This article outlines the main options for car seats for babies and children in New Zealand. Safety issues and costs of car seats are also discussed.
Why are Car Seats important?
A typical weekday routine for mums and dads may involve collecting kids from school or kindy, a quick trip into the grocery store, or running an errand at the post office. You’re making your way home now, and BOOM! Someone runs a red light, slams into your car head-on, and totals it! It can happen that quickly.
Luckily, in this story, your babies survive with nothing more than a little soreness, and some bruising from the seat belt. It could have been much worse – and would have been, had you not used appropriate child restraints!
In New Zealand, the leading cause of unintentional death for children is road crashes. An accident can happen at any time, to anyone. Parents and caregivers can’t prevent accidents, but there is a proven strategy they can use to reduce the risk of death and injury for their child in a road crash. It’s simple: use an appropriate child restraint, fitted correctly, and used every time a child travels in a vehicle.
As of December 2018, the legal minimum in New Zealand is set out in the Transport Act and the Land Transport (Road User) Rules. These laws place responsibility on drivers to ensure that babies and children travel in approved child restraints until they are 7 years old. The child restraints must also be appropriate for the passenger, which means the child restraint must be age appropriate.
Drivers must also ensure passengers aged 7 use an approved child restraint if one is available (typically a booster seat). If an approved child restraint is not available, the driver is responsible for ensuring the 7 year old is securely restrained using the vehicle seat belt or a child restraint that is not approved (for example an expired car seat).
For all passengers under 15 years of age, the front passenger seat is legally a “no go” if there are seats available in the back seat. Drivers are also responsible for ensuring passengers aged 8 to 14 use seatbelts properly while the vehicle is in motion. This means the seat belt is securely fastened and worn correctly (no shrugging the shoulder strap off).
So, what does “approved” mean? An approved child restraint is one that has passed either the New Zealand, Australian or European safety standards. These restraints will be marked with either an ‘S’, 5 ticks, or an ‘E’ sticker. Child restraints that have passed the United States standard must also display the ‘S’ to show they have been certified in New Zealand.
While the law sets out the minimum all drivers must comply with, it is worth taking some further steps to ensure your child is as secure as possible before you hit the road.
Rear-face young children
Best practice is to use a rear-facing child restraint until you child is at least 2 years of age – and some car seats will enable you to rear-face for even longer than this. Rear facing your baby is significantly safer.
In an accident, a rear-facing child restraint will work to cradle an infant or toddler’s little body. The car will move to a stop, and physics will move baby towards the front of the car. As baby continues to move in a forward direction, baby’s back will push into the back shell of their seat because they are in a rear-facing car seat. Effectively, the seat catches baby, preventing excessive movement and minimising damage to their spine and vital organs. You may be injured in the front seat, while your baby is kept safe.
In contrast, imagine baby moving forwards into a harness instead. The harness may catch them, but their head continues to move forwards (remembering that infants have huge heads in proportion to their necks and spines too). As the harness catches them and pulls them back, their head whips back again. Those sudden jerky movements are quite a lot for a little neck and spine to bear. Why risk it, when there’s a gentler option?
Don’t move up to soon
Similarly, it’s important not to move a child into a seat belt booster until they are old enough to know to sit square and not shrug out of the car seat straps. The car seat is the only thing keeping them in the car in a collision, and you must be confident your little one will be in it when they need to be.
It is also best practice to continue to use a booster seat past 7 years of age, and to use a booster right up until your child can comfortably sit in the vehicle with their feet on the floor and their butt in the bite of the seat, without slouching or shuffling to fit the shoulder strap across their shoulder. You want to think about where the seat belt would cut in during an accident. Is it across the strong parts of their body; their lap and their chest? Or will the belt cut into their tummy or neck?
Pro tip: down below we’ve outlined the 5 step test Child Restraint Technicians use to determine whether a child should move on from a booster seat.
Types of seats
A general guide to the types of seats available on the market is as follows:
Infant Car Seats
An infant restraint is often referred to as a baby capsule, and is usually belted into the car or installed into a base which stays in the vehicle. Infant car seats are always installed in a rear-facing position. A baby capsule is easily removed from the car, and can be carried like a ‘basket’ with baby inside. Infant restraints are suitable from birth until baby is at least 6 months old. Some infant restraints can be used longer than this – check the manual of the capsule you purchase to determine how long you can use it for.
Convertible Car Seats
A convertible restraint is a car seat which can be set in a tilted rear facing position for young babies, and then changed to an upright front facing position as they grow. A convertible car seat does not have a handle like a baby capsule, and cannot be carried around with baby inside. Many convertible car seats suit best until around 18kg, or until baby is approximately 4 years old, although this is brand and seat specific. Again, if in doubt, check the car seats’ manual.
Front-Facing Car Seats
A front-facing child restraint sits in an upright and front facing position and is recommended for older toddlers and young children. The car seat is usually belted into the car or attached using isofix, and has a 5-point safety harness. Be aware that there may be a weight limit for using isofix – generally isofix is not suitable once your child reaches 18-20kg.
Most front-facing car seats will also tether to an anchor point in the car. If your car seat comes with a tether, it generally must be used. A mechanic can install an anchor point into your car if your car does not have a place for you to attach your tether. Consult a Child Restraint Technician if unsure.
There are two main kinds of booster seats: those with a back, and those that simply boost your child to a level where the lower lap part of an adult safety belt crosses the pelvis, not the tummy. Booster seats are suitable for children who have outgrown their forward-facing car seat but are still too small to comfortably fit in the car with an adult seat belt. Regardless of the booster used, it is important that a booster is not installed into a lap-belt only vehicle seat. You may expect your child to use a booster until around 10-12 years of age – but certainly they must legally do so until they are 7.
Backed boosters are safer than bottom only boosters, because they incorporate some side impact protection, and help guide the shoulder belt into the correct position across a child’s body. Without the back, smaller children may find the seat belt biting into their neck which is not good in a collision. A backed booster is also generally easier for a child to sleep in.
That said, a bottom only boosters can be useful for older children, particularly as they are less obvious than backed booster seats. A bottom only booster will help bring the child up into a better position in relation to the adult seat belt, which should sit across the pelvis (not the tummy).
When should I move my child up to the next level of child restraint?
There is no set time when your baby should move onto the next level of child restraint as car seats are all different, however as a general rule, be guided by the child restraint’s manual and if your child’s head is higher than the back of the restraint, it is time to move on.
When should I move my child out of a booster?
When it comes to boosters, your child should be able to pass this 5 step test when sitting in the vehicle with no restraint:
- Able to sit all the way back against the back of the vehicle seat? Yes – great! Continue…
- Able to bend knees comfortably at the edge of the car seat? Yes – great! Continue…
- Safety belt crosses at shoulder, and not at neck? Yes – great! Continue…
- Lap belt sits across pelvis, touching thighs, and not tummy? Yes – great! Continue…
- They can stay seated like this the whole trip, comfortably? Yes – great! Your child does not need a booster 😊
If you answer no to any of the above, your child is safer in a booster. As a general guide most children should be in a booster until they are 148 cm tall.
What are my options for car seats?
Before you select a seat for your child, take into account:
- Your child’s weight, height and age, and any behavioural/physical concerns,
- The type of restraint (including how it installs, how long it can be used for, whether it comes with accident exchange, and when it will expire)
- The type of vehicle (for example, does it have space to fit the seat).
You may decide to use a convertible car seat suitable from birth, or an infant restraint, for your newborn. Infant restraints can be useful because capsules have a handle, can easily be removed from the car and allow you to use the car seat like a ‘basket’ for carrying baby on short trips.
Things to consider when choosing your baby capsule are:
- Does the capsule work with a base or a belt system? Some capsules have a base which is permanently anchored into the car and the capsule simply snaps into place. A base system makes it quick and easy to get your capsule in and out of the car, but it is not necessary. Capsules without a base system are simply belted into place using your standard seat belt.
- Does the capsule click into your pram, or does it fit a capsule stroller? Some baby capsules are designed to snap onto a set of capsule wheels to create an instant pram. This allows you to have the convenience of pushing a pram (rather than lugging a capsule on your hip), without having to wake up baby and transfer them from capsule to buggy. Some capsules are also designed to snap onto prams of the same brand. Note that this is only suitable though for short trips, as babies should not stay in child restraints for extended periods.
- Does the capsule have a sun / rain shade? Sometimes the shade is of use in the car if the sun is in baby’s eyes, and if you are using your capsule to carry baby around in, it is a useful feature to protect them from the elements.
- How many children are we planning to have? If you are planning to have more than one child, then buying an infant capsule is a cost effective option. However, if you plan on only having one child and still want to use a capsule for the early months, then consider hiring one.
Convertible Car Seats
Convertible car seats start in a rear facing position, and change to front facing as baby grows. Convertible car seats can not be easily removed from the car, and can not be used like a ‘basket’ in the early months.
Plunket and Child Restraint Technicians recommend that a baby travels in a rear-facing position until they are at least 2 years old, as it is better for baby’s neck and is safer in accidents. A convertible car seat should allow you to do this.
Things to consider when buying a convertible car seat are:
- Does it fit the shape of your car seat? I know this sounds silly, but it is definitely something you need to consider. Some cars, particularly ‘sports type’ models, have contoured seats that do not work well with convertible car seats. Before you make the purchase, literally take the car seat out to your car and strap it in place. Ask for help from a Child Restraint Technician if you find it difficult to install into your car. If you can’t connect with a local CRT, there are some really great Facebook pages where you can find help on how to successfully install the model of car seat you’re looking at into the kind of vehicle you have – or at the very least find out if that’s an impossibility.
- Do I mind not having the convenience of a carry capsule? If planning on using a convertible seat from birth, you will be forgoing some convenience associated with the infant capsule. Weigh up the convenience factor verses the money you will save by only buying one type of seat, then decide what is right for you.
- Is it easy for you to install? While you may plan on having a Child Restraint Tech or a handy spouse install the seat for you, it is important that all drivers are confident removing, and re-installing the seat. The reality of life is that you will one day need to transfer the seat from car to car, or reinstall it after your car passes a Warrant of Fitness test. Is it easy for you to do this with your preferred seat?
Front-Facing Car Seats
Just as with a convertible car seat, you need to check the child restraint will fit your car. For those with more than one child, this also requires you to consider what other child restraints will be used in the car at the same time. Most front-facing car seats will need to be strapped in with a diagonal seat belt, so keep this in mind as you allocate seats to children.
As a personal tip, also look out for one that has wide side wings. Car seats which have wide sides mean baby has somewhere to rest their head when they fall asleep. I know that sounds simplistic, but aside from it being more comfortable for baby, it must also be better for their neck.
Booster seats are designed to ‘boost’ your child up so they can safely wear an adult seat belt once they have outgrown their forward-facing harnessed seat. A back and sides are really useful on a booster seat, and increase protection while also making the seat more comfortable for road trip sleeps. A few backed boosters also offer recline positions – super handy for long trips!
As it is compulsory for children to be in a car seat until they are 7, boosters are a good option for many families with older children. One thing that is useful is that when your child is ready for a booster, they are also able to participate in purchasing it. You can ask them to test out various seats in the store to see what is more comfortable for them, and you could allow them to select a favourite colour. If your child selects the booster, they are more likely to use it without complaint.
How much will a car seat cost and where can I buy it?
Like most pieces of baby equipment, child restraints vary greatly in price depending on the brand. Shop around and buy the best you can afford. Buying your child restraint new will cost you somewhere in the following ranges.
Baby Capsules – $150 – $400
Convertible Car Seats – $250 – $600
Front Facing Car Seats – $250 – $600
Booster Seats – $90 – $300
You can buy child restraints from all big department stores and specialist baby shops, plus there are also some good on-line baby stores. Make sure you do your homework first and before you commit to a purchase, check out the type of seat you are buying in real life. It is essential to make sure that your seat fits correctly in your car before you buy.
How can I save money on car seats?
Hiring your baby’s car seat is a good way to save on the big initial outlay, but if you intend to have more than one child it does not necessarily work out cheaper in the long run.
Hiring a baby capsule or car seat will cost you $100 – $200 for 6 months and there is usually a bond of about $50-100 also.
Buying a car seat second-hand can also save you money, but it is important to check the following details before purchasing:
- How old is the car seat? Check the date of manufacture or ‘do not use past’ sticker which should be attached to the seat. Child restraints have a safe life of 6-10 years depending on brand.
- Does the car seat meet current NZ safety standards? Check for the ‘S’, ‘E’ or five ticks.
- Does the car seat show any signs of damage? If the car seat has been in an accident it is not safe to use. Check for any signs of damage and do not use it if there’s any hint it’s been in an accident. If you are at all unsure, have a Child Restraint Technician check it out.
- Does it come with a user manual? A user manual will show you how to install your car seat correctly. If it does not have a user manual, you can contact the manufacturer to request one. For basic information about installing your car seat correctly, visit www.ltsa.govt.nz.
Second hand child restraints can be found through the usual second hand channels including:
- General Second Hand Stores
- Buy, Sell, Trade, and Exchange type publications
- On line
- Trade Me
Other options to consider include using store layby to help you manage you purchase, or obtaining a WINZ quote to assist in purchasing a seat. Some charities may also be able to assist parents in obtaining a safe child restraint for their child.