In Australia, car accidents are the leading cause of death of kids under 14 and there's a raft of legal obligations when it comes to littlies in the car. The range of options on the market can get quite confusing so keep reading and we'll help you get it right.
The Child Restraint Evaluation Program (CREP) independently tests for car seats above and beyond minimum standards. These are some of the best baby capsule car seats and child car seats from their test still available, with protection ratings out of 5.
As CREP regularly updates its testing protocols, results from 2021 onwards cannot be compared with previous years.
0 to 6 months – Capsule
A baby/infant capsule is rearward-facing with an inbuilt harness, which is the legal requirement for babies under six months. Capsules can be used for babies up to about six months of age or slightly older if they still fit into the seat. Unlike other types of car seats, capsules can be easily taken in and out of the car and used as a carrier or attached to a pram to mimimise disturbing your baby.
A forward-facing (or front-facing) restraint has its own inbuilt six-point harness for your child. This should be used until your child is at least four years old, but can be used for longer. It's safer for kids to stay in a harness for as long as they can fit in it.
While one option is to start your baby in a capsule and progress to a forward-facing seat then a booster seat, some may prefer to use a convertible car seat which can change modes to allow for longer periods of use. The main benefit of convertible car seats is that some allow young children to face rearward for longer. They may also be more cost-effective depending on what model you choose.
The options for convertible car seats include:
- 0 to 4 years Suitable for newborns, these car seats can be converted from rear facing to forward facing as your child grows. Some models allow for children to be rear-facing for 12 months, while others offer up to 2.5 years, which is often preferred because of the increased safety of the rear-facing position.
- 6 months to 8 years These forward-facing seats can be used as soon as your baby is no longer legally required to be rear facing. They differ from a single mode forward-facing seat as, after four years, they can be converted from a harnessed front-facing seat to a booster seat used with an adult seatbelt.
- 0 to 8 years These seats let your child face rearward for 12 months, and convert from rear facing to forward facing. Some even convert again to a booster seat by having a removable harness. These models can serve as the only car seat you purchase for your child's life, however it's important to consider if the seat will continue to suit your lifestyle for the entire period (they can be quite bulky) as well as the effect of wear and tear over an eight-year period.
A booster seat is also forward-facing, but is usually slimmer than a forward-facing car seat and is used with an adult seatbelt rather than an inbuilt harness. It's designed for children aged from four to around eight years old and some simply sit on top of the adult seat, while others may also have an additional tether. Modern-day versions have high backs and sides to provide side-impact protection and support for sleeping children. We strongly advise against using a booster cushion (with no back or side protection), however it's not illegal to use one that met Australian standards at the time it was manufactured.
If you have a new arrival on the way, you may be wondering whether you should buy a capsule (which can only be used for around six months) or go straight to a convertible car seat which can be used from 0 to 4 years. While both options are equally safe, there are some pros and cons to consider.
- A capsule can be easily removed from the car and carried.
- A capsule that's compatible with your stroller can replace a bassinet attachment. These all-in-one travel systems allow you to remove the capsule and click it into place on your pram without needing to disturb baby, particularly if they've just nodded off. (Warning: Babies must never be left asleep in a car seat unsupervised, and never for lengthy periods; they are not designed for this. Babies have suffocated from lack of airflow due to not being in a flat position.)
- After your baby outgrows the capsule you only need to buy a 6 month to 8 year forward-facing convertible car seat.
- Most capsules can only be used for around six months (depending on the size of your baby).
- The cost of a capsule can be similar to a convertible car seat that can be used from birth to four years.
If you'd like to use a capsule but are budget conscious, a number of companies offer one, three or six month rentals with prices ranging from around $100–$200 for six months, which is around half the price of buying your own. Ensure the company conducts a safety check of the capsule before issuing it for hire.
ISOFIX is a car seat installation system that involves clipping the car seat into anchorage points manufactured into cars. Newer car seats are ISOFIX compatible and are usually easier to install than the old seatbelt system. The old seat belt method is just as safe, when installed correctly.
No. Despite the temptation to buy or import a cheaper ISOFIX car restraint from overseas, it's illegal to use one as it won't meet Australian safety standard AS/ANZ 1754.
All car seats sold in Australia need to meet mandatory safety standards. The Child Restraint Evaluation Program (CREP) independently crash tests car seats above and beyond these standards. Results are published for free online at Child Car Seats. All models listed on the CREP website are considered safe, however those with more than one star have an even better safety performance than what's legally required.
As CREP regularly updates its testing protocols, results from 2021 can't be compared with models tested in previous years.
See CREP's testing explained for information on crash protection star ratings and more.
It should, but the smaller the car, the tighter the fit, and the harder it'll be to get your child in and out. Space becomes more of a problem when you are trying to get squeeze three car seats into the car: along with the length of the back seat, you'll need to take the anchor points, door armrests and the angle of the window into consideration. Some car seat manufacturers sell "narrow" car seats, but it may be a challenge to find the right combinations. Going into the store with your car to try the seats out may be your best bet.
Brand new to car seats? Authorised fitters are the best option; expect to pay $30 to $75 per new installation. Check with your state's local Kidsafe, or with your road traffic authority or motoring organisation:
- Transport for NSW authorised fitting stations
- RACV accredited auto care centres
- Kidsafe Queensland car seat fitting
- Kidsafe WA car seat fitting
- Kidsafe NT car seat fitting
- RAA safety centre (SA)
- RACT child restaints (TAS)
Some local councils offer free car seat installation or checking sessions.
NSW Roads and Maritime Services research has found that about 70% of children are incorrectly restrained in their seat. This can seriously reduce the restraint's ability to protect your child in a crash, so proper installation is crucial to getting the best crash protection.
If you're doing it yourself, follow the instructions and pay attention to the details. Each seat can have its own quirks. ISOFIX car seats tend to be easier to install (but your car needs to be compatible). You may need extensions for your seat's tether strap depending on the position of the anchor point – mainly for rear-facing restraints. Use the minimum number of extension straps.
All car seats need a label showing they meet safety standard AS/NZS 1754 (either 2004, 2010 or 2013).
Apart from safety, look at:
- Weight Pick it up and see how easy it is to manoeuvre around.
- Shoulder markers near the straps To help show when it's time to move up a size.
- Cup holders Are nice-to-have, but more useful for older kids than babies.
- Cleaning Kids will make a mess. Do the covers and other parts come off easily?
- Compatibility If you're buying a capsule, check if it's compatible with your stroller; adaptors may need to be purchased.
- Rear facing Generally rear facing is safer for younger babies, so you may prefer to choose a convertible car seat which can face rearwards for longer (up to 2.5 years).
Don't forget to check your car
- Room Is there space to get in and out once the seat is installed? If you're planning on expanding your family, is there enough space to have more than one restraint? Most stores will let you take the carseat to your car to check how it fits before buying.
- Seat belts Are yours long enough to thread through the seat?
- Anchorage points Does your car have enough anchor points if you have more than one seat or capsule?
- ISOFIX Make sure your car is compatible if you're choosing an ISOFIX car seat.
0 to 6 months
- Children must be seated in a rear-facing car seat or infant capsule.
6 months to 4 years
- Children are to use a rear- or forward-facing car restraint with an inbuilt harness.
- Most children are allowed to stay rear-facing up to approximately two to three years of age.
- Children under four years old can't travel in the front seat of a vehicle with two or more rows (but can, for example, in a one-row ute).
4 to 8 years
- Children up to the age of seven are to use a forward-facing restraint or booster seat, with or without a harness.
- If all back seats are occupied by children under the age of seven, a child aged between four and seven can occupy the front seat in a forward-facing restraint or booster seat.
- If your child is too tall or heavy for their age group's restraint, you can move them to the next size seat.
- In many states, taxis are exempt from these laws, but there are exceptions. For example, in NSW children under six months need to be in an approved rear-facing restraint and children aged six to 12 months need to be in an approved rear- or forward-facing restraint.
- There's now a standard for child restraints suitable for aircraft travel.
- Children should remain in a harness for as long as they can fit into it.
Unless you know the car seat's full history, we say buy a new one. Even if a second-hand seat looks OK, it may still be damaged.
If you do decide to go second-hand, pick a seat that:
- is less than ten years old (look for the date of manufacture sticker)
- has a sticker with the SAI Global logo, certified to standard AS/NZS 1754
- comes with an instruction manual
- has a smooth, working buckle
- doesn't have fraying or broken straps/harness
- has no cracks or stress marks on the seat's plastic shell
- hasn't been damaged in an accident
Legally, children need to be suitably restrained, and if a child aged seven or over is too small to fit comfortably in an adult seat belt, then it's safest to remain in a booster. Experts recommend that a child passes the "five step test" in order to wear an adult seat belt, usually when the child is 145cm tall:
- Can your child sit with their back against the seat back?
- Are their knees bent comfortably over the front edge of the seat cushion?
- In this position is the shoulder belt across the mid shoulder?
- Is the lap belt low and sits across the top of their thighs?
- Can they stay in this position for the whole trip?
In practice, however, there aren't many boosters out there that accommodate children aged 8 and over. One is the Safe-N-Sound Kid Guard Pro ($399) which is suitable for children up to approximately age 10 and receives a 4.7 star protection rating from CREP.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.