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Car seat safety & childhood obesity

by Peggie Mars, Wheel Well
Car Seat Safety & Childhood Obesity - Baby Yum Yum
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The topic of obesity is a divisive conversation, more so when it concerns childhood obesity. There are many contributors to obesity in children, whether it be the result of socio-economic factors, lack of education relating to health and exercise, or due to physical or mental health struggles. Our aim in talking about this sensitive topic is not to cast judgement but to highlight the limitations that parents may face when looking for a suitable car seat for their bigger child.

It is worth noting that this is not limited exclusively to overweight children. A severely underweight child might face similar struggles. Car seats are designed around the different developmental stages of a child within a certain weight and age range. When a child is larger or smaller than the average weight at that age, parents may feel inclined to use a car seat that will accommodate their size. But this may place them in a seat that is not suitable for the developmental needs of their age. For children who are at a car seat using age, issues relating to obesity are far more prevalent (and on the rise) than cases where a child is underweight. For this reason, we’re focusing predominantly on child obesity in this article and on how to navigate the challenges that parents may face.

Our approach towards this delicate topic is kindness, which is often overlooked when discussing obesity. Parents ultimately want the same thing for their children, regardless of their size – for them to be safe.

Correct car seats for each developmental stage

We recently posted an article on how to choose the correct car seat for your child’s weight, age and stage of development.

To reiterate, there are three main types of car seats: infant, toddler and booster seats. The design of these car seats caters to the needs of a child at specific developmental stages, but within certain age and weight ranges.

For example, an infant seat is designed in a way that cradles your baby. This protects their delicate head, spine and pelvis in the event of a car crash. When a child reaches a specific weight or age milestone (whichever occurs first) for their next type of car seat, this usually indicates that they are ready to transition.

Weight and age as indicators for different stages of child development work for the majority of children. But what if a child is atypical in size? Whether they are too small, too tall or too large in comparison to other kids their age, this poses several challenges when it comes to car seats, specifically for kids who are overweight or obese.

Car seat safety & overweight kids

Parents are sometimes tempted to prematurely move their children to the next stage of their car seat. This is far more common when a child is bigger than average. Despite their size, they still need the correct protection for their developmental stage. Obesity in children is ever increasing – in the USA more than a quarter of children  .are obese. Manufacturers of car seats have started designing products that are better able to accommodate larger children.

Challenges parents may face when using a car seat that their child has outsized:

  • Improper restraint: Overweight children are likely to outgrow their seats faster than their developmental growth. This would result in a child not being restrained in a way that is effectively safe for their developmental stage, leading to an increased chance of injury in a car crash.
  • Discomfort: Overweight children restrained in a car seat that they are too large for will be uncomfortable. This will make them less inclined to stay safely put in their seat, resulting in them likely trying to wiggle out or fight against their car seat. Not only is this stressful for both parent and child but if they end up incorrectly positioned in their seat, they won’t be safely protected in a car crash. Incorrect positioning in a car seat can increase the severity of the injury.
  • Seat belt positioning: Seat belt positioning plays a vital role in safely restraining your child in a car crash. Correct positioning should allow seat belts to cross a child’s upper body from the shoulder across to the hip, as well as across their lap. Large children may struggle to find a comfortable fit with a seatbelt, resulting in incorrect seat belt positioning.
  • Increased risk of injury during emergency braking: In a car crash, weight plays a huge part in which the force at which a person is thrown forward. In the design of infant car seats, their disproportionately larger heads must be accounted for when considering the momentum of the impact of a car crash. Children who are overweight are thrown with greater force with the impact of a car crash. This means that they are far more susceptible to greater risk of injury, as well as more likely to sustain more severe injuries. It is vitally important that their car seat is able to keep them restrained safely in a way that is appropriate and accommodates for their size.
  • Difficulties with rear-facing car seats: A rear-facing car seat is recommended until a child is 15 months old. As most car crashes result in forward or sideways impact, a rear-facing car seat provides the necessary support for a young child’s fragile head, neck and spine. For a child who is overweight, rear-facing up until 15 months may not be possible or could lead to discomfort and agitation. In this scenario, parents may be more inclined towards prematurely transitioning to a forward-facing seat. Yet, transitioning them to a bigger seat too soon would forego the safety measures covered by rear-facing their car seat.

What are the solutions?

  • Choose a suitable care seat for your child’s size: The safest car seat is a one that best accommodates your child at their correct developmental stage. For large children, a standard car seat might not be suitable. Parents are recommended to find a car seat that has a higher upper weight limit.
  • Ensure the seat belt/harness fits correctly: To minimise discomfort and risk of injury, ensure that your child is safely restrained, with a correctly positioned seat belt or harness. The straps should cross the upper body from the shoulder (away from their neck), and across their lap (not their stomach). The straps should securely restrain them without being too tight and causing discomfort.
  • Consistency of car seat use: Children who are overweight may be more inclined towards throwing a fuss about being restrained in a car seat as larger children are more susceptible to experiencing car seat discomfort. As with all children who initially resist their car seats, consistency is the key to acclimatising them to being restrained. If they’re struggling to get used to a seat, especially during transitional phases, it’s worth investigating whether they are very uncomfortable. This indicates that they might require a seat that is more accommodating to their body.
  • Proper car seat installation: Correct car seat installation is another vital factor in the efficacy of a car seat and is important for children of every size. As children who are obese have greater weight behind their momentum in a car crash, it is crucially important that their car seat is installed according to the manufacturer’s guidelines.
  • Encourage a healthy lifestyle: Many families struggle to maintain balance in their lives due to social and economic pressures. We’re often guilty of sacrificing physical and mental health before anything else. It is important that, where physically possible, children are encouraged to eat healthily and have access to regular exercise. Excessive unhealthy/sugary foods and screen time can lead to lifelong health problems. Many children start struggling with obesity before even reaching a school-going age. This has a long-term impact on their physical development.

Car seats for bigger kids

If you feel like your child may require a bigger car seat and don’t know where to start, here are some recommendations:

  • Safeway Polar (0-36kg/infant-Booster Group): this car seat is suitable as a hybrid multi-stage car seat across infant, toddler and booster seat stages. It allows for rear-facing up to 18kg. With an internal harness, this seat can be used in the forward-facing position up to 25kg. It can be used as a booster seat till your child in ready for the seatbelt at 1.5m tall.
  • Chicco Sirio 012 Air (0-25kg/Infant-Toddler Group): with the use of a 5-point harness, this car seat can accommodate children up to 25kg. It also features soft belt pads and cushioning for additional comfort. It’s important to note that the seat only rear faces to 13kgs so it might not be suitable for bigger kids that are under 15 months as they would need to forward face before developmentally ready.
  • BeSafe IZi Plus X1 – Rear Facing (0-25kg/Infant-Toddler Group): For parents who want to rear-face their car seat for as long as they can, this car seat can harness up to 25kg and is an option for rear facing up to approximately 5 years of age.

For more information on choosing the correct car seat, please refer to our easy-to-read infographics here. If you require assistance with finding a good fit for a larger child or need help with the correct installation, please contact Wheel Well or visit our showroom.

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