When Baby Goes Front-Facing
Simply put, your baby should be rear-facing as long as possible. Many parents think that Baby should be turned around when he weighs 20 pounds and has celebrated his first birthday. Actually, the American Academy of Pediatrics emphasizes that the 20-pound/1-year mark is the absolute earliest point at which you can consider turning your baby's seat forward. Baby's spine is better protected in a head-on collision -- and, some experts say, in a side-impact collision -- when he's facing the rear of the car. If your baby is in an infant seat and has outgrown it (when his weight has exceeded the seat's limit or when the top of his head is less than two inches from the top of the seat), it is safer to buy a convertible seat that faces rear until 30 or 35 pounds than it is to buy a combination convertible/booster seat. Although the latter accommodates babies as light as 20 pounds, it can't be used rear-facing. You'll have to buy a booster when the convertible seat is outgrown (when your child hits 40 pounds), but the trade-off in peace of mind will be worth it.
Since some convertible seats go up to 35 pounds in a rear-facing position, your child can ride rear-facing well past his second birthday. The time to switch your child to a forward-facing position is when he has exceeded the rear-facing weight limit for his convertible seat, or when the top of his head is less than an inch from the top of his convertible seat.
When Baby goes front-facing, the harness straps should be rerouted to come through the slots that are at or slightly above his shoulders.
Since September 1999, most forward-facing seats for children up to 40 pounds have had top tethers. Cars sold after September 2000 have been equipped with corresponding anchors. A top tether is a webbed strap on the back of the seat that hooks into a bolt anchor in a vehicle's rear deck, floor, roof, or seat back. With most child safety seats, the top tether is attached when Baby goes front-facing. (There is one convertible seat on the market that is equipped with a rear-facing top tether.) Check your seat instructions and your vehicle's owner's manual for specific information.
A big reason so many seats are untethered is that so many of us drive pre-2000 cars and assume we can't use tethers. But many automakers will install the anchors for free. Contact your car manufacturer for details; you'll find a list of the major car manufacturers' customer service numbers at www.nhtsa.dot.gov.
You may have heard of LATCH, which stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, a system designed to simplify correct car-seat installation by eventually eliminating the need to use seat belts. In September 2002, the second phase of LATCH begins. Cars will have two sets of lower anchors in the back seat, and all infant and convertible seats will have a set of straps that attach to those lower anchors.