Buying a car seat or booster for your child is one of—if not the—most important safety moves you’ll make as a parent. Which is exactly why the process of actually choosing one can feel so enormously overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be though, and here’s why: “Any of the products sold in the U.S. are going to protect children well when used properly,” says Dennis Durbin, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the lead author on the American Academy of Pediatric’s new car seat guidelines. “One make or model is not necessarily better than another, nor is price an accurate indicator of effectiveness.”
What does matter: Getting a seat that’s comfortable for your child, fits tightly in your car, and is easy to use correctly every single time, says Dr. Durbin. Finding that perfect match may take some trial and error (keep your receipt!) and some professional help from a safety technician, but your baby’s safety is worth it. Over the next few pages, you’ll get a run down of the basic types available, extra features worth looking for, and the best resources to learn about recalls and ratings. Let’s roll!
Car Seat Basics
The AAP now recommends that children remain in a rear-facing seat until at least the age of 2, or until they reach height and weight limits set by the manufacturer. You’ll also want to choose a seat with a five-point harness (pretty standard nowadays). You’ve got a few options in this arena:
Pros: They’re small, they have handles, and they usually come with a base that can be left in the car (for two-car families, you need two bases, not two seats), so you can get baby buckled in inside, and then just snap the seat into the base. Bonus: they allow you to bring a sleeping baby inside at the end of a trip without waking her!
Cons: They have a somewhat limited lifespan. The weight limit of infant seats ranges from 22 to 35 pounds, at which point you’ll have to buy a convertible or 3-in-1 (see below). Also: Once your baby starts to pack on some pounds, the handy handle becomes less useful because the seat + baby may become heavier than you want to lug around.
Pros: These seats can be used rear-facing and then flipped forward—which means you can use one seat for longer. They may also have higher weight limits for rear-facing as well, sometimes up to 40 pounds.
Cons: They’re bigger than infant seats, and you typically just use it in one car (they don’t have handles or bases). You may also need to use some padding or rolled towels to keep a very young infant properly positioned, says Dr. Durbin.
Pros: These babies can take your peanut straight through to her booster days. They can be used rear-facing, forward-facing and then converted into a belt-positioning booster.
Cons: These tend to be the biggest of the bunch, so if you’ve got a small car, fit might be an issue.
For kids who’ve reached the height and weight limits for rear-facing, look for a forward-facing seat with a five-point harness. (The AAP recommends using a harness at least until age 4.) In addition to convertibles and 3-in-1s, you may also choose:
Pros: These seats have weight ranges between 40 and 80 pounds (so you’ll be able to use it for a good stretch).
Cons: Toddler seats are single-purpose—so when it’s time for your child to move up to a belt-positioning booster, you’ll have to make another purchase.
Pros: You get a forward-facing seat with a harness (for kids 40 to 80 pounds) and a belt-positioning booster (for kids up to 100 pounds) in one.
Cons: Not much!
This is the last stop on the safety-seat train. Expect to use a belt-positioning booster, which raises your child up so the vehicle’s lap and shoulder belts fit properly, until he’s between 8 and 12 years old, and 4’ 9” tall. You’ve got two choices—high-back and backless. The one you choose really depends on your car: If you have low seat backs and/or no headrests, a high-back booster is essential; it will provide head protection in the event of a crash, says Dr. Durbin. Otherwise, a backless booster will do your child just fine. Both perform equally well, he says.
Other Features Worth Looking For
- Additional side-impact protection: The more side structure a seat has the better.
- Two-piece chest clip: These clips are more difficult for busy hands to unsnap; they tend to be sturdier, too.
- Rear-facing tether: There aren’t too many seats with this option, but a rear-facing tether can increase stability.
- Well-spaced harness slots: When you’re using a rear-facing seat, you’ll want to be sure the bottom slots are low on the seat back—if they’re too high, your child might not fit. Just the opposite is true for forward-facing; if the top slots are too low, your munchkin might outgrow the seat before he’s actually ready to move on to booster. The result? You’ve got to buy another seat!
Ratings, Recalls and More
Because you’re a diligent, smart parent, you’re going to do your research before you buy. The following sites are not to be missed:
Healthychildren.org: The consumer site of the American Academy of Pediatrics is packed car seat safety info.
NHTSA.gov: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has created an ease-of-use rating system for parents to use before purchasing a seat. “We want seats that are easy to use properly each and every time,” says Dr. Durbin, so this research is incredibly important and helpful.
IIHS.org: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is one of the only sites that provides detailed safety info on specific booster seats. It also provides clear photos of what makes—and doesn’t make—for a proper fit. It’s a must-read!
SaferProducts.gov: You can check a manufacturer’s safety track record, research consumer reports of injury, and stay up to date on any recalls.
Car Seat Recalls: Once you get your car seat or booster home and take it out of the box, you’re going to find a card asking you to register the seat with manufacturer in case they need to notify you of a recall. DO THIS. It’s easy. It’s quick. And it takes some of the pressure off. In the meantime, you can also sign up for email alerts from the Consumer Products Safety Commission at Recall.gov, or check our Recall Finder.
One final message: Transitioning to a new car seat is considered a milestone, one we tend to approach with great expectation, says Dr. Durbin. “But this is one milestone you want to delay as long as possible—with each transition, there’s a reduction in safety for the child,” he says. “You’ll still get to have your celebration, just a little later.”