A child car seat should be high on your to-buy list. You’ll need one to bring your baby home from the hospital and for every car trip thereafter. In fact, hospitals and birthing centers generally won’t let you leave by car with your newborn if you don’t have one.

To protect children in the event of a crash, every state requires that kids up to 4 years of age ride in a car seat (and about a third of the states require booster seats, some for children as old as 8). there are two main types for transporting infants:

  • rear-facing-only infant car seats
  • convertible car seats

The latter can be used rear-facing until the maximum limits (weight and height) that the seat is rated for are reached; after that, you use them forward-facing. If you stat with an infant car seat, as many parents do and as we recommend, your baby may outgrow it quickly. At about 6 or 9 months your baby will probably become too heavy to carry in an infant seat, and you’ll want to switch to a convertible seat, which also gives baby additional room. But be sure to keep your child’s convertible seat facing the rear of the vehicle until he or she reaches the weight and height limits specified by the manufacturer.

Under no circumstances should you switch the convertible car seat to a front-facing orientation for a child younger than 1 year and weighing 20 pounds or less. That can result in death or serious injury in a crash. Some children rear-facing beyond their second birthday.

The safest place for a child is in your vehicle’s rear-center seat. The car seat should never be installed on a front seat that has an air bag. Two exceptions: If your car doesn’t have a back seat, or if your child has a medical condition that requires constant monitoring, you can h ave an on/off switch installed for the front-passenger air bag or have it disconnected so the child’s car seat can go next to the driver. But to have that done you’ll need a letter of authorization from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). To obtain one, contact the agency via its website: www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

What’s Available

Infant Seats

These rear-facing, cradle-type seats are for babies up to 20 or 22 pounds, depending on the model. They allow infants to recline at an angle that doesn’t interfere with breathing and protects them best in a crash. Many strollers are now designed to accommodate infant car seats. All infant car-seat models come with a handle, and nearly all have a base that secures to your vehicle with latch connections or a safety belt, a convenience that lets you remove the seat and use it as a carrier. You can strap most infant seats into a car without a base, using the vehicle safety belts.

Today, infant seats have either a three-point harness – two adjustable shoulder straps and a lock between the child’s legs or – even better – an adjustable five-point system – two straps over the shoulders, two for the thighs, and a crotch strap. An infant seat’s handle usually swings from a position behind the seat’s shell when in the car to an upright position for carrying. Slots underneath most seats help them attach to the frame of a shopping cart.

Pros: They fit small infants best. With an infant car seat, you also can move your baby from car to house without waking him or her up – a plus for both of you.

Cons: Your baby may outgrow an infant car seat quickly and become too heavy for you to use it as a carrier. However, we advice to start with an infant seat before moving up to a convertible seat.

Our Recommendation

You and your baby will spend many hours in the car. Of course, your first concern is keeping baby safe and secure. You will also want one that is comfortable for the ride as well. The Chicco Keyfit 30 Infant Car Seat and Base are perfect for all of these needs. It was rated the number one car seat in America and was the easiest infant car seat to install. It offers a 5-point harness system that can be adjusted with only one hand. One of the unique features of this infant car seat is that it can accommodate smaller babies and has full-body inserts for newborns between 4 and 11 pounds. Your baby will love the feel of the car seat, and you will love the peace of mind that comes with knowing that your baby is as safe and secure as possible.

Price: $199.99

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The Graco Snug Ride Click Connect 35 is a lightweight infant car seat with added features. It is designed for rear facing and can be easily inserted in a vehicle or stroller. Moms can enjoy this safe and reliable car seat with added protection and comfort. The click connects feature works will all click connect products. It securely connects to strollers and vehicles. The car seat is easy to secure and it offers reassurance that baby will remain safe with each trip. This seat is constructed to fit babies up to 35 pounds or 32 inches in height. It will be a long-lasting protection while your baby continues to grow. It will make traveling a breeze with the one step install process. It is a great choice for new moms.

Price: $139.49

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The Safety 1st Grow and Go 3-in-1 is a multi-functional car seat. Parents will benefit choosing this product because it adjusts to your child’s growth. It is designed to be used as a rear facing seat for infants, forward position for toddlers, and seat belt booster for growing kids. This car seat is all you need to keep the child safe for years as they increase in weight and height. The safety-first seat takes up minimal room in any vehicle. It comes equipped with a safety harness that easily moves out of the way to easily get your child in and out of the car seat. This three-phase car seat is a remarkable choice for parents because it accommodates your child through the growing stages of life.

Price: $149.99

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Travel Systems

Most manufacturers of car seats offer combination strollers/infant car seats, called travel systems. With a travel system, you create a carriage by snapping an infant car seat into a stroller. The car seats of travel systems also come wit ha base, which stays in the car. The snap-on car seat is generally positioned atop the stroller so the infant rides facing the person pushing. Your baby can also ride in the stroller seat alone when he or she is big enough.

A new generation of travel systems have strollers that are infant-ready; that is, you can transport a newborn safely in one. See page 229 for more on travel systems’ configurations as strollers. There are also lightweight strollers and stroller frames with no seat that can accommodate various brands of infant seats.

Pros: Travel systems offer one-stop shopping: You get an infant car seat and a stroller all in one.

Cons: Most travel-system strollers can be used only with a car seat from the same company. They can also be bulky, so if you’re a city dweller who negotiates more subway stairs than highways or of the trunk of your car isn’t too roomy, you may be better off with a separate car seat and a compact stroller that is appropriate for a newborn.

Our Recommendation

The Chico Bravo Trio is an amazing three in one stroller. The multi-functional product can transform from a stroller into a carrying seat and rocker recliner. Parents will enjoy having this stroller because it is constructed to accommodate your baby’s needs. The soft padding provides amazing comfort and baby will enjoy the soft padding that it provides. The stroller allows your baby to see the world and take a nap without leaving the stroller. It is a great option for mom’s who want to keep baby happy while on the go. The all rear suspension allows the stroller ride to be smooth for your baby. The reclining seat lets baby sit up and take in the environment with you. The Chico stroller provides three beneficial products all in one which can save money and will keep baby happy.

Price: $379.99

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The Graco Aire3 Click Connect is a respected choice for parents and babies. It comes with many features that will make life easier and keep your baby comfortable. The stroller has a removable car seat that is the Click Connect 35. It can be used for babies who need a rear-facing car seat up to 35 pounds of weight. The click system is easily removable and installed with a one click process. Parents are able to use this stroller and car seat combo with little effort. It can easily be compacted for travel and storage with one hand. There is no struggling when using this travel system and it provides adequate use in and out of the vehicle. The three wheels provide durable support when transporting your baby. The wheel lock lets you lock the stroller in place for added protection. This is a must have for parents and a secure and comfort stroller for your baby.

Price: $238.99

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The Baby Trend EZ Ride 5 travel system has several functions. It is designed to carry babies from newborn to 50 pounds. The stroller has a removable seat that can be used as a rear-facing car seat. Parents enjoy the different functions of the stroller because it can be used in the car and on the move. It comes with a comfortable and soft head rest for babies to use in the car seat and the stroller. An adjustable handle and reclining seat allow you and baby to have a perfect adventure without any issues. This stroller is a great option for parents to buy because it offers protection, comfort, and easy transformation from stroller, carrier, and car seat.

Price: $137.71

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Convertible seats

With a convertible seat, the child faces rearward as an infant, then toward the front as a toddler. The seat can function as a rear-facing seat for infants up to 22 or 35 pounds, depending on the model, and as a front-facing seat for toddlers generally up to 40 pounds ( a few have a 65-pounds limit). Models typically have an adjustable five-points harness system-two straps over the shoulders, two for the thighs, and a crotch strap between the legs. Some models have a tray shield that lowers over the baby’s head and fastens with a buckle between the legs. However, our tests shows that children, especially small ones, are better restrained with a five-point harness.

Pros: A convertible car seat can be a money saver, taking your child from infancy to kindergarten. We advise starting with an infant seat first, though, as mentioned earlier.

Cons: Convertible seats are not compatible with strollers, so you will have to transfer your baby from the car seat to a carriage or stroller when you’re ready to set out on foot. Such jostling can wake a sleeping baby, a problem if you need to take baby on frequent shopping expeditions or other errands.

Our Recommendation

The Britax USA Marathon ClickTight car seat is a safe and protected product for your baby. It is constructed to allow easy installation in and out of the vehicle. Once the baby is in the seat, strap the seatbelt across your baby and click. This innovated and simple to install car seat will put your mind at ease and offer added safety for your baby. Parents will enjoy knowing that with each car trip, the child is securely protected. It has extra absorbance that keeps provides more safety in an accident. The car seat’s design was created with accident safety in mind. It is made out of a metal frame and solid support with baby’s protection first. Parents can enjoy this car seat while knowing that it is constructed and tested to keep baby protected from unexpected accidents.

Price: $399.99

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The Chico Nextfit Zip is a secure designed convertible car seat that offers a lot of extra features. The car seat was constructed with a five-star wide harness that keeps baby’s in place at all times. It is tested for side impact resistance to maintain your baby’s safety while in an accident. The car seat is highly constructed for added protection and security. The padded head rest, washable fabric, and added cup holders will allow your baby to stay happy with every trip. It is designed for security and comfort to keep your mind at ease and your baby happy. Parents cannot pass up this remarkably designed car seat that provides the utmost protection for your baby.

Price: $349.99

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The Diono Radian RXT is the most security tested and safest car seat on the market. It is uniquely designed with a steel frame for exceptional protection. This remarkable three stage car seat will fit your baby through all of the many growth spurts. It is a rear facing seat, front facing seat, and booster seat all in one. Your child will not have to worry about outgrowing the car seat because of its amazing features. Comfort is important for your baby and that is why there is added foam and padding for your newborn. Your baby will enjoy having extra support for the head and body while safely buckled in the seat. This car seat’s construction has put your baby’s needs first with high-quality protection and comfort. Parents can enjoy this all in one car seat for their baby with added security and reassurance.

Price: $359.99

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Down the Road

Here are more seating options for children riding front-facing. These seats are not for rear-facing use and are not that popular:

Toddler/booster seats

Looking like large version of convertible seats, these front-facing seats are used with an internal harness for toddlers 20 to 40 pounds. They’re either LATCH-attached or can be secured using the vehicle belts and tethers. When kids reach 40 pounds, the seats becomes a belt-positioned booster seat, which children can use until they’re 80 or 100 pounds. With a belt-positioned booster seat, the child is restrained using the vehicle’s lap and shoulder belts.

Booster seats

These are generally for children weighing 40 to 80 pounds. They use the vehicle;’s own safety belts to restrain the child.

Built-in seats

Some U.S. And foreign automakers offer on select cars and minivans an integrated, forward-facing child seat that has harness and accommodates toddlers weighing more than pounds. There are also some booster-seat versions. Built-in seats must meet the same performance standards as add-on child seats. However, they offer little or no side protection and they’re usually located next to a door, instead of in the center-the safer position. You may also need a regular car seat for when your child travels in other vehicles.

Features to Consider

The fabric.

Today’s car seats cater to every possible taste-plain colors, plaids, animal and paw-print motifs, “cowmooflage,” and patriotic red, white and blue. Remember that, style aside, babies tend to be messy, so washable fabric is a plus, especially of your car seat will be with you beyond the first year, when training cups and eating on the go can kick into high gear. Some leafing brands, however, require hand washing and line drying. Make sure you’re up for that; most coverings are rigged through the belting system and are held in place with elastic so they can be removed for laundering. But in some cases extracting the fabric from the seat can require extensive dismantling. Check the seat’s manual for how-to’s.

Extras such as add-on seat covers (“boots”), thicker padding, additional reclining options, or adjustable head-support cushions may offer greater comfort. Buy buy them only if they are sold by the same maker as the seat and for that specific seat, since they were tested that way; mixing brands is very risky. Some models have elastic side pockets for toys, bottles, or snacks. As your baby grows, they can come in handy, but they’re not absolutely necessary.

Level indicator

Some infant seats and convertible sears have level indicator on the side to help you install then facing the rear at a safe angle.

Seat shell

Typically, manufacturers use the same shell of molded plastic for all seats of a particular model.

Top tether

This webbed strap can be used with all front-facing seats for children up to 40 pounds and with some up to 65 pounds. It’s located on the back of a convertible or toddler seat and hooks into an eye bolt in a vehicle’s rear deck, floor, roof, or seatback. New passenger vehicles have the anchors in place in their rear sears, but older models may need to have the hardware added. Obviously, you can’t use a tether with cars that lack a top-tether or that have no provision for a retrofit.

Installation: Getting it Right

When installing a seat for the first time, give yourself a good half-hour. If you can recruit a helper, even better. Here are a few pointers for making installation easier:

Read all about it

Consult the instructions that come with the seat as well as your vehicle owner’s manual for information on how to use your car’s safety belts with that car seat. Some car manufacturers also have a free how-to brochures or video that can help.

Position the seat

As we’ve mentioned, the center rear seat is the safest spot. You may have to place the seat next to a door if you have more that one small child; if there isn’t a shoulder belt in the center (for use with a booster seat); if your LATCH-compatible vehicle lacks lower anchors in the center rear position and you don’t want to use the center-seat vehicle belt; or if using the center rear seat would make the child seat unstable, among other reasons.

Secure the seat

Use your weight to push the child seat into your vehicle’s seat ( you may want to use a knee) while pulling the slack out of the car’s safety belt or LATCH strap. With a rear-facing seat, adjust the angle as directed by the manufacturer, using the level indicator or other means to get the backrest of the car seat close to a 45-degree incline. With a front-facing seat for a toddler up to 40 pounds, use the top tether. If the top tether is not in use, such as with a toddler/booster seat used as a booster, remover the top-tether strap or secure it so it doesn’t fly around and injure your child in a crash. When you’re securing an infant or toddler seat with a car’s safety belt, you may need a locking clip so the lap belt remains tight. See the manufacturer’s instructions for details.

Adjust the harness

Harness straps in a rear-facing car seat should be at or slightly below the infant’s shoulders. Or front-facing toddlers, harness straps should be at or slightly above the toddler’s shoulders. If a harness is properly snug, you should not be able to insert more that one of your fingers behind it.

Check the seat every time you use it

Whenever you buckle your child in, try shifting the car seat from side to side and back to front. It shouldn’t move more that an inch in either direction, make sure the harness straps fit snugly.

Double-check with the experts

After you’ve installed the seat, make sure it’s correct. Visit the NHTSA and click on “child-seat inspections” to find an inspection site near you. At the National Safe Kids Buckle Up Check Up site, you’ll find a list of your state’s Safe Kids Buckle Up Check Up events. You can also find child passenger safety information, including where to get your child’s seat inspected, at www.seatcheck.org.