Why Your Child Needs a 5-Point Harness Car Seat

Five-point harness car seats are the gold standard in child car safety. Learn why and how to select, install, and use a 5-point harness car seat.

child sitting in car seat while parent buckles them in

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A 5-point harness car seat is an infant, toddler, or child car seat with straps that go over the shoulders and hips and attach to the chest and groin. During impact, a properly restrained child will have a lower risk of injury or death because the force gets evenly distributed toward the strongest areas of the body: the shoulders and hips. For this reason, the 5-point harness has become the gold standard for child car seat safety, being featured in both rear and forward-facing seats.

Read on to learn more about why you should always use a 5-point harness and how to properly install your child's car seat.

What Are The Benefits of 5-Point Harness Car Seats?

When a car makes a sudden surge, turn, or stop, the force generated can pull a child right out of their car seat if they are not tethered correctly.

"The 5-point harness, in particular, helps to keep younger children and babies positioned correctly in their seats," says Cindy Rubin, M.D. IBCLC FAAP, a pediatrician in Westchester, Illinois. "By having five points (or areas where the car seat secures the child), the impact of the crash is distributed across more of the child's body, preventing serious injury."

The success of 5-point harnesses in preventing the force of impact from concentrating in one area, resulting in possible injury or death, is so significant that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that it can reduce the risk of injury by 82%.

From a practical standpoint, a 5-point harness car seat also keeps kids from climbing out of their seats while you're driving.

When Should You Use a 5-Point Harness Car Seat?

All newborns, infants, and toddlers should be secured in a 5-point harness car seat until they meet their seats age, height, and weight minimums. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), all kids need to be buckled, no matter what age, but you can use their handy car seat-finding guide to figure out exactly what type of car seat you should be using. (There are four categories of 5-point harness car seats that parents can choose from—infant, combination, convertible, and all-in-one—and each has different guidelines, installation instructions, and child size restrictions.)

Rear-facing car seats

Rear-facing car seats are for newborns and infants. They usually have a handle and sides that cradle the child, forming a hard protective barrier. In an accident, these cradle-like seats absorb the shock of impact. They also protect the child.

There are three types of rear-facing car seats:

  • Infant car seat (these are rear-facing only)
  • Convertible seat (you can adjust the size of the car seat to accommodate your child's growth)
  • All-in-one seat (these can go from rear-facing to forward-facing to a booster seat)

Forward-facing car seats

Designed for toddlers and older children, forward-facing car seats usually feature a harness and tether. The 5-point harness protects your child from impact. However, these car seats do not have a protective shell.

There are three types of forward-facing car seats you can choose from:

  • Convertible seat (adjusts according to the size of your growing child)
  • Combination seat (transforms from a harness and tether seat to a booster seat)
  • All-in-one seat (these can be either rear or forward-facing seats, and they transform into booster seats)

Booster seats

Another type of car seat is the booster seat. However, these do not use a 5-point harness; rather, the child is secured in the seat using a regular belt. They are also designed for older children only. Infants and toddlers should never be placed in these seats.

How Do You Install a 5-Point Harness Car Seat?

Buying and installing a car seat—and using it correctly—are two very different things. You can spend hundreds of dollars on the fanciest 5-point harness car seat, for example, but if you don't install it properly, it could put your child's life in danger.

"If a child were not properly buckled up, it's possible the child could be thrown out of the car seat and car, or the child could sustain more severe injuries than they would have if properly secured," says Dr. Rubin. "It's very important to follow your car seat's instructions on how to secure your child and make sure you do it every single time you are driving."

As for the actual installation process, installing a car seat doesn't have to be tricky or difficult: You just need to follow the manufacturer's guide. Each brand and model comes with instructions to help parents understand exactly how to use and install a 5-point harness car seat. The NHTSA also has some tips and tricks.

How to Select and Install a Car Seat

  1. Use the NHTSA car seat finder to help you find a car seat based on your child's age, height, and weight. It should also fit your car's make and model.
  2. Follow the car seat manufacturers' user manual and consult your car's user manual for more information about how to properly use the car's tether, anchors, and seat belts.
  3. Once installed, get your car inspected. Many hospitals and fire stations will do this for free. Check your local listings to make an appointment.

Properly—and safely—installing a car seat will depend on what type of car seat you have and what type of car you are installing the seat into, which is why it is so critical to read the user manuals for the car seat and your vehicle.

"If you want your car seat to last longer than two years, you should buy a convertible car seat, which will allow you to turn it front-facing when the child is old or big enough," says Dr. Rubin. "But I recommend keeping a child rear-facing until they have exceeded the rear-facing specifications of your particular seat."

That said, it's important to note that children with physical, behavioral, and/or developmental disabilities may have additional needs. To learn more about adaptive car seats, visit Buckle Up for Life or speak with a pediatrician or car seat safety specialist.

Tips and Tricks

While you'll want to ensure your child's car seat is installed correctly, there are a few other things to consider when shopping for, installing, and using a car seat, including:

  • Your car's size. Consider your car's dimensions and how many car seats you need. You may want to measure before your buy.
  • The weight of the seat. This is particularly important if you plan to carry your baby in their car seat, as things can add up quickly.
  • Ease of installation. Will you be moving your car seat between multiple cars? Make sure you feel confident that you can install it correctly each time—or consider purchasing a car seat for each car your child will ride in.

"It's also important to note that thick puffy coats can be deadly if used for a child in a 5-point harness," says Dr. Rubin. "No matter how tightly you think you've secured your child, when the impact occurs, all the air will be pushed out of the coat, leaving so much room between the straps and the child that the child could fly right out of the seat." For this reason, you should always remove puffy coats or thick clothing from your child before securing them in their car seat. (If it's cold, give them a warm blanket to cover up or use their puffy coat as a blanket.)

Children should also be kept in their car seat for as long as possible. Don't rush the transition to a forward-facing seat, booster seat, or regular seatbelt. And make sure kids ride in the back until they are at least 12 years of age.

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