The problem with buying a car seat is not that you have to buy one, it’s that you actually have to buy several—one for infancy (or two) for infancy, one for toddlerhood, and one for young children. You’ll have to assess your family’s needs closely to get the best value from your purchases.
Every car seat made since September 2002 comes with LATCH anchors (lower anchors and tethers for children). A car seat shouldn’t move more than one inch when pushed hard in any direction. Tightening a seat belt enough can be difficult and can loosen over time. The lower anchor in the LATCH system always stays tight. The tether at the top of the seat ensures that your child doesn’t move more than 28 inches forward in the event of a crash, which nearly eliminates the risk of a neck injury. Latch connectors come in hook-style or push-on style, the latter being easier to use. Most cars made since 1989 can be retrofitted with a tether. Only a few can be retrofitted with lower anchors.
Most car seats come with a five-point harness system and several harness slots or external harness adjustments. External adjustments require less wrestling with the seat.
The seat should be reclined at an angle that keeps your child’s head from slumping forward. Many car seats have multiple recline adjustments and recline indicators to check for correct positioning.
Choose a car seat with removable, washable fabric covers. There’s no telling what your kid will get on that seat.
Even the safest car seats are only safe when they are installed correctly. So study each seat to determine whether the seat is relatively easy to install.
You can’t leave the hospital with your baby unless you have a car seat properly installed. A rear-facing infant car seat fits an infant up to 20 lbs. They detach from the base (which secures to your back seat), so that you can use it as a baby carrier, which comes in handy when you don’t want to wake a sleeping baby. Most infant car seats snap into a Snap N Go���style stroller base.
The travel system pairs an infant car seat with a stroller that can be used as the child grows. The car seat detaches from the car base and snaps into a stroller base. Your child will outgrow this seat at around 6 months.
Car seats are safest when rear-facing for infants until they are both one year old and weigh at least 20 lbs. The AAP even recommends that you keep your child in a rear-facing seat up to 23 months old if possible. Convertible car seats work both rear- and forward-facing. Some convertible car seats comfortably hold an infant from birth up to 35 lbs. These seats, however, cannot be detached and used as a carrier. For city dwellers who will rarely move their infants in and out of a car, these seats offer a great value. You will want to buy a head support for newborns, preferably one designed by the manufacturer of your seat.
You can begin using a forward facing seat at one year old. Some forward-facing-only seats can be used as booster seats for children up to 80 lbs.
Booster seats elevate your child so that the seat belt fits properly. Some states only require children to be in a booster seat up to 4 years old. However, the AAP and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) recommend that children use booster seats up to 8 years old or until they reach 4 feet, 9 inches tall. Belt-positioning booster seats guide the seatbelt into the appropriate position. Some forward-facing toddler seats convert to booster seats by removing the five-point harness and using the seatbelt. Other booster seats have no back, and should be used only with seats that have built-in headrests.
Britax, Combi, and Peg Perego brands are considered high end. Consumer reports routinely lists the Britax Roundabout among its top choices for a small, lightweight, extremely safe convertible seat. Graco, which sells the most car seats of any brand, also offers good value.
Chicco brand makes infant car seats only. Other brands include Evenflo and Dorel, which makes Cosco, Eddie Bauer, Maxi Cosi, Quinny and Safety 1st.
When the seat is rear facing, straps should be positioned at or below your child’s shoulders. When forward facing, straps should be at or above the shoulders. Incorrect positioning can cause serious injuries in the event of a crash.
Check with your local police precinct to find car seat inspection clinics near you. Installing a car seat shouldn’t be a guessing game. Even if you think you’ve done it correctly, see a specialist to know for sure.