Last updated: June 9, 2017
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). They are usually called Child Safety Seats. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Think about how much you’ll use a baby carrier. That will help you determine what to spend. A low-priced version may be fine for quick jaunts. If you foresee longer treks with baby or expecting to be using your carrier a lot, consider a higher-end model. You might also wait until after your baby’s born to see if the need for a carrier arises. There are carrier parents and then there are those who mostly leave their carriers hanging on a hook on the closet. Time will tell which one you are.
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.
Some infant seats and convertible sears have level indicator on the side to help you install then facing the rear at a safe angle.
Typically, manufacturers use the same shell of molded plastic for all seats of a particular model.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.