No experience in life can compare with the wonder and excitement of bringing home a new baby, and no amount of reading, shopping or planning can prepare you completely for what’s in store. Your life is about to change forever, and before it does, you have some big decisions to make.
The first time your baby’s life will depend on one of your decisions is when you’re leaving the hospital, placing your baby in his or her car seat, and going home. A car seat is necessary and is the first and most important baby product for keeping your baby safe.
Types of Car Seats
Infant car seats have cozy cushioning at every corner to embrace your wobbly little bundle of joy. Infant car seats are rated to protect babies, usually as light as 4 pounds up to about 25 lbs., and they have handles to serve as infant carriers. They come with a detachable base, which you install in your car and leave there. You can pack your baby into the seat before you step outside. When you get to your vehicle, you simply press the seat onto the base and listen for the reassuring ‘click’ that lets you know the seat is secure.
You may come across car seats called, toddler car seats. Remember that the main difference concerns size. As your baby grows and changes, so should the car seat. No matter what, you should examine car seats on a case-by-case basis to ensure a good fit.
Convertible car seats are a great option if you like the idea of gear that can ‘grow with’ your child. Most models have removable infant padding and sit rear facing in your vehicle until your child reaches the weight limit of a standard infant seat. At this point, you can remove the padding and reinstall the seat facing forward. Most of these seats are rated for children up to 70 pounds.
Otherwise, there are a few models that only convert from forward-facing seats to boosters, omitting the infant stage altogether. These may be rated for weights from 25 to 120 pounds. There are even a few models that will accommodate a child in rear-facing, forward-facing and booster positions. These options claim to be the only car seat you’ll ever have to buy, but don’t assume they are equally effective in all three positions.
The final stage in child safety seating is booster seat. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children ride in safety seats until the age of seven, and if your child is small, it may be wise to keep your baby in one even longer. A booster simply lifts your child into a position that ensures the shoulder strap of the seat belt makes contact with the appropriate part of your child’s body, the center of the chest.
Many options include backrests with, often removable, head supports. Some models feature sides with additional impact protection. Booster seats are rated for children starting at 30 to 40 pounds, and they max out anywhere from 70 to 120 lbs.
In the unfortunate event that your baby is born premature or with serious health problems, you may not have the option to transport him in a standard car seat. A car bed or specialty car seat, specifically designed for transporting preemies or babies with special medical needs, is an option. The AAP recommends that preemies born before 37 weeks development be monitored for possible breathing problems.
Car beds, which feature a certain slant, enable your baby to ride safely lying face upward or lying on chest while and face is to the side. They often come with padded wrap around harness to secure your baby and a fully padded shell to reduce blunt force during a quick stop or crash. Make sure to check if this sort of car seat is right for you.
Car Seat Features
As soon as you’re familiar with the basics of car seat safety, you can get to the fun part of your baby shopping experience. There are many adorable styles and clever features to choose from. Here are few thoughts to ponder about seats in each category while you try to pick a favorite.
Weight - You will carry this seat, along with your growing baby and a diaper bag everywhere you go for months. Keep this in mind, and when all other factors are equal, choose the lighter seat.
Handle - Make sure the handle is comfortable for you to hold while walking with the seat. Also, you probably will want to hang toys from the handle to keep baby occupied while you’re on the road, so beware of any non-standard handle shapes. There are toy bars made specifically to fit on the handles of standard infant seats.
Canopy - One of the greatest advantages of an infant seat is the ability to get the baby settled all snug in his or her seat, possibly even asleep, before you step out into the elements. If your canopy isn’t sufficient to block the wind and repel the rain, you won’t be getting the full benefit.
Strollers Package - Many infant seats are available as part of a travel system. They come with a matching stroller, designed for a toddler, but the infant seat will easily snap into the stroller frame, creating a smooth riding option for babies. Many moms find the travel systems very convenient, but they are heavier to lift than other strollers. Instead, you may choose frame strollers. What these lack in cute-factor, they make up for in ease of use. They are lightweight and fit most models of infant carrier.
Things to Consider
Materials - While you’re admiring the beautiful, plush fabric options in your car seat options, be sure to remind yourself that you aren’t picking out curtains. This surface is doomed to be splattered with all manner of fluids, day in and day out, possibly for years on end. How will the material hold up to repeated washing? Is the fabric removable for machine-washing? How badly will a set-in-stain stand out? Replacement car seat covers are an option for some of the major brands and models, but they can cost up to $100.
Compatibility with Your Car - Some convertible seats, in their rear-facing positions, do not fit well in compact cars. If you have a small car and don’t do your homework, you may end up needing to install the seat in the middle of your back seat, which may already be recommended in your car’s manual.
On the other hand, you may have to keep your passenger seat in its forward most position, practically inside the glove compartment at all times. You can avoid both situations by shopping at a retailer that allows you to try the car seat in your vehicle before purchase.
Height - Convertible seats of different brands sit at different heights in your vehicle, and they recline your child at different angles. Some children will become frustrated if they can’t see out the window. If you are concerned that a certain seat may not be tall enough, check to see if there are accessories available for that model to let you raise the seat or adjust the incline angle. You won’t need to purchase one right away because until they can support their heads, infants need to ride at a 45 degree angle. Besides, your child probably won’t care about looking out the window until he or she is a little older.
Cup Holders - Are they tall enough to tolerate flailing arms and legs bumping into the beverages they contain? Are they easy to clean and dishwasher safe? Is the inner portion removable? Ensure that any drink you put in front of your baby will be within the baby’s short arm reach.
Style - Your child will be concerned about his or her image before outgrowing this seat. Keep in mind that he might be smaller than average and end up as the only kid in class who still rides in a booster. It may be wise to consider an understated style that blends in well with your car’s interior.
Portability - If you are looking for a booster to use after your child has outgrown the five-point harness, it should be easy to move this seat in and out of your car. Think about if you might want to use it in other settings, such as at the kitchen table or at a sporting event. Is it lightweight and easy to carry? These considerations would apply to convertible seats that include the booster stage.
Car Seat Safety
Once you have determined the type of car seat you’re looking for, you can turn your attention to finding the safest seats in your chosen category.
1. Look for NHTSA Compliance
You’ll want a car seat that is rated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for compliance with federal safety guidelines. NHTSA performs various “dynamic impact” tests to evaluate a safety seat’s effectiveness in crashes at different speeds and angles of impact. The administration has a series of crash test dummies to represent children from newborn through age ten, and you can find information on car seats in each category.
Of course, the urge to shop for baby supplies might overcome you so suddenly that you find yourself in the store, registry list in hand, without conducting any preliminary safety research. There is no need to panic and pull up NHTSA on your phone. Just look for a sticker on the seat that says it meets or beats Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213 (FMVSS 213).
2. Check US DOT Smart Ratings
The US Department of Transportation’s website offers smart ratings, which inform consumers of the “ease of use” for various car seat models. It evaluates the clarity of the labels and instructions provided with each seat, including user friendliness of installation. There is even a category rating the ease with which a trained professional could strap a dummy properly into the seat. This is helpful for comparison purposes, but keep in mind that not only are you not a trained professional, you probably will have both hands full and be sleep deprived. Not to mention, your baby is no dummy.
After the first 12 weeks or so, your baby will likely be a strong willed escape artist in training. So remember that while ease of use is important, your actual experience may vary. Speaking of safety, if you happen to be in the market to purchase a vehicle, the US Department of Transportation website also offers information on choosing a child safe vehicle.
3. Front or Rear Facing?
An infant seat and the infant stage of any convertible seat will always face the rear of your vehicle. A booster seat, of course, will always face forward. Rear facing is by far the safest position because it spreads out the force of any potential impact over the largest area of your child’s body. You’ll want to determine how much your child can weigh (and how tall she can grow) before making the switch to forward facing. The size limits for each position vary greatly from one seat to another.
4. Choose Your Harness Type
A baby needs to be restrained in a five-point harness, and you probably would have a hard time finding a new infant seat or convertible safety seat that employs any other method. Most booster seats and the booster stages of most convertible seats eliminate the five-point harness and rely on the car’s seat belt to restrain the child. Five-point harnesses are the more secure option, and it is best to keep using one for as long as possible.
Car Seat Installation Tips
Installing an Infant Seat Base - The base for an infant safety seat can be installed using the seat belts in your vehicle or the lower anchors, which you can find in the seat crease of any vehicle made after 2003. These lower anchors are part of the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system and may not be present in older model vehicles.
A seat belt can secure you child just as well as the lower anchors, but there is more room for error when installing your base this way. If your child will be frequently moving between two vehicles, you may want to purchase an additional base and install one in each car. Many infant car seats do give you the option of installing without the base, via the seat belt method, but you’ll find the seat tends to wobble around more without its base.
Check the Angle - It is important for an infant to be inclined at an appropriate angle. Too much incline can lead to excessive head jostling and even make it difficult for a newborn to breathe. Too little incline can decrease the effectiveness of the safety seat in the event of a crash.
You want to start out at an angle of about 45 degrees, and as your child achieves better head control, gradually sit him up straighter. Angle adjusters are normally built-in to rear-facing seats. With convertible models, you may need to buy a separate device, usually a foam roll or wedge, to modify the incline angle. If your seat has a level indicator and you are relying on this to achieve the best angle, make sure your car is parked on the flattest surface possible so that the indicator functions correctly.
Installing a Convertible Car Seat - Convertible car seats also can be installed with your choice of either the seat belt or LATCH method. When it’s time to turn the seat around to a forward facing position, check your vehicle for an additional anchor point that corresponds to the two in your seat crease. This one will be on the back dashboard of a sedan.
If you drive a different type of vehicle, you may find it on the backside of the seat, on the floor behind the seat or up above you. Secure the top tether strap that came with your car seat to this anchor. You can and should do this even if you opted for seat belt installation rather than using the lower anchors.
Installing a Booster Seat - Most booster seats are not equipped for LATCH installation. One reason for this is that the seat belt method becomes preferable to the lower anchor attachment when the child reaches booster seat weight.
Not every booster has a back support you can attach to the upper anchor, but if yours does, it is to your benefit to use it. Get into the habit of buckling the booster seat in on every trip, even when your child isn’t with you, so the seat doesn’t become a danger to other passengers in the event of an accident.
Get it Inspected - It is important to have all car seat/base installations, including conversion from rear to front facing, professionally inspected before driving your child anywhere. A frightening number of car seats on the road are installed incorrectly, and yours could easily be one of them. The NHTSA website has a directory of car seat inspection locations for each state, specifying which stations require an appointment and which ones will inspect your installation for free.
Your Baby’s First Time
Once you’ve had your installation inspected, you can forget about it until your baby arrives. The first time you put your baby in the car seat, hospital staff will be there to help you achieve the right fit, but you may be too preoccupied to remember their suggestions for the next trip.
- Place the shoulder straps even with or right below baby’s shoulders.
- The chest clip should line up with your baby’s underarms to keep the shoulder straps in place without the risk of interfering with your baby’s breathing.
- Puffy clothing, like snowsuits, can make it more difficult to fasten a baby into the seat properly. Consider using a car seat cover to keep your baby warm instead.
You’ll be amazed at how quickly your child will grow. Don’t forget to check for signs that your baby is getting too big for the car seat.
- There should not be unused slots for the shoulder straps between your baby’s shoulders and the slots you are using for the straps. Once your baby’s shoulders are above the highest slots, or your baby’s head comes within one inch of the top of the seat, your baby has outgrown it, even if your baby’s weight is still within the listed range.
- A rear-facing child will run short on legroom long before it is recommended to turn the child forward facing. This does not mean your baby has outgrown the safety seat. Your baby may look uncomfortable to you, but notice how your baby sits when on the floor or in the crib. Your baby’s legs probably aren’t stretched straight out. Constrained leg movement is a fair trade off for the increased safety of the rear facing position.
Check for Recalls
Always check with the Consumer Product Safety Commission product recall lists before you buy a car seat. This step is essential because your baby is depending on you to make a careful and thoughtful choice. Standards change and laws change, so make sure you have the latest information. For instance, companies may have to remove even newer models from the market because of better technology and improved information from studies.
Car Seat Buying Tips
- Remember that car seats have expiration dates. Car seats are considered safe for five to eight years after construction. This date is especially critical if your seat converts to a booster or if you plan to reuse it for your next child.
- Consider the reputation of the company that makes the seat. You may need to call the maker with questions at some point, so make sure others have been happy with the company’s customer service. If you are ever in an accident, contact the safety seat manufacturer to determine if you should continue using it. Often, you can still use a car seat after a minor accident. If you find that you have to discard your seat, ask the manufacturer if it offers a discount for you to re-purchase the same model. Some companies have been known to send a new seat at no charge.
- If you plan to have three or more children or transporting three or more small children, take note of the side-to-side width of the safety seats you buy. Not all models can fit three across in compact or even midsize cars.
- Keep in mind that a child’s height and weight do not always relate. The ideal car seat for you will depend in part on your child’s body type. Think about whether other children in the family have been tall or short, heavy or light for their age.
- When you’ve made up your mind about the car seat you want, add them to your registry and wait. It doesn’t matter if you think anyone will buy it for you or not. It doesn’t even matter if you expect to have a shower. Create a registry and put the car seat on it. Set your ‘event date’ several weeks before your baby is due. After the event date passes, the store will likely send you a registry completion coupon. You can use this coupon to purchase your car seat, but you want to leave enough time between the purchase and your due date to install the seat and have it checked.