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Car-Seat Safety

Choosing, installing, and using your baby's car seat correctly can be tricky. How tricky? Believe it or not, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that more than 80 percent of car seats are installed or used wrong. Yet it's so important to get it right. Here, we clear up the confusion and tell you what you need to know, each step of the way.

Buying Baby's First Seat

Selecting the right car seat and learning how to use it properly will take longer than you think. To allow yourself enough time  -- and to cover the possibility of an early arrival  -- start shopping around your sixth month of pregnancy. For a newborn, you're looking at two choices: an infant seat, which is always rear-facing, or a convertible seat used rear-facing. Infant seats, most often designed for babies up to 20 or 22 pounds, double as carriers. Most infant seats come with a detachable base, kept in the car, which allows you to remove the baby from the car without disturbing her. Convertible seats can be used from birth to 40 pounds, eliminating the need for an infant seat. If you can afford it, we recommend buying a separate infant seat because they fit small babies best. If you do choose a convertible seat, pick one with a five-point harness, which provides a more secure fit for an infant. Also, look for one that can be used rear-facing to at least 30 pounds.

Once you decide on the type of seat you want, select a brand and model. All new car seats meet federal safety performance standards when used correctly. So the way to decide on a specific model is to figure out which one will fit your car best and will be easiest to install correctly. The key: Try before you buy. If the store allows it, try out a few floor models in the parking lot. If you can't, make sure you can return the seat once the box is opened. When you've got the seat you think is right, make an appointment for an inspection with a certified child-passenger safety technician. Some vehicles are simply incompatible with some car seats. Everyone can benefit from expert guidance, but you'll especially need it if you've got bucket seats, a fold-down armrest in the back seat, or seat belts that are anchored forward of the seat back. Make your appointment sooner rather than later so you can return the seat if the technician finds that it isn't a match for your car. DaimlerChrysler's Fit for a Kid Program (877/FIT4AKID) provides free child safety seat inspections, as do local police departments. Car Seat Data (www.carseatdata.org) has a database that lets you search for which seats work in which vehicles.

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