One of the more confusing – and frustrating – parts of preparing for your new baby is finding the right car seat. It is much more than just driving to a store, finding a seat, handing the clerk your plastic and walking out to your vehicle with your purchase. Because a car seat is carrying such an important passenger, you have to make sure that the device is not only safe and meets your needs but that it will also fit your infant and that it can be installed correctly.
Baby car seats come in four varieties — rear-facing, convertible, three-in-one and booster.
• A popular style, the rear-facing baby car seat is made of two parts, a sturdy base that installs permanently into your car and a removable top that serves as the car seat and as a baby carrier. It takes its name from the way it’s installed in your car. It is installed so the car seat and your infant face the rear of the vehicle. Tests have confirmed that this is the safest way to install a baby car seat and it’s the only method the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHTSA) has approved. This type of baby car seat has proven to be popular because of its versatility.
• Convertible baby car seats are one-piece units that install permanently in your car. Convertible seats grow with your baby as they “convert” from rear-facing installation to front-facing (your baby faces the front of the vehicle) as your infant grows up.
• Likely the most convenient style baby car seat, the three-in-one combines true convenience as it combines a stroller, rear-facing car seat and a baby carrier into on unit. Also called baby travel systems, three-in-ones save you money because you only have to purchase one total unit and not three separate units
• Boosters are front-facing child car seats. They are designed for older children who are too short to use standard seatbelts because the belts ride too high and pose a danger. Boosters are intended for permanent installation.
Car Seat Styles
Ideal for newborns, the rear-facing car seat is also better designed for them as well. Look at its construction and you can see why. Since it comes in two parts – the base and the carrier – you can easily carry your newborn to from the car without waking the infant. You can then just gather up your infant and the bags you normally carry and go off to your destination.
Rear-facing car seat/baby carriers are meant to be used by newborns or infants up about a year old or a bit more, depending upon the infant’s size and weight. Rear-facing car seats can be used by infants weighing between 22 and 35 pounds and who are between 29 and 32 inches tall.
If you look closely at some lines of rear-facing seats, you might see a manufacturer offering more than one. Take a very good look and you’ll see the difference the seats is primarily size. Newborns, since they are tiny, can use a shorter seat. The drawback is that since newborns grow so quickly, it is likely that the the infant will quickly outgrow the shorter seat, forcing you to purchase a new seat more quickly. That purchase will be a convertible.
A one-piece unit, a convertible car seat is larger than a rear-facing seat. It is meant to be installed permanently in your car. Usually, a parent will be a convertible when their baby is a newborn. Since it is purchased for a newborn, the convertible is installed facing the rear of the car. As the infant grows, it is turned around to face the front. This is why it is called a convertible. It starts as a rear-facing unit and is then “converted” into a front-facing seat. The beauty of this is that you do not have to buy a second, larger car seat as your baby grows. Convertibles can be used by from infancy to well into toddlerhood. The maximum weight range is 40 to 60 pounds and the maximum size is 52 inches tall.
The convertible is the most cumbersome style car seat. For example, when you have to take your baby out of the single-piece unit you have to remove the shoulder straps, unhitch the waist strap and release the leg strap. Next, you have to place your baby into a separate carrier and tighten up the shoulder straps, the waist strap and the leg strap. And, don’t forget, you have to haul all of your child’s paraphernalia with you – diaper/change bag, disposal bag or container, clothing as babies always need fresh clothing, or so it seems, and assorted toys, chewy things and such. Granted, a rear-facing seat is more convenient, however, when the infant outgrows it in a year, you will have to buy another car seat – a big expense.
A three-in-one car seat combines a rear-facing unit with a baby stroller into one unit. The three-in-one can be used three ways: first as a rear-facing car seat; second as an infant carrier, and third as a stroller.
It is also the reason the three-in-one is the most convenient of all of the seats is because in one unit you have three different items.
And, while it may be among the most expensive of the car seats, depending on the manufacturer, it is also the most economical because you do not have to buy three separate items — stroller, carrier and car seat. Instead, you just buy the one. Instantly, you have saved yourself as much as half or more of the amount you have just laid out for the three-in-one. Three-in-one car seats are also known as travel systems because they include all of the pieces needed — in one place — to take your infant traveling conveniently.
Designed for children between 2 to 12, booster seats can be used by those who weigh up to 80 pounds and who are up to 57 inches tall. The minimum weight for this booster seats is 30 to 40 pounds.
Sources Of Information
Perhaps the factor that make buying a baby car seat so confusing is the sheer number of them available. At last count, there are more than 70 models available from various manufacturers. With so many available, how can you choose the right one?
Since baby car seats are rated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), you can look at the agency’s website, find the right page and scan down the comprehensive listings. Look at the results of the agency’s tests to compare the seats you are interested in. Then, take another run through the listings, looking at features, to determine the seats that really stand out. From that run-through, make your final choice. The NHTSA listings are objective and do require you to do the work. However, when you do you will find the seat that is best for you and your infant.
Another excellent source of information is Consumer Reports (CR). CR’s child seat listings are comprehensive, presenting you with all of the information available on the seats and with the results of their strenuous tests. The CR listings do take the pain out of running through long lists of NHTSA test results and listings and they make it easy for you to find the best car seat available – according to CR’s testers.
Since there are so many seats available, the recommendations presented here do not look at specific manufacturers. Instead, these recommendations are generic; they are meant to point you in the proper direction so that your only decision, after this, is the manufacturer.
Looking for just the right car seat choice can be somewhat daunting as there are nearly 200 styles of baby car seats and carriers available from many manufacturers The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued safety standards that all car seats and carriers have to meet. The agency also maintains a comprehensive listing, based on ease-of-use, at this site: http://www.safercar.gov/parents/Car-Seat-Ratings-Ease-Of-Use.htm. Why was ease of use chosen? Apparently since all of the seats in the listings already meet the agency’s safety standards, ease of use provides a level playing field for the many seats on the market.
So which type of seat should you buy? If you are buying an infant car seat, and can afford it, the best choice is the three-in-one or all-in-one. Choosing one of these seats can be a real money-saver because you make only one purchase, instead of three. And, depending on the cost of the three items that the three-in-one replaces, you may realize substantial savings.
Remember, though, if you opt for the three-in-one that it won’t carry your infant much beyond his or her first birthday because it is very likely that your baby will outgrow the car seat. In this case, you have to remember that you will have to make another purchase quite soon, a convertible car seat.
If you are at the stage of making the change from an infant car seat to a convertible, try to find one that will act not only as a convertible, but also as a booster. Make sure that the car seat has enough support and protection for your toddler as it grows into a child. As the child gets bigger, be sure that the same seat offers protection as a booster seat.
Let’s recap these recommendations so you can be sure. Here they are:
• The best infant car seat is a three-in-one because you purchase three important items – stroller, baby carrier and car seat – in one unit.
• The best baby car seat is a convertible unit that can also act as a booster.
Here are some other features to look for as you look for the right car seat:
• Make sure the car seat has lots of support for your baby’s back, neck and head. Granted, all car seats have to meet NHTSA standards, but, if a manufacturer offers more support, go for it. Added back, neck and head support adds protection from whiplash injuries.
• Make sure the car seat has extra support for your baby’s legs. Top-quality car seats usually add extra bolstering around your baby’s legs so that in the event of an accident your child is not only protected from the crash, but the baby is also held securely during the crash.
• Make sure the car seat has a five-point safety belt. A five-point safety belt, believe it or not, looks something like a racer’s six-point safety belt. Like a racer, the multi-point belt holds your baby more securely. A racer’s harness not only secures the driver but keeps him from being ejected from the racecar in a crash (the five-point harness does the same for car seats). The five-point harness includes two shoulder straps, two waist straps and one leg strap. All of the straps attach to the same point on the car seat.
• Make sure your car seat is LATCHES-compatible. LATCHES stands for lower anchors and tethers for children. The voluntary standard has been in place since 2002 and offers an easier way to install a car seat properly. A LATCHES system allows you to install the car seat into the car. Essentially, the seat becomes another part of the vehicle as the LATCHES attachment points are held securely as parts of the car’s overall structure. If a car seat is not compatible, you will have to use the car’s seatbelts to install the seat. Using the seatbelts complicates the installation and makes it easier for the car seat to be installed incorrectly.
• Make sure the car seat features easy-to-use adjustment straps. As your baby grows, you will have to change the adjustments on the straps to accommodate that growth. If a car seat’s straps are not easily adjustable, it just complicates using it.
• Make sure your car seat has quick-release back and head straps so that you can lift your baby out of the vehicle quickly and easily.
As you can see, then, there’s quite a lot to think about when you are choosing your baby’s car seat. The key thing to remember is that all of the seats on the market are equally as safe as they have to pass the same battery of NHTSA tests. So, you can be sure that, even with all of the information you have studied, the car seat you have purchased will keep your baby safe in a crash.
Marc Stern has spent more than 40 years in and around cars. His work has included answering motorist questions, motor vehicle reviews and evaluation and writing dealers, consumer and industry news pieces. In addition, Mr. Stern has contributed to well-known automotive publications including Popular Mechanics, Mechanix Illustrated, AutoWeek and Old Cars Weekly, among others.