How to Choose the Right Car Seat
Choosing the best car seat for your infant is one of the most important decisions we help new parents make. There are a lot of issues to consider, and only one thing is certain – your newborn can’t leave the hospital unless his/her car seat is properly installed! Of course, our baby gear experts are here to help you with any questions you may have, but here are some of the most important considerations.
Understand Car Seat Rules and Recommendations
Each state has their own set of laws concerning when and how a car seat has to be used for a child, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has also issued its own recommendations. You have to at least comply with your state’s legal requirements, and then we suggest you also follow what the AAP says. As of Spring 2020, here are their recommendations:
• Infants and toddlers should remain rear facing until they are at least two years old. If your child is larger than what your infant car seat can accommodate but still younger than 2, that may mean they need to switch to a rear facing convertible seat, although some infant car seats have higher weight limits that might keep them in the infant seat longer. Rear facing is safest, so the longer your baby or toddler can remain rear facing, the better.
• At the age of two, or once your child is too large for the rear-facing car seat, they should sit in a forward-facing seat with 5-point harness straps until they reach the weight and height limits of that car seat. Again, they should stay in a 5-point harness strap as long as possible.
• Your child should use a booster seat until they are 8-12 years old, depending on the state, and at least 57 inches tall, which is when a seat belt would properly fit over their shoulder.
• You can utilize a used car seat, but only if you’re sure it hasn’t been recalled, damaged, or involved in an accident, and it isn’t past the expiration date listed on the label.
• Children should remain in the back seat until they are 13 years old.
In terms of what is the safest car seat for your baby, hands down, it is the one that is installed properly, regardless of whether you utilize the seat belts or the LATCH system to secure the seat. National regulations require that every new car seat passes a minimum set of requirements to ensure that your baby is kept safe in an accident. That said, there are numerous additional safety features that can provide extra security, including load legs and anti-rebound bars (for front and rear-end collisions, respectively), and extra side impact protection. LATCH and seat belts are considered to be equally safe, but note that there are weight limitations on how long you can use the LATCH system to secure the seat. These weight limitations range from 25 to 40 pounds, so you will need to switch to seat belts to restrain the seat at some point. We separately discuss child seat safety, but a point to highlight here is considerations around where to locate your car seat. Typically, the middle seat is considered to be the safest as it is furthest from any potential impact. However, if you want to use a LATCH or a load leg, or if you have more than one car seat in the back, you may not be able to use the middle seat, so you need to balance that into your decision making.
What different types of Car Seats are There, and Which is Best for my Family?
We think of car seats for infants and toddlers in three different categories: infant car seats, convertible car seats, and all-in-one car seats, which eventually turn into booster seats. Each has features which might work best for your family, and we’ll highlight those as we go.
Infant Car Seats
These are the most popular choice of car seats for newborns. The primary advantages of an infant car seat are its relatively compact size and its portability, meaning that you can leave your baby in the car seat, unsnap the seat from its base, and carry it with you or snap it into a compatible stroller. Most of our new parents love this because they don’t need to wake their sleeping infant when they arrive at a destination.
Most infant car seats come with a separate base and car seat. The base is carefully secured into the car, and you can buy more than one base to fit into your other cars or those of caretakers or grandparents. There is one infant car seat currently on the market that is baseless and great for families that are frequently moving their baby in and out of multiple cars and want to avoid purchasing extra bases. While all other infant seats have the LATCH system built into the base, this car seat has the latch system built into the actual car seat. In terms of stroller compatibility, we’ve found that parents frequently end up purchasing multiple strollers to fit different needs, whether they be full size strollers, double strollers, jogger, all terrain or smaller travel strollers, so compatibility across multiple stroller types is desirable. You might want to determine which stroller is best for your budget and lifestyle before making a final decision on your infant seat as not all are compatible. Infant car seats come with a variety of sun shade and safety features and options, a wide range of fabric choices for ease of cleaning, and numerous accessories to choose from.
Convertible Car Seats
Convertible car seats are designed to start out rear facing, and then they can be switched to forward facing when baby meets age, weight or height requirements as specified by the AAP or car seat standards. This means convertible car seats can be typically used until your child is six or seven years old, generally up to about 65 pounds. Most of these seats will work for new infants with the use of an infant insert, but make sure to check the manual for the manufacturer’s weight limits for the inserts as they do vary. Because they are designed to work as both forward facing and rear facing, most Convertible seats have multiple recline settings. So, as your baby’s neck grows stronger, you can decrease the recline and free up a little more room in the back seat plus allow baby to look around at the world around them. (which is great for development) Please note that whenever you change the incline of the seat you need to safely re-install the car seat.
Convertible car seats are not detachable from their base, so, for most people they are left in the car and if they have more than one car they may choose to buy more than one seat rather than move back and forth and deal with reinstallation. Unlike an infant car seat, then, your baby would need to be removed from the convertible car seat when you leave the car. As with the other car seats, there are multiple fabric, accessory, and safety options that you need to take into consideration when selecting a convertible car seat.
All-In-One Car Seats
All-in-One seats, as the name suggests, fit all the ages and stages of your child’s development. With infant inserts, they are installed into your car rear facing with multiple recline settings, and they can be switched to forward facing when your toddler meets the appropriate age, weight and height requirements. Once your child is old enough to switch to a booster seat, this seat can accommodate that by tucking in the harness and using the seat belt over your child’s shoulders. We typically recommend these seats for grandparents or caregivers, as they help avoid purchasing more than one seat since your baby isn’t as likely to use it as frequently so they will work for the child for the aentire time they need some sort of seat... As with the other types of car seats, there are multiple safety, fabric and accessory options with these.
Overall Car Seat Considerations for your Family
These are some of the other questions we address when we help our new families find the best car seat for their family:
How many children do you have?
This may affect how large of a car seat you purchase, whether you will use it for an extended time or pass it down more quickly, etc. Don’t forget to consider how much room you have in your back seat.
How frequently do you plan on being in and out of your car?
If you plan on being in and out frequently, you may like the additional flexibility of an infant car seat, where you can “snap and go” without needing to move your infant in and out of the seat, stroller, etc.
Have you considered what stroller or strollers you will be using?
If you are using an infant car seat, you need to make sure it’s compatible with the stroller(s) you want to use.
What accessories make sense for you?
Some car seats come with great built-in features like cup holders. Others require that you purchase them separately. Make sure that you understand how your warranty works for accessories that come separately, and that any loose objects would be safe in an accident.
How would you like to clean the car seat?
We know from hard experience that car seats need to be cleaned. Depending on the fabric your seat uses, you can either wash it with simple soap and water, or some can be removed and washed in the washing machine and then air dried or placed in the dryer.
Do you want to use a seat protector beneath the car seat?
Seat protectors can be great to limit damage from spills, but they aren’t really needed to protect the fabric from “dents” associated with the weight of the car seat and the baby, since these tend to disappear pretty quickly once the car seat has been removed. Note that, to become certified for use, car seats are tested under certain conditions (for example, with and without seat protectors). So depending on how the car seat was tested, the manufacturer may require that you use their own seat protector, or not use one at all, or their warranty may be voided, so make sure you can the manual for the relevant information.
Have you checked the height and weight limits?
It’s easy to keep track of your baby’s age, but you need to make sure you understand the car seat’s height and weight limits so that it meets your expectations for how long you can use it.
What are my budget considerations?
We try to help families assess not just the cost of the specific car seat, but the other gear that goes along with having a new baby so all of these issues get balanced.
Can I purchase or use a used car seat?
As we mentioned earlier, you can if you’re sure it hasn’t been damaged or involved in a car accident, and that the seat isn’t expired.
Have you registered your product?
Yes, we know this isn’t a buying consideration, but make sure you register it so you’re aware of any safety issues or recalls. And, if you’ve lost your registration card or are using a second hand seat you can go to the manufacturers website and still register the seat..
As always, please give us a call if you have any questions or want to talk through how to choose the best car seat, and make sure the car seat is properly secured at all times. And remember, when you purchase your car seat from us, it comes with important Pump Station Perks, including:
• Free "Hot Topics" Parenting Class w/ Purchase
• Free Virtual Consult or in-store Car Seat Installation or Gear Assembly
• Product Education & Registration
• Contactless Curb-Side Pick-Up
By Adam Lari, CPST
Adam Lari started his career with Babies-R-Us at the age of 16 as a customer care associate and within one year he was promoted to Baby Gear Department Supervisor. His dedication and work ethics were quickly recognized on and off the field when he received the Sportsmanship Award by Woodland Hills AYSO region 71 as a player and a volunteer coach for youth boys/girls team. Adam is a member of Safe Kids LA Coalition and has been recognized by California Highway Patrol (CHP) as a certified child car seat safety technician for over 15 years. He has organized and attended many safety events working with other technicians, LAPD, and Highway Patrol to further improve his skills, and assist parents with the safety tips. Adam joined the Pump Station team of parenting experts in early 2019 and now he is their resident Baby Gear Expert. He now happily practices what he teaches with his lovely wife and 2 young daughters.