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Car seats, capsules and safe driving with babies and children: everything you need to know

A woman putting a child in a baby capsule in a car
Capsules can be easily removed from the car and carried, and most can be used for around 12 months

There are lots of car seats on the market and picking the right one can be overwhelming. You need to pick the correct size, orientation and style for your child and the car.

The good news is that car seats, also known as child car restraints, have Australian safety standards. This means they must be certified that they meet this safety standard to be sold in Australia.

By law, children should be in a car seat until they are at least seven years old and can pass the five-step test to sit on that adult seat. This is because an adult seat belt is designed for adults, not children.

How do car restraints keep your child safe?

In Australia, car accidents are the leading cause of death in children under 14 years old. For their safety, it’s important to ensure your child is secure in a restraint that is correctly fitted into your car.

A car seat should reduce the impact to your child’s head and body if you have a car accident. It does this through the use of a harness system, which helps balance the impact on your child’s body. It also protects the head with cushioning.

Child Car Seats Australia have a video on how car seats are tested. It is a confronting, yet useful, demonstration on how a car seat helps to protect your child.

What are the car restraint laws in Queensland?

Firstly, know the law on which way your child should face at each age. Children must be seated according to the height markers on the seat. The laws can vary a little from state to state, so make sure you know differences between the states and territories.

In Queensland the law states:

  • babies up to 6 months must be in a rear-facing car seat
  • children 6 months to 4 years may be in a forward-facing car seat
  • children between the ages of 4 and 7 may be in a forward facing car seat or a booster seat
  • Children over the age of 7 can stay in their car seat or booster if they still fit
  • Children over the age of 7 are legally allowed to sit in the front seat, but Kidsafe recommend that you keep them in the backseat until they are 12

KidSafe recommends that you keep your baby rear-facing for as long as possible. This means your child in their child car restraint faces the back of the car. Some studies have shown that it’s five times safer to keep your child rear-facing until they are two years old.

Always follow the instructions and manufacturer guidelines. The car seat will have lines to indicate when your child can safely face forward. Use these guides to indicate if your child needs to be placed in a bigger seat, instead of basing it on the age of the child.

Choosing a car seat

Children of different sizes and ages need different types of restraints or car seats. There are eight types of child restraints. This includes, rear-facing, forward-facing and booster.

Firstly, make sure it’s safe and complies with all of the regulations. Look out for the sticker and words that the seat is certified to standard AS/NZS 1754.

You may also like to talk to friends and family to see if they have any recommendations or concerns about particular brands. Read online reviews or head to Choice Australia for ratings and test results. Visit a store and try out a couple of different options. Take your time, and consider pros and cons. Do you want to start with an infant carrier or convertible? A convertible can face backwards or forwards.

A high price doesn’t always mean it’s the best choice. A two-in-one option can help save you money, because you can use them for different ages, but a small baby is safer in a dedicated rear-facing-only carrier. You might also consider hiring the infant carrier from Kidsafe Queensland for free.

Other things to consider when choosing a car seat can include:

  • Compatibility – do you want the carrier to fit in your pram or stroller?
  • Cleaning - can it be easily cleaned?
  • Weight - is it heavy and hard to lift?
  • Size - will it fit in the car? Will it fit with other car seats or children? Will it fit behind your front seats, if a tall passenger moves them backwards?
  • Anchorage points and ISOFIX, can they be installed in your car?

Be wary of purchasing or using a second-hand car seat; it’s important that you know the full history. A trusted friend or family member would be the best option for borrowing or buying a second hand car seat. If you decide to purchase a second-hand car seat, make sure it is less than ten years old, comes with an instruction manual, all buckles and straps are smooth and in good working order, that it has not been in an accident and you can see the sticker that certifies it meets standard AS/NZS 1754.

If a car seat has been involved in a car accident, it should no longer be used, even if it doesn’t look broken. This is because the car seat may have been damaged and the safety of the seat shell or the harness could be compromised.

Installing a car seat

Now you’ve picked the right car seat for you, your child and your car, you might think about getting your car seat installed by a professional. There are a number of places that offer this service including Kidsafe Queensland and some car restraint sellers and hire services.

A professional will also be able to teach you how to install the car seat and offer safety tips, like making sure that the straps are never twisted, tangled or too tight/loose.

If you chose to install the car seat yourself make sure you follow the installation instructions from the manufacturer. Most manufacturers will have easy-to-understand video guides. The seat should be held tightly by the seatbelt or ISOFIX connectors to minimise movement and the tether strap must be connected to the anchor point and not a luggage point. The harness needs to be on or just above the baby or child’s shoulders and firm across the body – if you can pinch the strap it's probably too loose. Professionals can also double check self-installed car seats to put your mind at ease. Kidsafe is offering free child car restraint fittings and checks.

If you’re bringing home a baby for the first time, you may wish to practise putting something, like a doll, in the car seat before you bring your baby home.

Child in a child car restraint showing straps not twisted, too tight or too loose

Best practice and safety tips for using car seats

There are a couple of best practices and tips you can follow to make sure you child is safe in their car seat.

If you’ve purchased additional accessories, make sure they also have the Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZS 8005 logo. It’s also important you stick with the same brand as the seat when purchasing accessories, as they are designed to be compatible with your car seat.

Don't swaddle your baby – arms and legs must be go through the harness properly. Also, don’t put your child in big jackets or use quilts underneath the harness, as in an accident, these garments will compress leaving the harness loose on the child’s body thus allowing the child to jack-knife or slide out of the harness. If you are concerned your child is cold, you can place a blanket over the straps and their torso – being careful to not cover their mouth and nose.

A plastic mirror placed on the headrest over the car seat can be useful when driving, because it will allow you to keep an eye on your baby without turning around.

Remember to check a child car seat regularly to make sure all moving parts work properly and that the adult seatbelt or IsoFIX connectors are secure. Check that it’s in the correct position for your child’s size according to the restraint’s manual and the harness is at the correct height on your child’s shoulders.

Sleeping in car seats

As a new parent, you might be tempted to spend lots of time driving around in your car. Some newborns are known to fall asleep while the car moves. This can be dangerous for you, the tired parent, and also for your baby.

Car seats should never be used for a baby or child to sleep in for a long period of time. Young babies don’t have a strong neck and head control, which means the seated position can cause an infant’s neck to flex forward into a chin to chest position and block the baby’s airway.

A capsule is great for transferring your baby in and out of the car, but they are designed for car travel only, not sleep. You should remove your baby from their capsule as soon as you are safely inside, even if it means waking them.

According to Red Nose Australia, research has shown that:

  • babies left in a sitting position for a long period of time may be placed at increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome.
  • car or baby seats may cause baby’s neck to flex forward which may block baby’s airway not allowing airflow.
  • falls from car seats used outside of the car as infant carriers are common.

You should also never leave your baby unattended in the car – not even for a minute.

A boy and a girl sitting side by side in two child car restraints holding hands

Long road trips

Have you heard of the two-hour rule? It’s important to take breaks on long car trips for you and your child. You should aim to stop every two hours, which will allow you to stretch and have a hydration break. If you are travelling with a baby under four months old, Kidsafe recommends a break every hour allowing the baby to kick around on a rug.

Make sure your child doesn’t get too hot on the long trip. Remember that babies and children in rear-facing seats do not get full advantage of the air-conditioning blowing from the front of the car so dress your child in light clothing and keep your car cool by using sunshades. If your car doesn’t have air conditioning open the window on the opposite side of the car. Travelling in the early morning or evenings will also help keep the car cooler in the summer months. Once your baby is older than six months, it’s a good idea to use sunscreen on your child’s face and exposed skin to help prevent sunburn.

Keeping your baby or child happy in the car will help, too. Try playing their favourite music or have snacks ready to go. Remember to pull over off the busy road (not into an emergency stopping lane) to offer drinks and snacks or if your child needs attention.

Once the car journey is over, it is very important that you remove you baby or child from the car seat or capsule.

Child car seats when travelling by taxi, rideshare or bus

The law on car seats and travelling in taxis, rideshare and buses differs from state to state. In Queensland, it is not a requirement for your child to be in a car seat when they are in a taxi, rideshare, limousine or bus seating more than 13 people including the driver. If the bus has only 12 seats including the driver’s seat, children under seven years must be in an appropriate car restraint for their age and height. However, taxis and rideshares must have at least one anchor point so you can use your own car seat.

Children with medical conditions, physical disability or other needs

If you have a child with a temporary or long-term medical condition or disability, according to the Queensland Road Rules, they must be seated according to the AS/NZS 4370. You can call NDIS registered provider Kidsafe Queensland about the safest way to seat them in the car.

If your car seat has been modified, it will no longer comply with safety standards and a letter of exemption from your health professional will be required.

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Last updated: 26 November 2020