Car seats – which ones and for how long?

by ParentalChoice
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When you are buying a car seat for your baby or child, it’s vital that you know the current car seat legislation. There are lots of different rules (and exceptions to these rules) depending on how old your child is, which can make it extremely complicated.

The current law states:

All children travelling in a car must use the correct car seat appropriate to their weight or height, until they are either:

  • 135cm in height or
  • 12 years in age – whichever they reach first


After this point, they must use an adult seat belt. The same rules apply for children with disabilities, unless a doctor confirms they’re exempt on medical grounds. Disabled children can use seat belts or car seats specially designed for their needs. It is important to note that it is the responsibility of the car driver to ensure that all children under the age of 14 are using the correct restraint.

What is the new i-Size legislation?

New car seat legislation, called i-Size, was introduced in July 2013 as part of the new European safety standard for car seats. New UK legislation came into force on 27 March and 1 April 2015. However, this doesn’t replace the current legislation – but sits alongside it. It is likely to take until around 2018 for there to be enough i-Size compliant car seats in circulation for i-Size to replace the current law and become the only safety standard. So, for example, if you’ve got a 12-month-old baby now and have already moved them to a forward facing seat, don’t panic, you’re not breaking the law, the i-Size rules will be running in parallel with the old regulations for some time. Please also note, the i-Size rules will only apply to ISOFIX seats sold and belted ones will not be covered by the new rules.

It is useful to know in advance about i-Size and the differences it will bring. i-Size regulations aim is to make it easier to choose the right car seat. Under i-Size, car seat suitability will be measured by a child’s height, rather than their weight.

i-Size seats are already starting to hit the shops and in the coming months will become much more widely available so it might well be worth choosing one if you’re purchasing the next stage seat and do have ISOFIX (all i-Size seats use ISOFIX), as it will have been more rigorously tested.

One of the other key differences to the current law is that i-Size requires children to stay in a rear-facing car seat until they are at least 15 months old. Currently, only children under 9kg in weight have to sit in a rear-facing seats.

So why should babies be kept rear-facing for longer?

Most parents are keen to move their child into a forward-facing car seat as soon as possible, many switching when their baby reaches the minimum weight for a Group 1 seat (i.e. 9kg), rather than when he or she has actually outgrown the rear-facing one and are close to or have passed its maximum weight (13kg).

Understandably, parents think their baby will be happier facing forward and getting a better view of the world. Whilst this may be true, babies are much safer facing rearwards in the event of a collision. This is because the most dangerous collisions tend to be front on and a child in a forward facing seat will be flung more forcefully forwards. Additionally the load will be concentrated on the harness or impact shield area, whereas in a rear facing seat the load of deceleration is spread across the shell of the car seat – so it’s less concentrated. The child’s head movement will be much less, so the risk of serious injury to their head and neck will be much reduced (this is a particular issue for babies as their heads are larger relative to their bodies than those of older children and adults).

Research on crash testing using rear-facing car seats has built up such convincing safety evidence, that the EU is introducing this new regulation to keep babies rear-facing until 15 months.

So what are the rules around car seats?


The law says all children under the age of 3 must travel in either a rearward or forward facing car seat, which is properly fitted. Your child should be strapped into the car seat with a 5-point harness. It’s illegal for a child to sit in a rear-facing car seat in the front passenger seat if the front passenger airbag is active – this must be deactivated. The exception to this rule is in taxis and minicabs, where children under 3 can travel without a car seat or seat belt in a taxi or licensed minicab if there is no child seat available. However, they must sit in the back.

There is no exception for unexpected journeys in private cars – a car seat is needed. Children under 3 cannot travel in any car (other than a taxi or licensed minicab) without a car seat – even if the journey is unplanned.


The law says all children aged from 3 to the age of 12 (or 1.35m height) must use the correct car seat. The exceptions to this rule is in taxis and minicabs, where children aged 3 or over can travel in a taxi or licensed minicab using an adult seat belt if a car seat is not available.

From the age of 3, if there’s no car seat available, children can use an adult seat belt in a private car only if the journey is all of the following:

  • Unexpected
  • Necessary
  • Over a short distance (although the exact distance isn’t specified)

Do note that unexpected journeys do not include occasional trips to or from school or nursery.

If a child seat is available in a minibus, your child must sit in it. However, it’s your responsibility (not the owner or driver of the minibus) to provide a car seat if you want to ensure your child, aged 3 or over, sits in a child seat on a minibus. If there is no available car seat, your child can use an adult seat belt.

If it’s not possible to fit a third car seat into the back seat of the car, a child over the age of 3 can sit in the rear – in the middle, between the 2 other car seats – using only an adult seat belt. However, this is not as safe as sitting in a car seat, and therefore is not recommended unless absolutely necessary. Please remember, it’s illegal to drive with more passengers in your car than there are seats with seatbelts. This means that even if there’s space for 4 small children on the back seat, you can only transport 3 if there are 3 seatbelts in the back.

Penalties for ignoring the law on using child car seats

The consequences of ignoring the legal requirements could be expensive (at best) or fatal (at worst). Police are able to administer an on-the-spot fine of £30, or £500 if the case is referred to court. Remember, it’s the driver of the vehicle’s responsibility to ensure all passengers are safely strapped in. If you’re the driver, always check.

Is it safer for children to sit in the front or the back of the car?

It’s safer for your child to sit in the back of the car – this is because more accidents happen involving impact to the front of the car. However, if there’s only you and your child in the car, it can be easy to get distracted trying to talk or comfort your child in the back seat – especially if they’re rear-facing.

If you do choose to sit your child in the passenger seat in the front of the car and they are using a rear-facing car seat, the airbag must be deactivated. If your child is in a forward-facing car seat in the front, check in your car’s manual that it’s safe to have a forward-facing car seat in this position. If no advice is given, contact your car’s manufacturer. If you’re unable to find this information, the AA advises pushing the front passenger car seat well back on its runners to increase the distance between your child and the dashboard where the airbag is.

Which car seat is safe for my child?

Only EU-approved child car seats can be used in the UK. These have a label showing a capital ‘E’ in a circle. You need to choose a car seat that’s appropriate for your child’s age and weight. There are three distinct age ranges: birth to 12-15 mths, 9 mths – 4yrs, 4yrs+. Again, it gets a bit complicated as some car seats cover more than one age range (called multistage or combination car seats).

When choosing a new child seat, it is essential to ensure that it fits in your car (or cars if you use it in more than one) and is suitable for your child’s weight and height.

Use this checklist to help you select the child seat that is most suitable for your child and your vehicle(s).

My Child Suitable Restraint
Baby weighing up to 10 kg (22 lbs) roughly from birth to 6 – 9 months Group 0 Rearward-facing baby seat
Baby weighing up to 13kg (29 lbs) roughly from birth to 12-15 months Group 0+ Rearward-facing baby seat
Baby up to at least 15 months old Check the baby’s height is within the range of the i-size seat i-size  Rearward-facing
Baby or toddler weighing up to 18 kg (40 lbs) roughly from birth to 4 years Group 0+ & 1 Rearward and Forward facing Combination seat
Baby or child weighing up to 25 kg (55 lbs) roughly birth to 6 years Groups 0+, 1 & 2 Rearward and Forward facing Combination seat
Toddler weighing from 9 kg to 18 kg (20 – 40 lbs) roughly from 9 months to 4 years Group 1 Forward-facing Child Seat
Toddler or child from 9 kg to 36 kg (20 – 79 lbs) roughly from 9 months to 12 years Group 1, 2 & 3 Forward-facing Combination Seat
Child weighing 15 kg – 25 kg (33 – 55 lbs) roughly 4 to 6 years Group 2 Forward-facing Booster Seat
Child weighing 15 kg – 36 kg (33 – 79 lbs) roughly 4 to 11 years Groups 2 & 3 Forward-facing Booster Seat
Children weighing 22 kg – 36 kg (48 – 79 lbs) roughly from 6 – 11 years Group 3 Booster Cushion

How to fit a child seat safely

As many as 80% of child car seats are not properly fitted. It won’t matter how many safety features a car seat has – if it’s not fitted correctly it won’t be safe.

Here are 5 of the most common car seat fitting mistakes:

  1. Harness too slack – You shouldn’t be able to get more than two fingers between the harness and your child’s chest.
  2. Wrong routing of the seat belt – Never try to guess how a car seat should be fitted. Instead, make sure you follow the car seat manufacturer’s instructions faithfully.
  3. Seat belts not plugged in – It sounds crazy but it’s amazing how often parents forget to do this – usually because they’re juggling all sorts of things in their hands and in their minds. Don’t forget, nimble little fingers can also release a buckle.
  4. Car seat too loose – If you grab the base and try to wiggle it, it should hardly move.
  5. Seat belt buckle resting on frame – Only the webbing (the material part) of the seat belt should touch the car seat frame. Otherwise you can get ‘buckle crunch”, making the seat belt spring open in a crash.


ISOFIX is a system that allows car seats to be ‘plugged’ into sockets on a car’s chassis, creating a more rigid attachment than with a seat held in place by the seat belt. The system also helps reduce installation errors which can compromise a seat’s protection. Cars made since 2006 have mostly had two ISOFIX fixing points which the bottom of the car seat (or any associated base) plugs into.

Newer cars must now also have a third fixing point which attaches to the top of the child seat too, preventing it from tipping forward if there’s a collision – this is called a top tether and is sometimes referred to as an ISOFIX+ system. To use the car’s top tether though, you need a compatible top tether car seat – as yet there aren’t many of these on the UK market and those that are available are expensive.

If you do want this feature, check whether your car has the third point – look in the manual’s section on child seats or check behind the rear seat back. Bear in mind if you buy one of these seats and it will be used in an older second or grandparents’ car, you’ll need to ensure it can also be fitted without the top tether, either with standard two point ISOFIX fixings or with the adult seat belt, depending on what’s available in the vehicle concerned.

Where to get your car seat fitted

Before you choose your car seat, make sure you take your car to a professional fitter to check which one will suit your make/model. Most big nursery stores like Mothercare, Mamas & Papas, Babies R Us and John Lewis have trained fitters, but it’s best to book an appointment and check the store has a car park directly outside. You can also go to an independent car seat retailer like Halfords for a professional check and fit. Many car seat manufacturers have lists on their websites identifying which of their seats have been tested in different cars, so is worth checking, too.

5 things you need to do before buying a car seat

  1. Always get your car seat professionally fitted before you buy
  2. Don’t buy a second-hand seat unless you know it’s full history and that it hasn’t suffered any damage. Otherwise you could end up with a car seat that’s been weakened or damaged in an accident
  3. Make sure the car seat fits in your car – before buying it. Not all car seats fit safely into all cars.
  4. When buying a travel system, always choose the car seat first and a compatible buggy second. Your child’s safety in the car is most important
  5. When buying the next stage car seat, measure the height and weight of your baby or child to check your child is ready to move up





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