Cloth diapers or disposable? Baby Einstein or Barney? The list of decisions new parents have to make is endless and can be overwhelming. Fortunately, choosing an infant car seat doesn’t have to be. All infant car seats manufactured and sold in the United States are required to meet federal safety standards, so you can focus on Pronto’s Infant Car Seat Buying Guide to help you determine which infant car seat best meets the needs of your baby, your budget and your lifestyle. Proper fit and installation are critical. Be sure to save the original box, packaging and receipt and be familiar with return policies (see also Child Car Seat Buying Guide).
Above all, the infant car seat needs to fit your car and should be easy 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.
Car seats need to fit your vehicle and fit your child. You’ll also be toting it in and out of the car and places in between. As your baby gains weight, you want to be sure the car seat is still comfortable to carry.
Do you walk more than you drive, often take public transportation or climb lots of stairs? Will you be flying frequently with your baby? Look for car seats that easily adapt to your lifestyle.
Manufacturers now offer low-birth weight inserts and other models for infants with special health needs.
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.
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).
Seats that face the front of the car. Recommend for children over the age of one who weight 20 + pounds.
Seats that face the car’s rear window. Rear-facing seats are recommended for all infants from birth up to 20lbs.
The base allows you to detach the seat from the car without disturbing your child. If your child has multiple caregivers and rides in multiple cars, consider purchasing additional bases for convenience.
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.
Car seat harnesses that attach at both shoulders, both hips and at the crotch for a total of five attachment points. Not all seats feature the 5-point harness; some only feature 3 attachment points. It’s important to note that neither Consumer Reports nor the American Association of Pediatrics recommend the 3-point harness system.
Whether you’re buying your first infant car seat or replacing one that’s worn or has been damaged in an accident, it’s not always possible or convenient to get a feel for the seat with your baby inside it. You can, however, get a feel for how the seat fits your vehicle. Installing the car seat and getting familiar with locking and unlocking the restraints is a critical task. Little comes close to physically carrying the model you’re interested in, putting into and taking it out of your car multiple times - some infant car seats for example, most notably Britax brand, have great height and may not fit your compact car.
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 Consumer Reports, 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 Reports 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 infant car seat choices is solid.
On January 4, 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.
Infant car seats differ from other car seats and booster seats in that nearly all include a collapsible shield to shield the elements, a swinging handle, and often a plastic base unit that attaches to your vehicle’s seat or stroller. The weight of your infant’s car seat will be a key consideration, especially if you are a city-dweller or your average day includes taking several flights of stairs. Infant car seats alone weigh between 6 and 10lbs so the real test is carrying the seat with a sleeping 18lb baby inside it.
|Car Seat Name||Weight Without Base||Weight With Base|
|Graco Snugride||7.24 lbs||12.64 lbs|
|Combi Center Seat||8.6 lbs||16.3 lbs|
|Baby Trend Flex Loc||8.5 lbs||N/A|
If you will be traveling by air with your child, you may want to purchase an Airline Travel System. Infant 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.
Is your baby a preemie? Does he/she have difficulty breathing or other special health needs? Some infant car seats come with optional ‘low birth weight’ inserts and new products like the Car Bed allow babies to remain prone while still meeting federal safety restraint guidelines.
How much should you spend on your infant car seat? Prices range from $59.99 (Evenflo Tribute) 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 infant 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 infant 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 infant car seat get you? Features like EPS foam padding, cup holders or easy-to-clean microfiber 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 your infant car seat comes with 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.