Driving home from the hospital with a tiny baby can be scary, but a well-manufactured, properly installed car seat provides great peace of mind. Research compiled by Kid Sitting Safe shows:
- Using a car seat reduces the risk of death to infants under 12 months by 71%.
- Using a car seat reduces the risk of death to toddlers 1-4 years old by 54%.
- Using a booster seat reduces the risk of serious injury to children 4-8 years old by 45%.
- Using a seat belt reduces the risk of serious injury and death among older children and adults by 50%.
Choosing a car seat for your child is a major decision, and we’ve got you covered! In this article, we’ll address all of your car seat questions, including:
- What are the different types of car seats?
- How long are babies in infant car seats?
- How long do kids use booster seats?
- What are the best car seats?
- How do I properly install a car seat?
- Where can I get my car seat installation checked by a safety professional?
We’ll clarify the entire process of researching, purchasing, and installing your car seat so you’ll feel more confident transporting your most precious cargo.
What car seat should my child be in?
Shopping for a car seat can feel confusing and overwhelming. There are so many types of car seats, and their uses can often overlap. Depending on what’s right for your family, you may be able to choose a convertible car seat that will see you through several years. To begin, let’s go over the two car seat positions:
- Rear-facing is the safest position, and the American Academy of Pediatrics says, “Children should ride in a rear-facing car safety seatas long as possible, up to the limits of their car safety seat. This will include virtually all children under 2 years of age and most children up to age 4.”
- Some manufacturers offer rear-facing seats that accommodate children up to 49 inches tall and 50 pounds. Make sure to consult your car seat manual, as seated shoulder height and other measurements may also be important in determining when to switch to forward-facing.
- Once your child outgrows a rear-facing seat, you can switch to a forward-facing seat. If you have a convertible car seat, you can switch it from a rear-facing position to a forward-facing position.
- Use a forward-facing car seat for children who are at least 2 years old until they outgrow the weight and height limits (often 4 feet 9 inches).
The basic types of car seats include the following:
Infant car seats
Designed for use from birth to when your baby is 1 or 2 years old, most infant seats click into a separate secure base, which is installed in your vehicle. Infant car seats are rear-facing and provide the best fit for newborns and preemies as small as four pounds.
- These seats are portable “carriers” for transporting babies.
- They may snap into a compatible stroller base, which is helpful if you take a lot of outings or you don’t want to wake your baby after a car nap.
- You can save money by buying multiple bases rather than multiple infant seats. With more than one base, you won’t be confined to using one vehicle.
- You’ll have to buy a new car seat when your baby outgrows the infant seat.
- Some infant seats are heavy and awkward to carry.
Convertible car seats
Designed for use from birth through the toddler years, and even to school age, convertible car seats can start in the rear-facing position and be switched to the forward-facing position once your child reaches the rear-facing height or weight limit. Most convertible car seats use a five-point harness system, and some can convert into a booster seat.
- You only have to purchase one seat for a while, since infants can use convertible car seats and convertible seats can be both rear- and forward-facing.
- Most convertible car seats let you keep your child rear-facing for longer.
- Convertible seats are not particularly portable, and they generally remain fixed in the car.
- It’s harder to move a sleeping baby indoors or into a stroller than with an infant seat, which can easily be taken out of the base.
High-back booster seats
Designed for “big kids,” roughly ages 4 to 7 or 8, a high-back booster may use a five-point harness system or your vehicle’s buckling system.
- A high-back booster is generally roomier than a five-point convertible seat.
- Forward-facing boosters are ideal for kids who are under the legal age limit for seat belts but are too large for convertible car seats.
- They’re also a great idea for children who can legally use a backless booster but aren’t tall enough for regular seat belt use.
- Booster seats must face forward. It’s safer to keep smaller children in rear-facing convertible car seats until they outgrow the height or weight restrictions.
Designed for children who have outgrown harness seats, usually from 8-12 years, until they are at least 4 feet 9 inches, these seats help position a child so the seatbelt fits correctly. If your booster comes with a clip to help secure the shoulder harness, experts recommend using it to improve fit.
- They take up less room in the car and are easily transported between vehicles.
- Backless seats are generally less expensive.
- These are the roomiest seats for older kids.
- Studies show a 59% reduction in injury risk for children in belt-positioning boosters compared to just seat belts.
- Other studies show that while backless seats provide better protection for front- or rear-end collisions, high-back versions are better in side-impact collisions.
How do I know when to change my child’s car seat?
You’ll know it’s time to switch your child to a different position or seat type once they reach the maximum height or weight limit listed in your car seat manual, whichever comes first. Read your manual carefully and make sure to review it from time to time.
As your baby becomes a toddler, a rear-facing seat may start to look cramped. While some parents worry that having their children’s legs bent is unsafe, according to Parenting Magazine, data from real crashes shows that rear-facing children suffer fewer leg injuries than forward-facing children, so it’s best to keep your child rear-facing as long as the height and weight limits allow.
Some children can stay in belt-positioning booster seats until up to 4 feet 9 inches in height or 120 pounds. If it seems strange to keep your “big kid” in a booster for so long, consider this: a study of five states found that increasing the age requirement for booster seat use to 7 or 8 years reduced fatal or incapacitating injuries by 17%. The CDC recommends keeping children in a booster seat until they are 9-12 years old (or until they’re 4 feet 9 inches).
What is the best car seat?
Once you’ve decided if you want to start with an infant seat or go straight to a convertible car seat, you’ll need to know what to look for in a seat, what brands are best, and where to buy them. There are many sources of up-to-date car seat information, including:
- New York Magazine’s List of Best Car Seats for Kids – Every year, New York Magazine puts out a curated list of the best car seats. Their panel of car seat safety experts includes a safety advisor at Safe Kids Worldwide, a pediatrician who writes child passenger safety statements for the American Academy of Pediatrics, an expert from crash testing site Calspan, and dozens of parents. They consult consumer review sites like BabyGearLab, as well as Consumer Reports, which conducts independent crash testing. They list a wide variety of different brands at various price points, including Nuna, Uppababy, Chicco, Britax, Diono, Graco, Clek, Doona, Cosco, Safety 1st, Evenflo, and more.
Consumer Reports’ Car Seat Buying Guide – Consumer Reports’ car and booster seat criteria include how easy the seats are to use, how well they fit into challenging vehicles, and how they perform in their independent crash test lab (that goes beyond the federal safety standard). They include Chicco, Graco, and Britax on their list.
- ConsumerSearch’s Best Car Seats to Keep Your Child Safe on the Road – Similar to Consumer Reports, ConsumerSearch reviews hundreds of product reviews and drills down to the information consumers need to make an informed decision. They also consult respected sources for expert opinions on the matter. They include Graco, Maxi-Cosi, Chicco, and Evenflo among their favorite brands.
Of course, the best car seat is the one that complies with the law. US infant car seat laws and booster seat laws vary by state. Child Passenger Safety Technicians at Safe Ride 4 Kids break down child car seat regulations by state for you here.
How do I find information on unsafe car seats?
No one wants to buy a product only to find it’s on the list of car seat recalls. Make sure to research your top choices. To weed out unsafe car seats from your list of finalists, you can also check the list of recalls on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website.
Parenting Magazine advises against buying a second-hand car seat, as it may have been recalled or involved in a collision, and used car seats may be missing parts that aren’t obvious at first glance. Many experts also recommend new parents invest in the latest version since manufacturing and safety standards are always improving.
What are the biggest car seat safety mistakes?
According to the government-funded National Child Restraint Use Special Study, most parents (73%) believe they’ve installed their child’s car or booster seat correctly, but 45% of installations are flawed in some way. Similarly, NPR found that 43% of children who died from car crashes were improperly restrained.
Common car seat installation mistakes to avoid include the following:
Strapping the seat in too loose – The seat should not be able to move from side-to-side or front-to-back by more than one inch. Some car seats can be tightened by placing your knee on the seat and putting all your weight into pulling on the seat belt. Check your manual for specifics.
Strapping the harness too loose – If you can pinch the fabric of the harness straps between your fingers, the harness is too loose. You want those straps “snug as a hug.” They should lie perfectly flat, allowing you to fit one finger underneath – not two.
Switching a child to forward-facing too soon – All children should remain rear-facing until they have reached the maximum height or weight limit on the rear-facing seat, whichever happens first. The American Academy of Pediatrics has said all children should remain rear-facing until at least age 2. Some car seats allow children to remain rear-facing until around age 4.
Placing a rear-facing car seat at the wrong angle – The amount of recline should fall between 30 and 45 degrees, regardless of age. All rear-facing seats should have built-in angle indicators to help you adjust to the correct angle, according to HealthyChildren.org.
Clipping the harness in the wrong location – The harness clip should be even with your child’s armpits – not too high or too low. For lap belt boosters, the harness should fasten across the hips/thighs.
Failing to adjust the harness straps – Some car seats come with three harness slots (two lower for rear-facing and a top slot for the forward-facing position); others use no-rethread harness systems, where you can adjust the height of the shoulder straps by sliding the headrest. In the rear-facing position, you want the straps to start at or BELOW the shoulders. When you turn your child’s seat around, be sure to check that the straps are placed into that top slot (or slide the headrest up), so the straps start at or ABOVE the shoulders.
- Dressing your child in a puffy coat – Most jacket material compresses, leading to excess slack in the harness. Take your child out of bulky outerwear, strap them in, and place a warm blanket on top of them if they’re cold. If possible, warm up the car before putting your child in the car seat.
Fortunately, there are many resources to help with car seat installation. Be sure you read the manufacturer’s manual thoroughly before installing your car seat, reviewing the material again once you’ve got everything in place. Most car seat manufacturers also offer videos demonstrating a successful installation.
We hope our guide helps make your car seat journey a bit easier. If you’d like in-person advice about proper car seat installation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lists child passenger safety seat inspection locations by zip code here. Local fire stations and hospitals may also provide support if you inquire. We’d love to share your favorite car seat tips with other caregivers, so please comment below!