When you’ve got a baby on the way, there’s a lot to think about, from which clothes to buy to how to sleep comfortably when your belly grows. And one big concern a large number of parents have is transporting their new baby. Which car seat is the right one? How long do they last? When do we switch from one type to another, and how do we install them? This week we’re going to look at some of the rules, regulations, and recommendations surrounding the use of child restraints in cars in New Zealand, and what you can do if you’re not sure about your installation.
Let’s start with the overall rules. In New Zealand, all children until their seventh birthday must use an approved child restraint (aka car seat), and that restraint should be appropriate for both their age and their size. From their seventh birthday until their eighth, they must be in a car seat if one is available. From eight to fourteen, they must wear a seatbelt and sit in the back seat if a back seat is available. Once over fourteen, a seatbelt must be worn at all times. In addition to the legal requirements, international best practice recommends keeping your child in a car seat (or booster seat) until they reach 148cm tall (usually 10-12 years old). This is because a standard seat belt is only designed to be safe from this height – it may not sit properly across a child’s shoulders and hips if they are shorter. It is also New Zealand law that drivers are responsible for any children in their car – this is true regardless of whether the children you’re driving are yours or not.
- What does ‘approved’ mean?
In this context, an approved child restraint is one that meets approved standards. New Zealand has three different standards that your child seat may meet:
The joint New Zealand/Australian Standard AS/NZ 1754 – shown with a red tick mark;
The European Standard ECE 44 or ECE 129 – shown with an ‘E’ mark (this will also have a number – e.g., “E3” – which will vary depending which country it was certified in);
- The United States Standard FMVSS 213 – this standard must also show the New Zealand Standard’ S’ mark, which shows it has been certified for use in NZ.
- So, what sort of seat should I start with?
Capsules are the first stage in child car seats, and these should be rear-facing. Going back to international best practice, the recommendation is to keep your child in a rear-facing car seat until they are two years of age, or even longer if possible. This is because in the event of a crash a rear-facing capsule or car seat will cushion your baby’s body, protecting their head, neck, spine and pelvis. Rear-facing convertible car seats are available once your baby has outgrown the capsule. These restraints should also be installed in the back seat of your car – they should never be in the front seat, especially if that seat has an airbag, as these can cause injuries to babies.
- How do I know when my child has outgrown a car seat or capsule?
All car seat manufacturers have minimum and maximum height and weight limits for their restraints. These can be found in the instructions that come with them when you buy or hire them. Make sure to carefully read these instructions, and if you aren’t sure, check with the manufacturer or retailer for advice.
- How do I install it?
The specific instructions will vary, but installation instructions will also be included when you get your car seat or capsule. If in doubt, check with your place of purchase – they may have child restraint technicians who can help you make sure the capsule or seat is installed correctly. Waka Kotahi NZTA have a handy guide to finding child restraint technicians around the country here(https://www.nzta.govt.nz/safety/what-waka-kotahi-is-doing/education-initiatives/child-restraints/), so if you’re finding that you’re a little bit stuck, you can take a look. The map can be filtered by region and subregion to make finding a technician a little bit easier.
- Can I let my baby sleep in the capsule?
It is not recommended to leave your baby sleeping in a car seat. Wait until you’re about to leave to buckle them in, then remove them once you arrive – if they are asleep, transfer them to their bassinet, cot, or another safe sleeping space. See healthed.govt.nz for more advice about safe sleeping.
- How tight should the belt be?
It’s essential to make sure the belt is snug. It’s advisable to remove any thick clothing (such as puffer jackets or thick woollens), as it’s not possible to push the air out of these items when buckling them in, leading to a child restraint harness not being as tight as it needs to be. Instead, think about layering thin layers, then tucking a blanket over the harness once it’s buckled. Remember, the belt should be snug (though not so tight it’s hurting your baby) – a good way to check is to do what is called the ‘pinch test’. At the shoulder strap, try to pinch the harness up. If you can pinch any of the strap between your fingers, it’s probably a bit too loose.
- When can my child move into a booster seat?
As with capsules, the weight and height restrictions on forward-facing car seats will differ from one manufacturer to another – keep an eye on your child’s height and weight (not their age), and don’t move them up to a booster seat until they’ve outgrown their car seat. It is always safest to have your child in the back seat while they’re in a booster. A full booster is the safer option as they help with seat belt positioning and provide protection to your child’s head and body. A half booster is more appropriate for older children.
- When can my child stop using the booster seat?
There are ways to double-check! First, ensure your child sits with their back up against the seat. If they’re tall enough, their knees should be able to bend at the edge of the seat, not before. Next, buckle the belt – the lap part should be on their thighs, across their hips. It should not be against their abdomen. Finally, the shoulder sash should sit in the middle of their shoulder, not pressed against their neck. If your child cannot do all these things, they are not quite ready for a seat belt to work properly with them, and they should remain in a booster seat. Remember – a car seat belt is designed to work with the strength of your hips and collar bones, not your (or your child’s) softer abdomen and neck.
And don’t forget – checking with a child restraint technician is your best first step if you have any concerns or worries.