European standard make sure you refer to the manufacturer’s instructions.
When you’re putting your baby in a rear-facing car seat:
- your baby’s bottom should be well back in the seat
- the harness must be firm and flat against the baby, and pass the pinch test (see video below). If the harness isn’t firm it doesn’t protect properly the baby in an accident. It’s important the harness is as close as possible to your baby’s body, so take off coats, jackets or thick tops before you put them in their car seat. You can put a blanket over them once they’re safely secured into the harness.
- Some restraints have a chest/harness clip on the harness that is designed to hold the shoulder harness in the right position. Place this at the level of the baby’s chest/armpits, not up towards the neck. Don’t add a clip unless it comes with the car seat.
If you notice your baby’s head is slumping forward, check the installation angle is right (between 40-45 degrees).
The back seat is the safest place for any car seats.
When to move to a forward-facing child restraint
You’ll know your baby has outgrown their rear-facing car seat when they reach the maximum height or weight for their restraint – check the manufacturer’s instructions.
- AUS/NZ standard seats have height markers.
- For other standards the child's head within 2.5cm of the top of the seat is a good indication they’re growing out of it.
Note that their feet coming over the end of the restraint isn't a problem.
Outgrowing the restraint doesn’t mean it’s time for the child to turn forward-facing. It’s recommended children sit rear-facing for as long as possible, and ideally beyond the age of two.
If you’re uncertain, contact a child restraint technician for advice.
Forward-facing child restraints
There are different kinds of forward-facing restraints:
- convertible seats that can be used both rear- and forward-facing
- forward-facing only
- combination booster seats with a built-in harness.
These seats have a five-point harness to secure your child.
Weight and/or height recommendations for convertible restraints vary according to the make and model. Always check the manufacturer's instructions and the fit for the vehicle and the child.
Talk to a Plunket child restraint technician to make sure you get the right seat for your child and vehicle.
When installing a forward-facing restraint, always:
- follow the manufacturer's instructions
- place it on a vehicle seat that faces forward (not on a rear- or side-facing seat)
- place it in the centre of the rear seat if the restraint fits well there
- check the car seat fits firmly against the seat and can’t wobble. The car seat has to be fitted correctly to be safe. If it doesn’t fit firmly, seek advice from a registered Child Restraint Technician.
There are different ways of installing a forward-facing restraint, depending on the make and model. Most forward-facing child restraints sold in New Zealand have upper tether straps and need an anchor point in the vehicle to secure it to. If in doubt, seek the advice of a child restraint technician.
Using a forward-facing car seat
Use a car seat every time your child is in the vehicle, even for very short trips. Make sure:
- the child’s bottom is well back in the restraint
- the harness straps are placed correctly and fit against your child snugly and comfortably
- the harness is in the correct position in relation to the child's shoulders. It’s important to check the manufacturer's instructions for the correct level
- the harness is firm, flat, not twisted, and passes the pinch test (see video above)
- the crotch buckle must be in the correct position - check the instructions.
Some restraints have a chest clip. It’s there to correctly place the harness straps, not to restrain the child. Never add a chest clip to a restraint that doesn’t come with one. Chest clips need to go across the chest at the level of the child’s armpits, not up towards the neck or on the soft abdomen.
A forward-facing restraint only protects the child when it’s fitted correctly into the vehicle and the top tether is used when required.
When to move to a booster seat
You’ll know your child has outgrown their restraint when they’re over the manufacturer’s recommended weight or height restrictions for that model of forward-facing child restraint.
If you’re uncertain, talk to your Plunket nurse or a child restraint technician for advice.
Booster seats use the vehicle’s seat belt as their restraint. There are three common types of booster seat:
- full back booster seat
- convertible booster seat - these seats are used as a harnessed forward-facing child restraint, and then convert to a booster seat
- half booster or booster cushion - for big kids only.
Using a booster seat
- A full booster seat will provide better protection for your child than a booster cushion.
- Put the booster seat in the back seat of the vehicle. The back seat is still the safest place for your child.
- The sash part of a seat belt goes over the child’s shoulder. Booster seats with a head rest have a guide to make sure the sash portion of the seat belt goes over the shoulder and is positioned away from the neck. Check the instruction booklet to see where these guides are and how to use them. The lap part of the belt should sit low on the child’s hips and thighs, and not on the soft abdomen.
When to move to an adult safety belt
Legally, your child must be in an approved child restraint until they’re seven years old, but to reduce the risk of injury it’s recommended they remain in a booster seat until they can safely fit a vehicle seat and seat belt. Many children need a booster until they’re around 12 years old.
It’s best to keep a child in a booster seat until they’re 148cm tall and pass the five-step test:
- your child can sit right back on the seat
- their legs bend comfortably over the edge of the seat
- the shoulder belt comes over their shoulder, not against their neck
- the lap part of the seat belt sits low on top of the thighs, not up around their stomach
- your child can stay seated like this for the whole trip.
If you’re uncertain, talk to a child restraint technician for advice.