Safe and back-friendly car travel starting at birth is a wish of many parents and child care workers. Thus it is important to choose a child car seat from the outset that provides optimal support for the child, but offers sufficient freedom of movement as well. Health aspects for the parents also have to be considered in choosing the right child car seat. A lightweight seat that is easy to handle prevents strain on the back and protects the health of the whole family. Parents should also ensure that installing and removing the seat is straightforward, quick and back-friendly.
Child safety is the primary concern for child car seats. The physics of an accident are merciless and the forces involved are often underestimated. But child car seats are not only vital for the safe transportation of children, they also play an important role in a child’s healthy development because they “accompany” the child over an extended period of time. Since this phase of a child’s life in particular is defined by steady physical growth, the ergonomics of the child car seat are of special importance. Child car seats must be easy to use and offer good ergonomics, both for the child and for the parents and child care workers.
While child/infant car seats used to be tested according to the ECE R44-04 approval standard and divided into age groups, we now have the UN R129 (i-Size) test standard for child car seats. This new approval standard goes by the child’s size rather than the weight, focuses on a better fit between the child car seat and the vehicle, and encompasses stricter safety criteria than the former approval standard.
Three groups are differentiated as a rule:
While infant seats always have to be used rear-facing with no exceptions, the child car seats that follow them should also be installed to face opposite to the direction of travel. Studies have shown that rear-facing travel is safer for toddlers. Why? A toddler’s head accounts for 25 per cent of their body weight, meaning it is rather heavy. Since the neck musculature of very young children is not as highly developed yet, the head of a child in a forward-facing car seat would be thrown forward with great momentum while the shoulders are held back by the straps. Rear-facing child car seats evenly distribute the impact energy over the child’s entire back. The infant seat or seating shell of the child seat acts as a protective shield and supports the head and neck.
According to the new regulations, rear-facing transport is required for at least the first 15 months of life. In fact, experts recommend transport facing opposite to the direction of travel up to 4 years of age. Only then should the switch be made to forward-facing systems where the child looks in the direction of travel.
See the minimum requirements in the checklist below for more safety tips.
Child car seats have to be adaptable to the growth of the child by removing or inserting cushions and inserts as well as adjusting the height of the head support. Ideally the shoulder straps automatically follow the adjustment of the head support height so they are always at the age-appropriate, correct height for the child. Parents should be able to make this adjustment using one hand with a handle that is easy to reach. This avoids physical strain and ensures well-being. An ideal fit also means enhanced safety! Very good lateral support and energy-dissipating head and shoulder supports are indispensable as well, especially in side impact situations.
What is known as a newborn insert is also sensible. It is used during the first four months of life and should provide additional lateral support and a flatter sitting angle. Since the neck muscles of a newborn are not fully developed yet, it is important to have a comparatively flat sitting angle in the vehicle. That prevents the baby’s head from falling forward onto the chest.
Steep seat bottoms in the vehicle, for example in cars with a small interior, sporty vehicle models or luxury cars, are advantageous for adult passengers but constitute a problem for children facing opposite to the direction of travel. A rear-facing child car seat can be positioned too steeply on steep vehicle seats so the child sits in a rather upright posture. While this is usually not a safety issue, it can be uncomfortable, especially for younger children. Some child car seats have mechanisms to compensate for this.
A consistent, pleasant sitting climate and optimal sitting pressure distribution are also important, especially for longer trips. Particularly good climate control is achieved through continuous air circulation between the body, child car seat and vehicle seat.
Even the best child car seats do not permit the full freedom of movement for the child that would be perfect from an ergonomic perspective. That is a fundamental disadvantage of riding in a car. You should therefore take breaks for your child and yourself to get some exercise on longer trips.
Infant seats can generally be secured in the vehicle using the three-point seat belt. Separate ISOfix base stations that can be securely installed in the vehicle are an alternative. The advantage: the baby can be comfortably positioned in the infant seat. Then the infant seat can simply be secured on the base station, quickly and easily, which prevents strain on the parent’s back.
Child seats should ideally be installed in the vehicle using the ISOfix system as well. Rear-facing positioning is preferable here too. Some manufacturers also offer swivelling child car seats. To sit the child in the seat, it can be swivelled towards the door of the vehicle. This allows parents to quickly buckle up the child in comfort without straining their back.