Catherine Hiles
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When Should You Switch to a Convertible Car Seat?

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

From the time you first find out you’re expecting a child, car seat safety is likely high on your list of priorities. All U.S. states and territories require child safety seats for infants and children up to a certain weight and height, but there’s no law stating which kind of seat to use. And while it’s illegal to even leave the hospital with your newborn baby unless you have a car seat, choosing the seat that is safest for your child can be a long and drawn-out process.

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There are several different types of car seats to choose from. A convertible seat can be positioned both rear- and front-facing, making it a long-lasting choice and a good value for money. But when should you switch to a convertible seat for your child?

Infant vs. convertible seat

Many parents choose rear-facing-only infant seats for their newborns. These seats attach to a base which is kept in the car at all times. The benefit of this type of seat is that you can take them out of the car with your baby still in them, allowing you to enjoy a meal in a restaurant or a peaceful grocery trip while your child slumbers away. Many infant car seats also attach to strollers with the correct equipment, so you don’t have to mess with unbuckling your baby from the car and then re-buckling them into the stroller.

Many parents start out using an infant seat and switch to a convertible seat around their child’s first birthday. But a 2015 study from Consumer Reports found that an infant may actually be safer in a convertible seat from a younger age.

The study used a 22-pound dummy (which represents an average 12-month-old) to test the effectiveness in both rear-facing infant seats and convertible seats. Due to the height of the child and the small size of the infant seats, the dummy’s head struck the front seatback 53 percent of the time in crash testing. Compare that to only 4 percent of the time with convertible car seats, and the safety advantage is clear.

Convertible seat from birth

Convertible car seats have a range of weight and height limits and are able to be installed either rear-facing or front-facing. Many convertible car seats have low weight limits, meaning they can be used for children from birth. The benefit of a convertible seat is that it can last for many years, from birth until the child is big enough for a booster seat. And some convertible seats can also be used as high-back boosters, making their potential lifespan even longer.

The drawback of choosing a convertible seat from birth is that you’ll have to unstrap your baby from the car whenever you leave rather than just removing the carrier part of the infant seat from the base. If your baby is a picky sleeper, the act of unstrapping them from the seat could prematurely end a much-needed nap. (Though, bear in mind that it is not considered safe to let a child nap in an infant seat for a prolonged period of time, and never unattended, so you shouldn’t leave your child in the seat for too long after getting out of the car anyway.)

If you do choose to go with a convertible seat from birth, make sure you pick one with a low weight limit to accommodate a newborn. Some car seat manufacturers, like Diono, sell convertible seats that seat children from 5 pounds to 50 pounds in rear-facing mode. You can also look into alternatives to strollers, such as soft structured carriers or ring slings. Just make sure you read the instructions carefully since using a baby carrier incorrectly can result in injury to your child.

Whether you opt for an infant seat from birth or not, you should aim to have your child in a convertible seat in rear-facing mode by age 1 at the latest. But, given the safety advantages of convertible seats over infant seats, using one from a younger age (or even from birth) is a good idea to consider.