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How Long Can a 3-Year-Old Be in a Car Seat? (Must Read!)


Three-year-olds are little bundles of energy, and it can be challenging trying to convince them to sit still for a few minutes, let alone getting them to sit peacefully in a car seat for a long car ride. So, how long can a three-year-old safely be in a car seat? 

A three-year-old can be in a car seat for two hours at a time.

Keep reading for more information on why toddlers should be in a car seat for a maximum of two hours. I’ll also give you some useful tips for choosing a car seat for your toddler.  

How long should a 3 year old be in a carseat?

The Two-Hour Rule for Toddlers in a Car Seat

Parenting experts normally advise that children aged one to three shouldn’t remain in a car seat for longer than two hours. (source).

The toddler should be given short breaks at least every two hours during the drive to stretch their legs and move around.

During this two-hour traveling period, your toddler should always be observed by a responsible adult who can ensure that the child is in the most comfortable seating position throughout the drive. The adult should observe the toddler for:

  • Overheating (stop and remove the toddler from the car seat if skin redness, fast breathing, or sweating is observed)
  • Slumping (correct the toddler’s posture when this is observed due to the possibility of air restriction of the lungs)
  • Correct placement of car seat straps (make sure straps are snug but not too tight and placed per the manufacturer’s guidelines)

How To Keep Toddlers Safe on Car Journeys 

Embarking on long car journeys can be stressful, especially with a child. So, how can you keep your toddler safe on a long car journey? 

  1. Use window shades and sunscreen. Toddlers have sensitive skin, which can burn easily. To prevent sunburn while your toddler is in their car seat, ensure that they are wearing sunscreen and consider placing shades over the back windows. 
  2. Pack a first aid kit. Even when they are in a car seat, toddlers can be accident-prone. A small first aid kit will help you attend to minor injuries and mishaps while traveling. 
  3. Dress your toddler in lightweight clothing. Your toddler will feel much more comfortable if they are wearing lightweight clothing. If it’s winter, dress them in layers so that you can easily remove a clothing item if they complain about being too hot. 
My son used to get some of his best sleep in a car seat!

How to Choose a Safe Toddler Car Seat

Choosing a safe and high-quality car seat is essential because it can protect your child from injury or death in a car accident. 

Here are some tips for choosing a safe toddler car seat: 

1. Choose An Age-Appropriate Seat

If money is tight, opting for a car seat that your toddler can grow into can feel tempting. Unfortunately, it is a huge safety risk if your child’s car seat is too big or too small. 

Using a car seat that is too small for your toddler won’t provide enough protection in a collision as it has been designed for a smaller child. On the other hand, car seats that are too large making it easy for your child to slip through the harness if you’re in an accident. 

Any good quality car seat will clearly indicate the age and weight range for which it is intended.  

2. Ensure That Your Car Can Accommodate It Safely

Practically all modern vehicles can accommodate new toddler car seats safely. However, if your car is older than two decades, it may not be suitable for certain car seat types. 

Many stores selling car seats allow customers to check and see if the carseat will fit into their vehicles safely. If you live in a large city in the USA, you can also take advantage of the car seat “clinics” that ensure parents have installed their car seats correctly.

This is typically a free service that is offered every few months, and it’s worth checking when your city will next host one.  

3. Know The Car Seat’s History – If You Buy a Used One

If there is one thing to splurge on, experts recommend that it is a car seat because you cannot put a price on your child’s safety. However, if you don’t have any choice but to buy a used one, make sure that you know the car seat’s history.

You might find a bargain car seat for sale in a charity store, but there is no way of knowing if the car seat has been in an accident. Car seats that have previously been in a collision do not offer an acceptable level of safety as they may be cracked or damaged in areas that aren’t visible. 

To be extra safe, check and make sure the car seat has been recalled (source).

4. Look for Certifications

Most car seat manufacturers will state that their products are extremely safe. Instead of relying on their clever marketing, ensure the car seat is certified. 

For instance, if you live in the USA, check the label to ensure that it complies with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213 (source).

You can also consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Child Passenger Safety standards list to ensure that your car seat meets them (source).

You can also use the NHTSA car seat finder, an easy-to-use tool that helps you find the right car seat for your child here:

Author Notes:
Teresa is a Registered Nurse in the State of Texas and the mother of two. Opinions and insights on childcare are based on professional knowledge, academic research, and personal experience.

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