From that day when you leave the hospital with your new baby, a car seat is the one piece of baby gear you’re legally required to have (assuming you’re leaving in a car, of course). Strollers, cribs, dressers, wipe warmers—all of these are optional. But the car seat is a necessity.
Find Your Seat
So what seat should you get? The short answer is that it depends on the size and age of your child, what car you drive car, and where you live (laws can vary by state). There are several basic categories of seats on the market today. Most states require children to be rear-facing until age one, although longer (up to age 3) is recommended for safety reasons. The NHTSA has developed a really cool car seat finder that lets you put in your child’s birthday, size, weight, and height to receive a recommendation.
You’ll see there’s some overlap in the age requirements for each type of seat—this is because of the size/weight requirements on different seats. When you’re shopping, be sure to balance price with long you plan to keep the seat.
Infant Seats (0-3 years)
Ah, baby’s first car seat! These seats face the rear, which is safer in a crash, and many infant-only seats have a detachable bucket part that locks into a base that stays in your car. This is especially handy if baby falls asleep in the car—you can just pop up the handle, unlock the seat, and carry baby into the house. Children generally outgrow these infant-only seats at around 8-9 months (as always, check the limits on your seat).
Convertible seats (which can be installed in either a rear-facing to forward-facing position) will generally have a higher upper weight limit, meaning they generally can be used longer, and offer the safety benefit that your child can stay rear-facing longer. One possible downside is that they may not offer the convenience of a 2-part detachable seat. One bonus is that some convertible seats can also convert to a high-backed booster seat, meaning when your child is big enough, you can remove the five-point harness and use the seat with your car’s seatbelt.
Forward-Facing Seats (1-7 years)
When your child has reached the upper weight or height limit allowed for a rear-facing seat, it’s time to turn around. At first glance, most of these seats might look fairly similar in function and features—padded straps, 5-point harness straps, cup holder—but they can differ greatly in terms of their upper weight limit and safety ratings.
As when buying tennis shoes, don’t go by looks alone. Do some research, paying attention to impact protection, ease of installation, and washability. You’ll also want to note the width of seats you’re considering, especially if you’re trying to fit 3 car seats in the backseat.
Booster Seats (4-12 years)
Designed for children weighing at least 40 pounds and up to 4’9: tall, booster seats raise your child up so he or she is the right height to use the car’s safety belt. There are high-backed boosters and low-backed boosters—which one you choose is really a matter of preference. If your child frequently falls asleep in the car, the high-backed booster is nice to prevent slumping over. Other kids are excited to transition to a low-backed booster because it feels less like a car seat.
So when can you lose the booster? It varies by state, but many have the rule of 8 years old AND 57” tall. Even if your child can ride with only a safety belt, it’s safest (and legal) to keep them in the backseat until around age 13.
Let’s Talk Installation
Installing a car seat can be tricky, and studies have shown that 3 out of 4 seats are incorrectly installed—YIKES! Most car seats will install in one of two ways—using a LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children restraint system) or with your car’s seat belt. If your car was built after 2002, it’s required to have the LATCH system, which was designed to make it easier to install seats correctly. Every car and seat are a little different (check your manufacturer’s directions for each), but the basic idea is that you use the car seat’s tether straps on both the top and bottom of the car seat to hook into the car’s anchor points.
Before you buy a car seat (or a car), check the owner’s manual and locate the LATCH anchor points in the backseat. Some vehicles offer them for all seating positions, and others just for two—this is important to know BEFORE you buy, especially if you’re panning to install multiple car seats.
Every seat installs a little differently, but you’ll want to make sure the seat doesn’t move front to back or side to side more than an inch. Make sure you use the head tether strap if one is included.
Putting Your Child in the Seat
Once you’ve got the seat installed in your car, don’t forget to check your child’s placement in the seat. Make sure the harness straps are untwisted and positioned correctly (for rear-facing seats, they should be through a slot that is at or BELOW your child’s shoulders, for forward-facing seats, they should be through a slot that is at or ABOVE your child’s shoulders). Make sure the chest clip is at armpit level, and that the straps aren’t too loose. Test to make sure you can’t pinch any extra strap material at shoulder level.
Things to Know:
- Though you may be tempted to save money, never buy a used car seat. You don’t know if it’s been in a crash.
- If you’re in a crash, chances are your insurance will reimburse you for a replacement car seat.
- Car seats should be installed in the backseat, otherwise there’s a danger from the airbag.
- If you must install a car seat in a vehicle without a backseat (such a truck), read the vehicle’s instructions and make sure the front passenger airbag is disabled.
- Never install a car seat using both the LATCH system AND the seatbelt—you’re supposed to pick one.
This is REALLY important stuff, so don’t be afraid to ask for help or get your car seat inspected once it’s installed. There are inspection services around the country, and many will check your seat’s installation for free.