It’s illegal for any baby or child under the age of seven to travel in a car without an approved car restraint. The right child car restraints or car seats for your child depend on how old and how big he is.
Child car restraints and booster seats: the law
By law, children must be secured in the correct child car restraint for their age and size.
These are the minimum legal requirements for using child car restraints and booster seats in Australia:
- Children under six months must be restrained in a suitable and properly fastened and adjusted rear-facing approved child car restraint with an inbuilt harness.
- Children aged six months to under four years must be restrained in a suitable and properly fastened and adjusted rear-facing or forward-facing approved child car restraint with an inbuilt harness.
- Children aged four years to under seven years must be restrained in a suitable and properly fastened and adjusted forward-facing approved child car restraint with an inbuilt harness, or an approved booster seat with a properly fastened and adjusted seatbelt or child safety harness.
- Children aged seven years and older must be restrained with an adult seatbelt or in a booster seat with an adult seatbelt.
There are also minimum legal requirements for where children can sit in motor vehicles:
- Children under four years must not travel in the front seat if a car has two or more rows of seats.
- If all other seats are being used by children under seven years, children aged between four years and under seven years may travel in the front seat using an approved booster seat and a properly fastened and adjusted seatbelt.
It’s illegal to carry your child on your lap in a car, even if you’re wearing a seatbelt. Always use an approved child car restraint, suitable for your child’s age and size.
Child car restraints and booster seats: extra safety tips
You must follow the minimum legal requirements above when transporting children in motor vehicles. There are some extra things you can do to keep your child as safe as possible:
- Always use approved car restraints according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Keep your baby in a rear-facing car restraint for as long as she fits in it. This is the safest way for babies to travel, even babies aged over six months.
- Keep your child in a booster seat for as long as he still fits in it. Children should use adult seatbelts only when they have outgrown their booster seats. This is usually once they are 145 cm tall, which might be well after they turn seven.
- Seat your child in the back row of seats whenever possible. It’s safest for children to travel in the back until they are 12 years or older.
Safety standards for child car restraints
Once you’ve worked out what type of child car seat or restraint is right for your child’s age and size, the next step is checking it meets Australian safety standards.
By law, all child car restraints or car seats used in Australia must meet the requirements of Australian/New Zealand Standard (AS/NZS) 1754. This should be clear on the packaging around a new restraint and on the restraint itself.
It’s also important to check the safety performance of any child car restraints you’re interested in.
Fitting child car restraints and booster seats
All child car restraints and booster seats must be fitted correctly for safety.
Rear-facing child car restraints can be particularly tricky to fit. It’s a good idea to have them fitted at a local fitting station – especially when you’re still learning how to use them.
When you’re learning how to use a rear-facing child restraint, it also helps to know:
- how to position your baby
- how to adjust and check the straps as your child grows, according to the manufacturer’s instructions
- Australian laws and recommendations on the use of child restraints.
Sitting in a child restraint for long periods isn’t good for your child’s skeletal development. This is why it’s important to take your baby out of her car restraint when you get out of the car, even if your baby has fallen asleep. It’s also good to take a break every two hours on long trips to stretch.
Never leave babies or children in parked cars, even if they’re asleep. A child left unattended in a parked car can overheat, get dehydrated, hurt himself or even die.
Moving to bigger child car restraints or booster seats
You should keep using your child’s current car restraint or booster seat until your child has outgrown it. If your child is in the next type of restraint before he’s big enough for it, it might not protect him properly if you have a crash.
Child car restraint accessories such as head supports, lambskin liners and padded mattresses aren’t recommended because they might interfere with the performance of a restraint in a crash.
A child safety harness should be used with a booster seat only where a lap-sash seatbelt isn’t available.
Convertible and combination child car restraints
There are many convertible and combination child car restraints available.
Convertible means the restraint can be used as a rear-facing or forward-facing restraint with inbuilt harness.
Combination means it can be used as a forward-facing child restraint with inbuilt harness or as a booster seat with a lap-sash seatbelt.
Some parents see these ‘two-in-one’ restraints as a cost-saver, because they can be used for children at different ages. But some convertibles don’t fit well in smaller cars. Your car’s seat shape can also affect the way these restraints fit.
If you don’t want to buy a restraint for your newborn, you could look into hiring an approved rear-facing child car restraint from your local council, ambulance service or private company. It’s a good idea to book child car restraints well before your baby is born.
How many child car restraints can fit in a car?
The number of restraints that can be fitted correctly to your car will depend on the:
- make and model of your car
- type and brand of child car restraint you choose
- combination of restraints required for your children’s needs.
Check that you have enough anchor points in your car to fit the restraints. Most medium and large cars will fit three restraints across the back seat.
Second-hand child car restraints and booster seats
If you choose to use a second-hand child car restraint, make sure you check:
- how old it is
- what condition it’s in
- whether it’s been in any accidents
- whether it meets Australian safety standards
- whether it comes with all the parts, including the instruction booklet.
To make sure your child is as safe as possible, don’t buy, accept or use a restraint that:
- is more than 10 years old
- has been in a crash, even if there’s no obvious damage
- has splits, cracks or large stress marks in the restraint shell
- has straps that are frayed, worn or damaged
- has a buckle that doesn’t click the harness into place securely.
If you’re not sure about the safety history of a second-hand restraint, it’s best not to accept or buy it. Instead, look for one that comes with a good safety history.
Children with additional needs
If you have a child with additional needs, it might be more challenging to keep your child safe in the car.
Health professionals such as occupational therapists can work with your family to come up with ways to ensure safety. These can include modifying a restraint, recommending a restraint accessory or suggesting a specialised restraint.