Child Car-Seat Safety: When Does Caution Turn To Paranoia?

Health & Wellness on 03.30.11
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Photo Credit: Michael Prince/CORBIS

My husband and I usually agree on most safety issues when it comes to our children.

Don’t leap from several steps from the bottom of the stairs. Don’t push past your younger brother when running up the stairs. Always hold mommy or daddy’s hands in the parking lot. Never cross the street without a grown-up. Never run with scissors or a pencil in hand.

So when I started talking to him the other day about my feelings regarding the American Academy of Pediatrics’ new car seat guidelines, I didn’t quite get the response I expected.

“I mean, what’s next? Wrap our children in bubble-wrap?” I asked? I was quite proud of that, having tweeted out something along those lines when the new guidelines came out.

“If I thought wrapping our boys in bubble wrap would make them safer,” my husband shot back, “I’d wrap ‘em in bubble wrap.”

I stopped and wondered for a moment - was I being too cavalier about our children’s safety?

In case you hadn’t heard the news: The AAP came out with new guidelines a couple weeks ago, suggesting that children remain in rear-facing car seats until the age of 2 and in belt-positioning booster seats until age 8.

The five recommendations:

  •     rear-facing car safety seats for most infants up to 2 years of age
  •     forward-facing car safety seats for most children through 4 years of age
  •     belt-positioning booster seats for most children through 8 years of age
  •     lap-and-shoulder seat belts for all who have outgrown booster seats
  •     all children younger than 13 years to ride in the rear seats of vehicles

Sure, the academy does say that if a child is large enough to reach the seat’s maximum height and weight for the seat before age 2, to face it forward and in all cases the size of the child has bearing on the recommendations (except the final recommendation of the back seat). And it’s not as if it’s law (though in the past many, if not all, states have turned the AAP’s recommendations into law).

And I know if either of our children were younger than 4 (they’re soon turning 7 and 5), my husband would insist on following these recommendations and I’d lose that fight if I tried to engage.

But when do we stop trying to convince ourselves we can protect our children from absolutely everything? The world is a dangerous place. I feel as if we’re trying to make ourselves feel better more than anything else.

Even in writing this, I feel like I’m on the defensive, as if I’m a bad mother for even thinking this. As if I should say, “I really love my kids, I swear!”

And the AAP’s report had some shocking statistics: “child safety seats reduce the risk of injury by 71 percent to 82 percent compared with similar-aged children using seat belts. They reduce the risk of nonfatal injury among 4- to 8-year-olds specificially by 45 percent over those using seat belts. Yet, 1,500 children younger than 16 die in car crashes each year in the U.S., the report says.

Here’s the key to that statistic, however: Nearly half those who die are completely unrestrained.

I’m all for seat belts. Heck, I haven’t let anyone ride in the front seat of my car without putting on his or her seat belt longer than most states have had that as a law. And I’m not suggesting children be allowed to jump up and down in the back seat while I’m driving on the highway (like lots of kids did when I was growing up, mind you).

I’m a proponent of booster seats, too. Being on the short side (almost 5-foot-4), I sometimes find shoulder harnesses a little high up and uncomfortable, so I can easily see the need for a belt-positioning seat.

There’s always something we can do to make ourselves and our children a little bit safer. But the more we try to bubble-wrap ourselves into safety, the more we’re fooling ourselves that we can protect ourselves and our children against everything.

We must be vigilant, yes.

But at what point does being vigilant turn into being paranoid?