Catherine Hiles
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Baby Safety Month: How to Choose a Car Seat

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If you have a child and you drive a car, you need to have a properly installed car seat. In fact, most hospitals won’t discharge you and your new baby unless you have one. As the main piece of equipment designed for your child’s safety on the road, a car seat is one of the most important things you’ll buy for your child. Read on to learn how to choose a car seat to fit your needs and budget.

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Buy the right seat

All children need to be in a rear-facing car seat until the age of 2 at the very minimum. Rear-facing seats come in two main varieties: infant seats that rear-face only, and convertible seats.

An infant seat has a base and carrier that allows you to remove your baby from the car without unbuckling them, and many parents choose this type of seat starting out for convenience. Some infant seats also attach to strollers, making them even more ideal for new parents. (Check to make sure your car seat has an attachment for your stroller if this is important to you.)

Convertible seats can face either backward or forward in the car. They tend to have a higher weight limit for rear-facing, which allows your child to ride this way after their second birthday. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that rear-facing is the safest way for a child to ride in a car, so if possible look for a convertible seat that allows for extended rear facing.

Once your child reaches the rear-facing weight and/or height limit in a convertible seat, you can flip it around and reinstall it facing forward, which eliminates the need to buy an additional seat for forward facing.

Some convertible seats can also be used as high-back booster seats. Alternatively, you can buy a high-back or backless booster seat once your child outgrows the forward-facing seat with 5-point harness.

Check the fit

Once you know what kind of seat you need, you’ll have to check the dimensions of the seat and your car to make sure it’ll fit. In rear-facing mode, some seats may be too long for a smaller car, so look up the specs of the seat you’re considering and measure your car to make sure it’ll fit.

Another consideration is seat width. If you’re trying to fit three car seats across the rear seat, you’ll be limited to narrower options in order to make sure they all fit properly and safely. If you have friends with children, ask if you can test their car seats in your car to see which one fits best and is the easiest to install.

Buy new, not used

It might sound tempting to get a second-hand car seat, but it’s not a good idea. When buying a pre-owned car seat, you can never be sure of its history. A used car seat could be missing vital parts, might not come with the manufacturer’s instructions, might not meet today’s safety standards, or could have been recalled due to faulty design.

child in front-facing car seat secured in the rear middle seat
Photo: Dan Harrelson via CC

Car seats also have expiration dates. If you buy a used seat, it won’t last you as long as a new one would, so buying new is a better idea that will save you money in the long run, even if it’s more expensive up-front.

You won’t have to worry that a new car seat with a low price tag is unsafe. Every single car seat on the U.S. market must meet the same federal safety and crash test standards. That means you can choose a more affordable car seat without worrying that you’re risking your child’s safety.

Install in advance

In your last month or so of pregnancy (sooner if you expect to deliver early), you should install your car seat so it’s ready to go. You can then practice getting it in and out of the car so that by the time your little one is born, you’ll be a car seat pro.

Ask for help

Consumer Reports cites a 2015 study which discovered that 45 percent of child car seat installations are flawed in some way. That’s a pretty scary statistic. If you’re not certain your child’s seat is installed properly, it’s a good idea to find a Child Passenger Safety Technician in your area to help check the seat’s installation. And even if you think your car seat is installed well, it’s still a good idea to have a CPST check it; that same 2015 study found that 73 percent of parents thought their child’s car seat was properly installed.

Your child’s safety on the road is very important and requires that you do the research to find the right seat for your child’s size and age, as well as for your budget. Consider these factors when choosing your seat to make sure it’s the right fit for you.