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Home > Parenting Information > Buying Guides > Car Seats

 

Choosing a Child Car Seat

 

 

Which is the "Best" car seat?

There is no one seat that is safest or the best.  The best car seat is one that fits your child's height and size, and can be properly installed in your car.  The price of a car seat does not always make a difference.  A high price usually means added features that may or may not make the seat easier to use.  The car seat that you choose should be based on the height and size of your child while following the recommendations of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).


NHTSA & AAP (Age & Height recommendations)

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends the following:

  • Rear-facing seats in the back seat from birth to at least 1 year old and at least 20 pounds.

  • Forward facing toddler seats in the back seat from age 1 and 20 pounds to about age 4 and 40 pounds

  • Booster seats in the back seat from about age 4 to at least age 8, unless 4'9" tall.

  • Safety belts at age 8 and older or taller than 4'9". All children age 12 and under should ride in the back seat.

The Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends the following:

  • Infant seat and rear facing convertible seats - All infants should always rider rear-facing until they are at least 1 year of age and weight at least 20 pounds.

  • Convertible seats - It is best to ride rear-facing as long as possible. Children 1 year of age and at least 20 pounds can ride forward facing.

  • Booster seats - Booster seats are for older children who have outgrown their forward-facing car safety seats. Children should stay in a booster seat until adult belts fit correctly (usually when a child reaches about 4' 9" in height and is between 8 and 12 years of age).

  • Seat belts - Children who have outgrown their booster seats should ride in a lap and shoulder belt in the back seat until 13 years of age.

Update:

2009 updated recommendation from AAP (view update):

  • All infants should ride rear-facing in either an infant car seat or convertible seat.

  • If an infant car seat is used, the infant should be switched to a rear-facing convertible car seat once the maximum height (when the infant's head is within 1 inch of the top of the seat) and weight (usually 22 pounds to 32 pounds) have been reached for that infant seat as suggested by the car seat manufacturer.

  • Toddlers should remain rear-facing in a convertible car seat until they have reached the maximum height and weight recommended for the model, or at least the age of 2.


 

 Infant only car seats

  • Can only be used rear-facing

  • Are small and portable and fit newborns the best

  • Are used for babies up to one year of age (depending on model)

Infant seat features
Detachable base - Several models of infant seats come with detachable bases.  The base stays attached in the car, and you simply unlock the seat.  When you are ready to drive in your car again, you buckle your baby in the seat and lock in the seat to the base.  This is a time saver because you do not need to belt down the base every time you get ready to leave in your car.  You can also buy additional bases to leave in other cars, and then transfer just the seat between cars.  While the detachable base feature is helpful, in some cases the base may not fit correctly in your car, in which case it is better to just properly install the seat without the base.

Higher weight limits - Several infant seats are available for use up to 22 pounds.  This can make it easier to keep your baby rear facing for a longer period of time.  However, if your baby's weight exceeds the 22 pound limit or their head is within 1 inch of the top of the seat, you should use a rear facing convertible seat that has a higher weight limit.

Harness slots - Infants seats that come with more than one harness slot give more room for your growing baby.  On rear-facing seats, the harness slots should be at or below your baby's shoulders.

Handles - Infant seats usually have carrying handles that vary in style and ease of use.  Be sure to check with the instructions for adjusting the handle during travel.

Infant-only seats that meet Federal Safety Standards.


Convertible seats (for infants and toddlers)

  • They do not fit newborns as well as infant seats do

  • Are bigger and heavier than infant seats but can be used longer

  • Can be used rear-facing for infants and forward-facing for toddlers

  • Are used rear-facing up to one year of age or longer and specified weight limit that depends on model being used.

  • Can be used forward facing for toddlers who are at least one year of age or older and at least 20 pounds.  Use rear facing as long as possible.

  • Are available in three types of harnesses. The 5-point harness has five straps: two at the shoulders, two at the hips, and one at the crotch (see below).  The T-shield has a padded T-shaped or triangular shield attached to shoulder straps (see below).  The Overhead shield has a padded tray-like shield that swings down around the child (see below).  Note:  If you are using a convertible seat for a small infant, the best choice for a more secure fit is the 5-point harness.

Convertible seat features
Higher weight limits - There are several convertible seats that are now available with higher weight limits for bigger babies.  If you have a larger baby, look for a seat that can be used rear-facing up to 25 or 30 pounds.

Adjustable buckles and shields - There are many convertible seats that give you two or more buckle positions to give extra room for a growing child or thicker clothing (make sure the harness still holds your child snugly, and remember to readjust the buckle positions after the thicker clothes are no longer needed.) Many overhead shields can be adjusted as well.

Convertible seats that meet Federal Safety Standards.


Forward facing seats

  • Cannot be used rear-facing

  • Are only for children over one year of age or older and over 20 pounds

  • Some may convert to belt-positioning boosters for children over 40 pounds, which allows the seat to be used longer

Forward-facing seats that meet Federal Safety Standards.


Booster seats

When your child has reached 40 pounds or around the age of 4 it's time for a booster seat.  There are three types of booster seats available:

Belt-positioning boosters - These boosters are used with lap/shoulder belts.  The booster raises your child so that the seat belts fit properly.  This helps protect your child's upper body and head.

High Backed booster with 5 point harness - This type of seat attaches to the vehicle using LATCH or the existing seat belt.  The 5 point harness then provides full body protection.

Shield boosters - These boosters are designed to be used with lap belts.  However, most experts agree that they do not provide enough upper body protection.  While some manufacturers may recommend the use of shield boosters at lower weights, children under 40 pounds are at risk of ejection from the booster in the event of a rollover crash.

Belt-positioning boosters that meet Federal Safety Standards.


When is my child ready for a regular seatbelt?

You should keep your child in a car seat or booster seat for as long as possible according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations above.  When your child is big enough, make sure the seat belts in your vehicle fit your child correctly. The shoulder belt should lie across the shoulder, not the neck or throat. The lap belt must be low and flat across the hips, not the stomach. The child's knees should bend easily over the edge of the vehicle seat. Seat belts are made for adults. If the seat belt does not fit your child correctly, he should stay in a booster seat until the belt fits.


Buying a used car seat

It is best to avoid relying on a used car seat.  If you must buy or use one, be sure to check the following:

  • Make sure the seat was manufactured after January 1, 1981.  There were strict federal standard that went into effect on this date.  Most experts recommend against using a car seat that is more than five or six years old.  You should check with the manufacture to find out when the company recommends getting a new seat.

  • Make sure the seat was never in a crash.  Child car seats are built to withstand one crash only, and should never be used after that even if they appear to be all right.

  • Make sure you know the manufacturer name, model number, and manufacturing date.  The seat should have a label attached with this information. With this label of information, you can check on whether the product has been recalled

  • Make sure the seat comes with instructions.  You need them to know how to use the car seat properly.  Do not rely on the former owners directions.  You should be able to get a copy of the instructions from the manufacturer , but if they are not available, do not use the car seat.

  • Make sure the seat show no signs of wear and tear.  Avoid seats with cracks, dents, tears, or missing parts.

  • Before you use or buy a used car seat, be sure and check to see if it has been recalled .  You will need the name, model, and date.

  • Be sure to register a used car seat with the manufacturer so you can be notified of any recalls.


The basics of car seat use

  • Always use a car seat, starting with your baby's first ride home from the hospital. Help your child form a lifelong habit of buckling up.

  • Read the manufacturer's instructions and always keep them with the car seat.

  • Send in the registration card so that the manufacturer can notify you if there is a recall on your car seat.

  • Read your vehicle owner's manual for more information on how to install the car seat.

  • Never place a car seat near a cars airbag (front seat).

  • Put your child in the back seat. It is the safest place in the car because it is farthest away from a head-on crash (the most common type of crash).

  • Attach firmly both the harness systems for your child and the seat belt connection to the car seat to protect your child.

After you have read the instructions carefully and installed the car seat correctly, check the following:

  • Be sure to use the correct harness slots.

  • Keep the harnesses snug. Place the plastic harness clip, if provided, at armpit level to hold shoulder straps in place.

  • Make sure the straps lie flat and are not twisted.

  • Adjust the straps to allow for the thickness of your child's clothes.

  • To keep your newborn from slouching, pad the sides of the seat and between the crotch with rolled up diapers or receiving blankets. If your infant's head flops forward, the seat may not be reclined enough. Tilt the seat back until it is level (according to manufacturer's instructions) by wedging firm padding, such as a rolled towel, under the front of the base of the seat.

  • Route the seat belt through the correct path on the car seat (check your instructions to make sure) and pull it tight.

  • Before each trip, check to make sure the car seat is installed tight enough by pushing on the car seat where the seat belt passes through. It should not move easily side to side or toward the front of the car.

  • Check the seat belt buckle. Make sure it does not lie just at the point where the belt bends around the car seat. If it does, you will not be able to get the belt tight enough. If you cannot get the belt tight, look for another set of belts in the car that can be tightened properly.

  • Many lap/shoulder belts allow passengers to move freely even when they are buckled. Read your car owner's manual to see if your seat belts can be locked into position or if you will need to use a locking clip. Locking clips come with all new car seats (some have them built-in). Read your instructions for information on how to use the locking clip.

  • Some lap belts need a special, heavy-duty locking clip. Check your car owner's manual for more information.

  • All new car seats are now required to come equipped with top tether straps. A tether strap is a belt that is attached to the car seat and bolted to the window ledge or the floor of the car. They give extra protection and keep the car seat from being thrown forward in a crash. Tether kits are also available for most older car seats. Check with the manufacturer to find out how to get a top tether for your seat. Be sure to install it according to instructions. The tether strap may help make some seats that are difficult to install fit more tightly.

  • Starting in model year 2002, all new vehicles and new child seats will be equipped with lower anchors and attachments. This new anchor system will make correct installation much easier because you will no longer need to use seat belts to secure the car seat. However, unless both the vehicle and the car seat have this new anchor system, seat belts will still be needed to secure the car seat.


Where can I find out if a car seat has been recalled?

Below are two sources for you to check if a car seat has been recalled.  Along with checking the sources below you should also check with the manufacturer if you are considering using or buying a used car seat.
You can find a list of manufactures here.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration - Lists of recalled car seats

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission - Lists of recalls for all products


Links and phone numbers to car seat manufacturers

Baby Trend (800-432-5437)  http://www.babytrend.com/

Britax (888-427-4829)  www.britax.com

Cosco (800-544-1108)   http://coscojuvenile.djgusa.com/

Evenflo (800-233-5921)  www.evenflo.com

Fisher Price (800-432-5437) http://www.fisher-price.com/

Graco (800-345-4109)  www.gracobaby.com

Guardian (800-260-5408)

Kolcraft (800-453-7673) http://kolcraft.com/

Peg Perego (800-671-1701)  http://perego.com/

Safeline (800-829-1625) http://www.safelinecorp.com/

For a complete list of baby product manufacturers, go here.

As a final Note

Always send in your product registration card.  This is how you will be notified in case of a recall.

Other Helpful Buying Guides:

 

 

 

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