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The five

What are the five key points I need to look at?

Know your child’s height and weight

You can’t buy the right seat for your child’s present and/or future needs if you don’t his height/weight, and likely trajectory for both. You shouldn’t be able to move the car seat more than an inch in either direction and you shouldn’t be able to get more than three fingers between the straps and your child. If your child is flopping around, or his ears are over the top of the seat, he’s in the wrong seat.

Portability

Most Toddler car seats weight between 19 and 25 pounds. Though that may not be too much for you to carry a short distance, if you need to travel or go long distances on foot, you’ll need to seek out seats specifically designed to be light.

Convertibility

Manufacturer’s recommendations for weight limits and use of LATCH, safety belts, or Britax HUGS vary significantly when you move a rear-facing seat to a forward facing one. Consult an expert when it’s time for this.

Additional features and value

Accessories are nice to have, but the models they come with might not be right for your child. Adding accessories may void the manufacturer’s warranty. Read the fine print before opting for extras.

Vehicle compatibility

Above all, the car seat seat needs to fit your car and should be easily to install and remove based on your vehicle’s dimensions. Even if your neighbor with the twins drives the same car as you, hand-me-downs or used seats should be avoided unless they come from a trusted source. Buy new.

Shop talk

What are the terms and definitions I need to know about?

Convertible seat

Seats that function as rear-facing and convert to forward-facing when your child reaches the age and weight recommendation for forward-facing seats (changing your child over to forward-facing once the age/weight recommendation is met is the parents’ decision—seats don’t come with weight indicators).

Combination seat

This refers to a car seat that is both a forward-facing toddler seat that converts into a Booster seat. A booster seat is a seat that is not installed, but sits on top of the car seat/bench and utilizes the existing safety belt.

LATCH System

LATCH (an acronym for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) is an alternative way to secure your child in their car seat without a safety belt. In 2002 the government mandated that all new vehicles comply with LATCH and come equipped with metal anchors beneath the rear seats to secure car seats. LATCH is now a virtual standard aspect of all brands and models of car seats.

Portable

Some car seats, such as the SafeGuard Go Portable child seat, claim to be excellent for travel, by virtue of the seat can separate from the harness, providing with you a booster-style seat of only 9lbs. There are some parents for who is the ideal solution, however, this seat is not FAA approved, and so traveling parents seeking to use it as a travel air-seat solution will be disappointed.

Recline Angle

Today’s car seats provide a variety of positions (mostly for Rear-facing) for maximum child comfort through the years. Regardless, safety experts recommend installing the seat in its full upright position. Wallet Impact Price ranges are for internal frame or frameless models due to overwhelming popularity in the market.

What’s in a Name?

Though the terminology is not helpfully distinctive, the seats themselves are very specific. Even though most children will spend three to four years in a car seat that’s neither rear facing nor a booster seat, we found scant distinction among products at shopping and review sites on the Internet. It’s important to know that infant/rear facing seats are specifically designed to hold and support children under one year and 20-25lbs, whereas forward facing seats can be used with a range of children up to 40lbs and about 4 years (see individual manufacturers description for details), after which time parents should consider putting them in booster seats.

Many of the car seats we looked at were either called “Toddler Seats” or “Convertible Seats” and had different weight restrictions and allowances when used forward-facing than rear-facing. The important thing to remember is that if your child is over one year and 20lbs, you must avoid buying anything labeled “infant” car seat. Similarly, if your child is in excess of 40lbs and between five and six years old, you SHOULD be buying what’s often marketed as a “booster” seat. Manufacturers now are trying to bridge the gap between products, so shop carefully, and know your child’s height and weight before you buy.

Lastly, “Combination” is another non-legal term that is mostly used to refer to a forward-facing Toddler seat that can with a few adjustments, become a Booster seat.

Unlike their rear-facing and booster counterparts, car seats for your one-to-four year olds can be often be wide and sometimes very tall, especially as manufacturers are designing seats to allow them to accommodate bigger, and in some cases, obese children. Britax, Sunshine and Snug have created seats that when used with the car’s safety belt can increase the weight allowance up to 100 lbs (when used in conjunction with the safety belt) up from about 50, (when secured with LATCH.)

At least one company, SafeGuard, makes a collapsible Child Car Seat that has a base made of steel that separates from its harness, making storage simpler. The rugged skeleton, though it may provide confidence to those who are skeptical about a folding car seat, also adds to its considerable weight. Though its promotional materials claim it is great for travel, its own Web site acknowledges that it is not “FAA Approved,” meaning you can’t sit your child in it for the flight.

The instructions that come with infant car seats are there to help. Read them carefully along with your vehicle owner’s manual for further information regarding safe and proper car seat installation. Many manufacturers are starting to include videos for installation or make them available at their Web sites. You can also visit http://www.seatcheck.org/ for information and guides to local help.

For many reasons, most reputable companies, magazines and Web sites, including consumerreports.org, have generally avoided singling out just one car seat to recommend. The fact is that many of them are good for the job, and despite some confusing media surrounding Consumer Report crash tests, nearly all seats are safe. The Federal Government does rate infant car seats, convertibles and booster seats on an “Ease of Use” scale (http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/CPS/CSSRating/Index.cfm). Some seats earned As and other Cs, but no seat earned a failing grade. The ratings themselves may be difficult to apply, but they prove the field of car seat choices is solid.

A word about ratings or “The Consumer Reports Mistake”

In January, 2007, Consumer Reports magazine erroneously declared 10 out of 12 car seats tested failed its safety tests. This conclusion alarmed both consumers and car seat manufacturers. Consumer Reports recalled the study two weeks later on January 18, 2007, citing a mistake in testing criteria. Tests meant to be conducted at 38mph were actually conducted at 70mph. They withdrew their study, apologized to both readers and the manufacturers, and pledged to enlist outside help going forward. The revised conclusion is that all car seats that they rated ‘unsafe’ are actually quite safe.

Weight, size and fit

With the exception of the $50 Evenflo Fleetwood, nearly every car seat was rated as ‘too heavy to carry’ by most consumers. At the age that a child would move from an infant (rear-facing) seat to a car (forward-facing) seat, many children will typically be transferred from their seat into strollers during a trip to the store. As they grow, most kids will be able to skip the stroller and simply walk away from the car seat, negating the seat’s weight as a primary purchase factor. But some parents do need to transfer car seats from car to car or through the airport. Keep in mind that if portability is a big concern, you’ll probably want to stick with a traveling system, such as those made by Graco or Safety1st. The SafeGuard is an innovative product that might be beneficial to people who have lots of non-airline travel and whose need for portability is great. Unlike infant car seats that must be in hand prior to leaving the hospital, you can actually test out the child car seat with your child in it. They likely will enjoy the exercise while you’re at the store.

Car Seat Name Weight
 
Britax Decathalon 19.7 lbs
 
Evenflo Triumph 21.5 lbs
 
Radian Sunshine 26.2 lbs

Ease of use outside the car

If you will be traveling by air with your child, you may want to purchase an Airline Travel System. Car seats for air travel should be no wider than 16” in order to fit into coach-class seats. Good air travel seats will also feature a restraint certification label (“This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft”) and airline staff looks for this certification. Not all seats are equal, however, so be sure to check the manufacturer’s recommendations. Travel systems may be airplane-seat only or, like Britax’s travel system, comprised of an airplane-ready car seat, base and stroller.

Additional features, value and ratings

How much should you spend on car seat? Prices range from $50.00 (Evenflo Fleetwood) to over $350 (Britax Decathlon Convertible Car Seat in Tiffany) and with federally-mandated safety standards, what you pay is up to you. Spending more doesn’t mean you’re getting a safer car seat (although it may get you one that’s more attractive or brand named). Features like Graco’s level indicator, a visual aid that indicates whether the seat is installed correctly, may add to cost, but for some it’s worth the peace of mind.

It’s common for reviewers to cite the ‘exorbitant’ prices of car seats, but when you consider the precious cargo and government statistics—“Child safety seats reduce the risk of death in passenger cars by 71% for infants, and by 54% for toddlers ages 1 to 4 years”— they’re a bargain, no matter the price.

What does a higher-priced seat get you? Features like EPS foam padding, cup holders or easy-to-clean micro fiber fabric that matches the interior of your SUV. These features can be nice to have, but the seat they come with may not be the best choice for your child. Experts agree that the car seat that’s right for your child is the one that fits your child tightly, and your vehicle correctly when installed properly. If you seat does offer or can work with accessories, pay close attention to the manufacturer’s guaranty and warranties. If you purchase accessories separately from the car seat or purchase them from the manufacturer’s competitors, they may void the car seat’s warranty.

Experts say

  • NHTSA - Awarded the Evenflo Triumph Car Seat a rare grade of “All A’s” across the board for ease of use. Even though this model is outclassed on luxury and style by the Britax Decatholon and probably on brand name recognition by Graco, many local moms liked it because it was “much easier to thread the seat belt through the back than the Britax.” Additionally, its significantly lower retail price makes it a good choice for the budget-conscious. Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
  • U.S. Consumer Protection Safety Commission - View the comprehensive recall list here: Source: U.S. Consumer Protection Safety Commission
  • Expert User - “Fisher Price Safe Voyage Deluxe Convertible Car Seat is definitely my new favorite car seat. This seat is based on the Britax Marathon Car Seat but with only a 55 lb forward facing weight limit, but the same 33 lb rear facing limit. It is super easy to install with seat belts and my 3 year old is very comfortable in it. I highly recommend this seat!” Source: Epinions.com