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How to Pick the Right Car Seat

A woman looking at car seats in a store.Dmitry Kalinovsky/Shutterstock.com

A car seat is the most important thing you buy in preparation for your baby’s arrival. And unlike other items, this isn’t something that can wait—you can’t take your baby home from the hospital without one.

New parents likely feel overwhelmed by the task of choosing a car seat when they find out how many types there are and everything they have to consider.

This guide will help you make more sense of your car seat options, and hopefully, feel more confident when you make your choice.

Why Finding the Right Car Seat Is Important An infant being buckled into a car seatSuti Stock Photo/Shutterstock.com

First, take comfort in the knowledge that all car seats are safe. Before they’re sold, a car seat must meet the requirements of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 213. This standard regulates any restraint system for children under 80 pounds. It requires restraint systems to pass things like a 30-mph frontal sled test, a maximum rotation crash test and head injury criteria, and dozens of others.

However, car seats are only safe when they’re installed and used correctly. So, you want to pick one you and your child’s caregivers are comfortable using. The National Highway and Transportation Board has an Ease-of-Use Ratings tool, where you can compare how easy different models are to use. You can also search for seats based on your child’s age, weight, and height.

Ease of use is especially important if others (caregivers, grandparents, etc.) will use the car seat. You might have a firm grasp on how a seat works, but you want to make sure it isn’t too complicated for those who are less familiar with it.

If you have a compact or two-door car, you want to pick a car seat that’s suitable for smaller spaces. They should all technically fit, but some will be easier to use than others. Manufacturers sell “slim-fit” convertible models that are more appropriate for smaller vehicles. Infant car seats tend to vary less in width, but even an inch or so can make a difference.

Pre-Owned Car Seats

Second-hand items are ideal for most baby gear, but not when it comes to car seats. Here’s why:

Car seats expire: A car seat’s expiration date is usually stamped on its side or base, and it’s typically six years from the date of manufacture. This is not a government regulation, but manufacturers have agreed to common guidelines to address several issues. Technology and safety requirements are constantly evolving. Materials weaken over time and can’t be expected to hold up in crashes. It could be damaged: Even if you find a seat that hasn’t expired, you don’t know if it’s been damaged (in an accident, from exposure to the elements, etc.) in a way that impacted its safety features. If a car seat was involved in a crash of any kind, it’s no longer safe to use. If you can’t verify the details (and odds are, you can’t), it’s always better to err on the side of caution.

For these reasons, we strongly recommend you avoid buying a used car seat.

The Categories A toddler and a baby in their car seats.Tomsickova Tatyana/Shutterstock.com

There are four stages of car seats/safety restraints. You use rear-facing seats from birth to 2-4 years old, and forward-facing up to at least 5 years old. When your child outgrows his forward-facing car seat, you use a booster seat. When he’s big enough that the lap portion of a seat belt lays across his thighs and not his stomach, he’s done with car seats.

Infant seats cover the first stage of rear-facing. Convertibles and all-in-ones function at a minimum as rear-facing and forward-facing seats, and some also include booster seats. While you can use a convertible or all-in-one seat for an infant, there are good reasons to buy a dedicated infant seat, which we’ve outlined below:

Infant seat (bucket seats): These rear-facing carriers click into a base you install in your car. An infant seat might seem like a short-sighted purchase next to convertible seats, but there are good reasons to go this route. Infant seats are often part of a stroller system, which saves you money when you buy the less expensive stroller base. These make more sense for transporting infants because it’s easier to buckle a small baby into her seat indoors. A newborn can be terrifyingly fragile, so you might not want to carry her from the car into your home. Convertible: You can install this car seat to be either rear- or forward-facing. If you only want to make one purchase, you can opt for this type, although you lose the advantage of a carrier. Unlike an infant seat, a convertible car seat is meant to stay in your car after it’s installed. You can use a convertible seat for infants—many fit babies as small as 4 pounds. You might want to consider your parking situation—do you have a garage or park on the street? Because you can’t use this seat as a carrier, you have to unbuckle the baby and use a baby sling or an infant stroller, or just carry her whenever you’re out and about. A lot of parents buy the convertible seat when their child gets too heavy to carry in an infant seat. At that point, your child will still need a rear-facing seat, so you’ll initially install a convertible seat in that mode. All-in-one: This is where the categories get tricky. You see model names that include “all-in-one” or “convertible,” followed by “4-in-one,” “5-in-one,” etc. These seats are all convertible, but they also have a booster mode. Some models differentiate even further, with some being “high-backed” or “backless” boosters.

The American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines recommend a rear-facing seat, a forward-facing seat, and then a booster seat. You can consider any modes outside of these as extras that might add comfort or ease.

Which Car Seat Should You Buy? Toddler being buckled into a rear-facing car seat.TierneyMJ/Shutterstock.com

A car seat is an expensive and important purchase, so give yourself plenty of time to pick the right one. If online research doesn’t cut it for you, head into a Buy Buy Baby. You can try out floor models on the in-store car bench seat or even take one out to your car to see how it fits. Try to have some picks in mind before you go—the wall of car seats can be overwhelming.

A car seat is only safe when you install and use it correctly. So, you want to get one you’re confident and comfortable using. One of the best things you can do is get help with the initial installation from a car seat technician. Depending on where you live, you might be able to have a hospital, or fire or police station inspect your car seat. This NHTSA tool tells you where you can go to have that done.

Try to knock the car seat off your list sooner rather than later, so you can learn how to use it. Then, you can relax a bit because you’ll have taken care of the biggest purchase to prepare for your baby’s arrival.

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