How to Pick the Perfect Car Seat
If you’ve embarked on car seat research, you’ve probably already realized that there are a lot of options and a ton of information. It can be overwhelming choosing an item that your baby will spend so much time in, and which will be such an important factor in his or her safety and well-being. Let us guide you through everything you need to know to make this all-important purchase.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Before getting down to the details and extras of the seats themselves, let’s cover some basics you should know about car seats before purchasing anything.
Every state has different child restraint laws. Make sure you know what the law is in your state. You can look up your state law here.
Not every car seat fits well in every car. Even if you want a certain car seat, it may not install safely in your vehicle. Find a store in your area that will allow you to test out the car seat in your car before purchasing. It's helpful if the staff is knowledgeable and can help you make sure it's installed correctly. The Baby Cubby keeps a Child Passenger Safety (CPS) Certified Technician on staff to help new (or continuing) parents during this process.
Seat location matters. Some car seats install better with the seatbelt versus the latch system (or visa-versa). Some car seats install better on the side versus in the middle (or visa-versa). Find out which location in your vehicle is ideal for the car seat you choose.
Learn how to use your car seat. It may take some extra time and research, but make an effort to learn how the seat is supposed to work. Go to the manufacturer’s website, look through the manual, and contact the company for any questions and/or concerns.
Know what the weight limit is for the LATCH System. LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. LATCH is required on car seats and in most vehicles manufactured on or after Sept. 1, 2002 to make car seat installations easier. However, even in vehicles equipped with LATCH, parents can still secure the car seat using the vehicle seat belt and tether. Check the vehicle user guide and car seat user guide to determine what is best for your child.
Get your Car Seat Inspected. There are child car seat inspection stations across the country with certified technicians who can help you install your child’s car seat or make sure that it is installed correctly. If you can visit The Baby Cubby in person, we have CPS Certified Techs to check your car seat for you! If you aren't local, you can find a list of inspection stations in your area here.
Car seats EXPIRE! Car seats, just like many foods, can become potentially dangerous after they expire. And since we’d never recommend that you eat expired meat, we also strongly recommend that you don’t use an expired car seat. Manufacturing standards change over the years, technology advances, and even plastic breaks down over time.
Think about how hot and cold your car gets--those extreme changes in temperature can weaken the plastic, so while it may look safe it could potentially not hold up during a crash. Typically the expiration date is on the bottom or side of the car seat and most seats expire seven to eight years after the manufacture date. You can check with the manufacturer if you’re still not sure.
Some hospitals check to see if your car seat is expired before releasing your newborn, so if you are thinking about using an expired one it may cause frustrations while leaving the hospital. We strongly recommend that you don’t purchase a used car seat because you do not know it's history, and often used car seats have expired.
Car seats may need to be replaced after an accident. If you’ve been in a car accident with the car seat, it may not be safe to use afterwards. Check with your car insurance company to see if they will replace the seat if you’ve been in an accident. Each car seat manufacturer has its own regulations on whether or not a car seat needs to be replaced after an accident.
Most car seats can be used after a minor accident if ALL of the following criteria apply:
The vehicle was able to be driven away from the crash site.
The vehicle door nearest to child restraint was undamaged.
None of the occupants suffered ANY injuries.
The air bags (if present) did NOT deploy or open.
There is no visible damage to the car seat.
There is a RIGHT way to buckle and a WRONG way to buckle. It is extremely important that your child’s car seat straps are tightened appropriately.
Use the Pinch Test to ensure it is properly tightened: Simply buckle your baby into the seat, adjust the straps so they are snug along their shoulders. Now, try to pinch the webbing of the harness at their shoulders. If you are able to grasp any fabric in your pinch, there is too much slack in the harness and it should be tightened.
Make sure the chest clip is at armpit level and be aware of the harness height. For rear-facing seats, the top of the harness straps should be at or within an inch below the shoulders. For forward-facing seats, the top of the harness straps should be at or within an inch above the shoulders.
We are here to help! We have our very own Certified Car Seat Technicians! If you are able to visit our store, ask for one of our CPS Techs. You can always schedule an appointment to meet with one of our trained Cubby Moms as well. We also have car seats on display that you can try in your vehicle before buying!
TYPES OF CAR SEATS
Infant Car Seat (Rear-Facing Only)
Designed for newborns and small babies, the infant car seat is a small, portable seat that can only be used rear-facing. It has a harness and, in a crash, cradles and moves with your child to reduce the stress to the child's fragile neck and spinal cord. A rear-facing seat is a must for your newborn. In fact, after your baby is born, you’ll need a rear-facing car seat correctly installed in your car before you can leave the hospital.
Most babies outgrow their infant seats before their first birthday. When that happens, we recommend that parents purchase a convertible car seat or all-in-one car seat and use it rear-facing.
Most styles of infant car seats have a base that stays attached to the seat of the car. The car seat attaches to the base and detaches with a simple push of a button or pull on a lever. This allows you to keep Baby in his or her seat even after you leave your car. A lot of infant car seats are stroller compatible, so they can easily snap into a stroller to create a travel system, making it simple to transport Baby on the go.
Why is rear-facing position safer than forward-facing position? In the event of a car accident, everything in your car will continue traveling forward, including your child! When your child is rear-facing, the motion of their body will press into the car seat, giving their neck and spine the support it needs. If they were to be forward-facing, their body would continue to travel forward where their neck and spine is not supported. This can cause serious bodily harm.
There are some who say that their child does not fit in their car seat rear-facing because their legs are too long, but this is not a valid concern. True, your child may not be able to stretch out their legs fully, but in the event of a car accident, they will be far safer facing backwards.
You can check out our Infant Car Seat Guide for more detailed information on infant seats and how to choose the best one for you!
Convertible Car Seat (Rear & Forward Facing)
Convertible car seats get their name from their ability to be installed rear or forward-facing. These seats allow for more weight and height than infant car seats, so they can grow with your child once he or she gets too big for the infant seat. And once they reach the requirements for facing forward, you can simply turn the seat around and continue using it. (The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and American Association of Pediatric both recommend keeping baby rear-facing until two years old.)
However, unlike infant seats, a convertible car seat does not have a base. The seat itself is strapped into your car using either the regular seat belt or a LATCH system. Obviously this means that the convenience of carrying the sleeping baby in their car seat into a store, or clicking it right into the stroller is no longer an option.
You can check out our Convertible Car Seat Gear Guide for more detailed information on convertible seats and how to choose the best one for you!
If you’re serious about buying only one car seat, the all-in-one seat is the one for you. This seat can change from a rear-facing seat to a forward-facing seat (with a harness and tether) and then to a booster seat as a child grows.
A booster seat allows your child to use a seat belt instead of a harness, but it positions the seat belt over the strongest part of your child’s body by boosting them higher. Generally, your child should be at least 4 or 5 years old and weigh at least 40 pounds to ride in a booster. (Check manufacturer specifics on the booster.) They should also be mature enough to sit properly during the entire trip without playing with the seat belt. If they reach 40 pounds but still tend to slouch and fiddle with the seat belt, you should stick with a 5-point harness car seat that can accommodate larger kids.
Booster Seat With High Back: This type of booster seat is designed to boost the child’s height so the seat belt fits properly. It also provides neck and head support. We recommend using a high-back booster for as long as possible. They generally keep the child more securely positioned and can provide nice head support so kids can fall asleep on the drive
Backless Booster Seat: A backless booster seat is designed to boost the child’s height so the seat belt fits properly. It does not provide head and neck support, so make sure the seat of the car does offer good support. While we recommend using a high-back booster as much as possible, a backless booster can be more practical sometimes, such as when traveling through airports or when using taxis/ride shares.
All-in-One Seat: This seat can change from a rear-facing seat to a forward-facing seat (with a harness and tether) and to a booster seat as a child grows.
A child can safely transition out of a booster seat entirely once they meet five criteria:
They can sit with their back against the vehicle’s seat.
Their knees bend at the edge of the seat.
The lap best sits on the top of their thighs, not their tummy.
The shoulder belt rests between their neck and shoulder.
They sit properly without slouching, playing with the seat belt, leaning, etc.
You can check out our entire collection of booster seats here.
With so many options and combinations, we understand how finding the right car seat can be overwhelming! We want to make your purchase as easy as possible, so feel free to contact us with any questions. Many car seat manufacturers also offer tools to help you decide which seat is best for your situation
For more detailed information on each type of seat, along with great examples we offer at The Baby Cubby, check out our Infant Car Seat and Convertible Car Seat guides.
*For more information and help deciding which kind of car seat is right for you visit nhtsa.gov/equipment/car-seats-and-booster-seats