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Special Interest Group Update

In each issue, one of NANN’s special interest groups shares information in their area of focus.

Safe Rides Home for Smaller Babies

Heidi Heflin, MN RN CNS CPSTI
Laura Siemion, RNC-NIC BSN CPST

Helping caregivers select and properly use an appropriate child safety seat should be a part of every neonatal program (Bull & Chappelow, 2014; O'Neil et al., 2019). Child safety seats are highly effective in reducing the likelihood of death and injury in motor vehicle crashes, and for children less than 1 year old, a child safety seat can reduce the risk of fatality by 71% (Hertz, 1996).

Unfortunately, many babies may be poorly protected during their first car rides. One research study showed 93% of newborns left a university hospital inadequately buckled up (Hoffman et al., 2014). Although some nurses may feel uncomfortable addressing car seat safety, an unpublished 2020 national survey from NANN found that 112 of 113 nurse respondents said they had "addressed child passenger safety (CPS) for parents/caregivers during newborn hospitalization" within the past 6 months (Chappelow et al., 2020).

When it comes to preterm and low-birth-weight infants, special consideration must be given to transportation safety. In particular, the physiologic immaturity and low weight of these infants must be considered when selecting an appropriate type and model of child safety seat.

Motor vehicle injuries are a leading cause of death among children in the United States (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, n.d.). Every day in 2018, three children were killed and an estimated 520 were injured in U.S. traffic crashes (National Center for Statistics and Analysis, 2020). Many deaths and injuries could be prevented with proper use of a child safety seat, which includes choosing a seat appropriate for the child.

To understand how child safety seats help prevent death, one must understand crash dynamics. The National Child Passenger Safety Certification Training (2020) describes that every vehicle crash is really three "crashes". The first crash involves sudden deceleration of the vehicle, including hard braking, evasive maneuvers, and/or colliding with an external object. The second occurs as the occupant strikes something in the vehicle (in this case, a child hits the car safety seat shell and/or harness). The third crash involves the child's internal organs continuing to move until they strike other organs or bones. A child safety seat decreases the severity of the second and third collisions by directing much of the crash energy into the child safety seat and away from the child.

A child safety seat is designed to protect a child in a crash or sudden stop in more than one way. It spreads crash forces across the strongest parts of the child's body. For infants and young children, that means the seat must be placed with the child rear-facing so that, in a frontal collision, the force is dispersed over a wide area of the child's back. The unproportionally large head, immature neck, and spine are protected by being encased in the child safety seat shell and by a snug-fitting harness securing the child at the shoulders and hips. A child safety seat helps the child's body slow down more gradually than 'the sudden stop,' and prevents ejection from the car. Even at 30 mph, crash forces are severe. For instance, an unrestrained 10-lb baby in a 30-mph crash is thrown with 300 lbs of force.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Policy Statement "Transporting Children with Special Health Care Needs" provides guidance for selecting child safety seats for infants with special healthcare needs and asserts that a conventional rear-facing child safety seat, which allows for proper positioning of the preterm infant, should be used if the infant can maintain healthy vital signs while seated in a semi-upright position (O'Neil et al. 2019).

Selecting the appropriate child safety seat can be daunting, especially since there are almost 350 models of child safety seats currently offered for sale in the United States (J. J. Stubbs, personal communication, October 1, 2020). Each offers slightly different features. An "appropriate" seat is one that properly fits the newborn, fits the vehicle, and is convenient to use on every ride (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2020). The newborn's weight, length, maturation, and associated medical conditions should all be considered when selecting a seat (Bull et al., 2009; reaffirmed 2018).

All child safety seats legally sold in the United States must meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 213, which establishes many child restraint system requirements, including those related to crash performance, flammability, and labeling. Child safety seat labeling can help determine if the seat is compliant and how to use it properly (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2020). Requirements include a label on the plastic shell stating that the seat meets federal standards and a label with the date of manufacture. Model/manufacturer/"birthdate" labels should be used as a reference for investigating recalls.

Because child safety seat manufacturers generally set a specified lifespan (from 6 to 11 years) for their products, most models indicate an expiration date on labels or in the owner's manual. Expired child safety seats should be destroyed or recycled, not used to transport a child.

The 2018 revised AAP policy statement, "Child Passenger Safety," recommends that children ride rear-facing as long as possible, limited by the maximum weight and length allowed for use by their child safety seat instructions (Durbin et al., 2018).

Determining which seat fits by weight is a good first step to narrow selection. Most rear-facing-only (RFO) safety seats allow use by infants beginning at 4 lbs. At the time this article was written, three RFO seats allow use beginning at 3 lbs, and one may be used "from birth." Larger convertible or all-in-one seats typically allow rear-facing use starting at 5 lbs, though several are available that start at 4 lbs and one allows use beginning at 3 lbs. After disqualifying seats based on weight, minimum height requirements can be used to immediately narrow options. See Table 1 to learn more about child safety seats for small babies.

A close-to-comprehensive product list of all seats on the market, including their weight minimum and maximum, can be found on AAP's Healthy Children website. The list is updated annually but is not revised between updates, so some new models may not be reflected. A current list of all child safety seats that are rated for infants under 4 lbs can be found in the free handout #173 Automobile Restraints for Children with Special Needs: Quick Reference List found on the SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. website. This list is updated as products are introduced or discontinued.

When choosing between an RFO or convertible child safety seat, note that either can provide optimum comfort, fit, and positioning for the preterm or low-birth-weight infant (Bull et al., 2009; reaffirmed 2018) if carefully selected. RFO seats are lighter weight, have a handle for carrying, and usually can be snapped in and out of a base that remains installed in the vehicle. Convertible seats are larger, heavier, and meant to stay in the car. Despite their larger overall size, some convertible models may be an option for preterm infants if the harness system fits properly. Models that allow use by 4-lb children tend to be adjustable for use by very small infants. Convertible seats have a longer period of usefulness, allowing forward-facing use by children weighing up to 40–85 lbs, depending on the seat. They are often a good choice for lower-income families and hospital distribution programs.

However, child safety seat fit is more complicated than just considering the allowable weight and height requirements of a product. Several features contribute to how well a seat fits a tiny baby. One thing to consider is where the shoulder harness goes through the seat relative to the child's shoulders. When any infant is riding rear-facing, the harness straps must go through slots that are at or below the infant's shoulders. Therefore, for a preterm infant, a seat with very low shoulder strap slots (roughly 5–6 in. up from the seat cushion), is essential (Safe Ride News Publications, 2020).

Some seats come with crash-tested and approved adjustment methods specifically for tiny babies, such as boosting inserts and alternative harness threading methods. A harness must be able to be tightened snugly over the child's body, judged by ensuring the webbing cannot be pinched between thumb and forefinger. In addition, the buckle strap (or "crotch strap") may have an adjustment to place it closer and/or make it shorter, preventing an infant from sliding down or slumping into an unsafe position (Bull et al., 2009; reaffirmed 2018).

In general, child safety seat instructions direct the user to which approved and recommended adjustments are necessary for a safe, snug harness fit. (Note: While adjustability may greatly enhance the performance of a child safety seat for a small infant, making the necessary adjustments can be complicated and overwhelming.) A child passenger safety technician (CPST), a nationally certified educator in the field of occupant protection, is a resource that can help train the neonatal team, keep them up to date (AAP et al., 2014), and assist with solving complex child safety seat problems.

Used seats are acceptable only if the parent or caregiver knows the seat's history and that it has all pieces, including instructions. They must be certain that the seat has never been in a crash, is not expired, and has no unresolved recalls. Reused seats are often missing pieces, especially the inserts for newborns. Refer to the child safety seat instructions to account for every piece (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2020).

Be aware that counterfeit seats are appearing with greater frequency at child safety seat installation stations, and they may be making their way to hospitals. These are often bought online at a "value" price and provide little or no protection in a crash. Sometimes it is difficult to identify a fake seat. Counterfeit child safety seats do not meet federal safety standards, often lack required labels on the seat shell and are made of inferior materials. Ask a CPST for help if you have doubts about whether a seat complies with federal safety standards.

Infants with certain temporary or permanent physical conditions may be at risk when placed in the semi-reclined position of a conventional seat and may travel more safely in a car bed certified to FMVSS 213 standards (Bull et al., 2009; reaffirmed 2018). To screen for tolerance in the semi-upright seating position, an infant should be observed in an appropriate child safety seat for valid results. To learn more about Car Seat Tolerance Screening (CSTS), refer to the AAP's clinical report, Safe Transportation of Preterm and Low Birth Weight Infants at Hospital Discharge.

While some CPSTs are nurses, a nurse does not need to be a CPST to help protect infants in cars. To manage risk, a working group of experts convened by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends that hospitals employ a CPST to train staff, assist in annual competency checks, and provide hands-on advice and guidance to families when questions arise beyond the nurse's skill level (AAP et al., 2014). A CPST with additional certification through Safe Travel for All Children: Transporting Children with Special Health Care Needs would be an especially valuable resource.

One way to find CPSTs is to visit CPSTs can assist in the development of policies, procedures, and guidelines, train neonatal nurses on how to better protect their patients, and ensure that practices/institutions stay abreast of new products and updates to best practice recommendations. Additional sources for education, training, and resources for neonatal professionals and parents of preterm infants are listed at the end of this article. Neonatal nurses play a critical role in promoting CPS. They are a trusted source of information and have an established relationship with families in their communities. In an NHTSA motor vehicle occupant survey (2020), caregivers self-reported their behaviors, attitudes, and knowledge related to auto occupant safety, including the transport of children specifically. Of the responding caregivers, 48% indicated they received child restraint information and advice from a nurse or doctor.

The CPS field needs neonatal nurses as a vital link to caregivers. Ensuring that nurses know the basic criteria for child safety seat selection and use helps them to accurately educate parents, document child safety seat use upon discharge, and conduct car seat tolerance screenings. CPSTs welcome a nursing partnership to keep kids safe in cars.

Child Safety Seats Jan 21 SIG Article Table 1

Neonatal Passenger Safety Resources:

  • American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Healthy Children site: 
  • Automotive Safety Program:, information about transporting children who have certain medical conditions or have undergone procedures.
  • National Center for Safe Transportation of Children with Special Health Care Needs: 
  • Child Safety Seat Manufacturers' sites: search by manufacturer name on search engine
  • National Child Passenger Safety Board:, the Safe Transportation of Children: Checklist for Hospital Discharge includes guidelines specific to neonates.
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA): 
  • Safe Kids Worldwide:, find a CPST with training in special transportation needs
  • Safe Ride News:, Selecting an Appropriate Child Safety Seat for a Tiny Baby fact sheet.
  • Safety Belt Safe U.S.A.:, offers caregiver and professional child passenger safety technician assistance call Safe Ride Helpline 800.745.SAFE (English), 800.747.SANO (Spanish).


  1. American Academy of Pediatrics, Children's Hospital Association, National Child Passenger Safety Board, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, & National Safety Council. (2014). Checklist for hospital discharge recommendations: For safe transportation of children. National Child Passenger Safety Board.
  2. Bull, M. J., & Chappelow, M. L. (2014). Hospitals encouraged to provide child passenger safety training, resources. AAP News, 35(7), 17.
  3. Bull, M. J., Engle, W. A., Committee on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention, & Committee on Fetus and Newborn. (2009). Safe transportation of preterm and low birth weight infants at hospital discharge. Pediatrics, 123(5), 1424–1429.
  4. Chappelow, M. L., Davis, T. L., Heflin, H. D., O'Neil, J., & Zonfrillo, M. R. (2020). An assessment of NANN nurses' knowledge and provision of child passenger safety information [Unpublished raw data]. Injury Prevention and Trauma Services, Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health.
  5. Durbin, D. R., Hoffman, B. D., & Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention. (2018). Child passenger safety. Pediatrics, 142(5).
  6. Hertz, E. (1996, December). Revised estimates of child restraint effectiveness (Research note. Report No. DOT HS 96855). National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 
  7. Hoffman, B. D., Gallardo, A. R., & Carlson, K. F. (2014). Unsafe from the start: serious misuse of car safety seats at newborn discharge. Journal of Pediatrics, 171, 48– 54.
  8. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). 10 Leading causes of injury deaths by age group highlighting unintentional injury deaths, United States - 2018.
  9. National Center for Statistics and Analysis. (2020, August). Children: 2018 data. (Traffic safety facts. Report No. DOT HS 812 887). National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 
  10. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (2020, June). Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey Volume 3: Child Passenger Safety Report.
  11. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Child Passenger Safety Board, & Safe Kids Worldwide. (2020) National child passenger safety technician certification training: technician guide.
  12. National Center for Statistics and Analysis, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2019, March). Lives saved in 2017 by restraint use and minimum-drinking-age laws (Traffic Safety Facts Crash•Stats. Report No. DOT HS 812 683). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
  13. O'Neil, J., Hoffman, B. D., & Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention. (2019). Transporting children with special health care needs. Pediatrics, 143(5), 1-7.
  14. Safe Ride News Publications (2020). Car safety for tiny babies: preemies and low birth weight babies need special care. Safe Ride News. 

Please note: The information presented and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Association of Neonatal Nurses. Any clinical or technical recommendations made by the authors must be weighed against the health care provider's own judgment and the accepted guidelines published on the subject.

Check out last issue's SIG Update on Neonatal Arrhythmias