Nothing prepared me for the terror I felt driving home from the hospital with my newborn. She looked so tiny and fragile in her car seat. At the first stoplight, I looked over and saw a young man completely absorbed by his cell phone. My heart skipped a beat. I was suddenly hyperaware that my child’s safety wasn’t completely in my control.
The good news: You can take comfort in knowing that a well-manufactured, properly installed car seat provides great peace of mind. Consider this:
- Car seat use reduces the risk of death to infants under 12 months by 71%.
- Car seat use reduces the risk of death to toddlers 1-4 years by 54%.
- Booster seat use reduces the risk of serious injury to children 4-8 years by 45%.
- Seat belt use 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 your car seat questions:
- What are the different types of car seats?
- How long are babies in infant seats?
- How long do kids use booster seats?
- What are the best car seats?
- How do you properly install a car seat?
- Where can I get my car seat 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?
Car seat shopping can be confusing, as some of the types overlap, and you may not need every different type, particularly if you choose a convertible car seat with higher weight and height limits.
To begin, let’s go over the two car seat positions:
Best for Ages: Newborn through 2 or 3 years
Rear-Facing Car Seats
- Use a rear-facing position for newborns until roughly age 2 or 3.
- Keep your child in a rear-facing car seat as long as the upper weight or height limit allows.
- Some manufacturers offer rear-facing seats that accommodate children up to 49 inches tall and 50 pounds.
- Rear-facing is the safer position, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Best for Ages: 2 or 3 years and above
Forward-Facing Car Seats
- Use a forward-facing position for children 2 or older up to around 9 years.
- Once your child outgrows a rear-facing car seat, you can switch to forward-facing.
- Forward-facing car seats are advised until children reach 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 provide the best fit for newborns and preemies as small as four pounds.
Price Range: $80 to $500
- These seats are lightweight and portable for transporting sleeping babies.
- They may snap into a compatible stroller base, which is helpful if you take a lot of outings.
- 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.
Convertible Car Seats
Designed for use from birth through the toddler years, and even to school age. Most convertible car seats are initially rear-facing; once your child reaches the rear-facing height or weight limit, you switch the convertible seat to the forward-facing position. Most convertible car seats use a five-point harness system.
Price Range: $40 to $450
- You only have to purchase one seat for a while, since infants can use convertible car seats, and since they can be both rear- and forward-facing.
- Most convertible car seats let you keep your child rear-facing for longer.
- Convertible car 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 infant seats, which can easily be taken out of the base.
Designed for “big kids,” ages 4 to 7 or 8. A high-back booster may use a five-point harness system or your vehicle’s buckling system.
Price Range: $32 to $150
- These seats are sturdy, durable, and built for supreme comfort.
- A high-back booster is generally roomier than a five-point convertible car seat.
- Forward-facing boosters are ideal for kids who are under the legal age limit for seat belts but seem 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.
Designed for children who have outgrown harness seats, usually between 8-12 years, until they are at least 4 feet 9 inches. These seats position beneath your child and integrate with your vehicle’s seat belts. If your booster comes with a clip to help secure the shoulder harness, experts recommend using it to improve fit.
Price Range: $11 to $129
- 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 are better at positioning at the hip for protection in front or rear-end collisions, they are less effective at protecting children in side collisions than high-back versions.
You’ll know it’s time to switch your child to a different position or seat type once he or she reaches the maximum height OR weight limit listed in your car seat manual, whichever comes first.
As your baby becomes a toddler, the rear-facing infant seat may start to look cramped. Many parents worry that it is unsafe when a child’s legs are bent. According to Parenting Magazine, data from real crashes shows that rear-facing children suffer fewer leg injuries than forward-facing children, so it’s really 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 under age 12 in the back seat and in a booster seat until 9-12 years (or until they’re 4 feet 9 inches).
Of course, the best car seat is the one that complies with the law. US infant car seat laws and booster seat laws vary. Child Passenger Safety Technicians at Safe Ride 4 Kids break down child car seat regulations by state for you here.
What is the best car seat?
Once you’ve figured out if you want an infant seat to start with or if you want to 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 AAP, 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 PIPA, UPPAbaby, Chicco, Britax, Diono, Graco, Clek Oobr, Doona, Cosco, Safety 1st, Combi Coccoro, IMMI GO, BubbleBum, and Evenflo.
- 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 2019 list.
- ConsumerSearch’s Best Convertible Car Seat Guide – 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 name Combi Coccoro and Chicco NextFit as their favorite convertible car seats, but they also list brands like Evenflo, Safety 1st, and Diono.
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 Google 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 (NHTSA) website.
Parenting Magazine advises against buying a second-hand car seat, as it may have been recalled or involved in a collision. 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?
Most parents (73%) believe they’ve installed their child’s car or booster seat correctly, according to the government-funded National Child Restraint Use Special Study, 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. To tighten, place your knee on the seat and put all your weight into pulling on the seat belt.
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, whichever happens first. The AAP has said all children should remain rear-facing until at least age 2. Some of the newer car seats allow children to remain rear-facing until almost 3, which the NHTSA recommends.
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 – Convertible car seats generally come with three harness slots (two lower for rear-facing and a top slot for the forward-facing position). 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, at or ABOVE the shoulders.
- Dressing your child in a puffy coat – Most jacket material compresses, leading to excess slack in the harnesses. Take your child out of bulky outerwear and place a warm blanket over top instead. 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 prior to installation, reviewing the material again once you’ve got everything in place. Most car seat manufacturers also offer videos demonstrating a successful installation. YouTube is a wealth of information for searching installations by manufacturer and model.
If you’d like in-person advice about proper car seat installation, the NHTSA lists child passenger safety seat inspection locations by zip code here. Local fire stations and hospitals may also provide support if you inquire.
As parents, we all do our best, but we may not think of everything. I never even thought about the extra bulk of my son’s winter jacket until I saw a post on social media; when I put him in his seat without the coat and saw how much slack remained in the straps, I was incredibly grateful for the advice.
We hope our guide helps make your car seat journey a bit easier. The danger of car travel is the last thing you want to think about with a new baby on the way. Once you’ve nailed down this purchase, you’ll feel much better. After all, this is just one of many decisions you’ll make to give your child the best possible start in life. We’re here for you, every step of the way, including helping you stay comfortable with our award-winning maternity and nursing clothes!