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Infant car seats keep small babies safe with a few added conveniences

Infant car seats are the first in a long line of car seats designed to keep children safe on the road. Designed solely for rear-facing use, infant car seats often have deep shells and ample padding to better protect and cushion small babies. They also have five-point harnesses with chest chips to keep children secure, and like most car seats, they allow for both LATCH and seat-belt installation.

Infant car seats are designed for use outside of the car, too. Unlike convertible car seats and boosters, which stay put in the car, infant car seats are lightweight and portable. Parents can detach the seat from a base they leave in their vehicle and carry it using the attached handle -- convenient for allowing a sleeping baby to continue napping. Infant car seats also have canopies to protect babies from strong sunlight, and many are compatible with strollers or stroller frames -- simply attach the car seat with a strap or special click-in adapter, and you're ready to roll.

There are a couple of other things to consider when you're picking an infant car seat: How long you want to keep your baby in the seat and how much you want to spend.

Infant car seats come with a range of height and weight capacities. While some seats allow babies as small as 4 pounds -- an important consideration for parents of premature infants -- most are approved for babies 5 pounds and up. On the upper end, most infant car seats have maximum weight limits of 22, 30 or 35 pounds and height limits from 29 to 32 inches. Higher-capacity seats will have longer lives. Some bigger babies will hit 22 pounds or 29 inches before they're a year old, but very few will hit 35 pounds or 32 inches. That buys parents extra time before they have to think about switching car seats, and it helps ensure babies remain rear-facing. However, some parents say it's a back-breaking task to carry around a bigger baby in an infant car seat, and others say their babies seem uncomfortable in infant car seats as they put on pounds. In both cases, it may make sense for parents to get rid of the infant car seat and start using a rear-facing convertible car seat sooner rather than later. Lower-weight-capacity infant car seats are widely available for under $100, while those with higher weight capacities can approach or top $200, depending on extra features.

Less expensive infant car seats are perfectly safe, but they lack extra frills. It's easy to assume a more expensive infant car seat will be safer than a cheaper model. In reality, every car seat sold in the U.S. has to pass the same federal crash tests -- even those under $100. As discussed above, less expensive seats may have lower height and weight capacities, though some parents don't see this as a con since they may not want to lug around a huge baby in an infant car seat. The seats may also be lightweight compared to more expensive models. Of course, the major downside of less-expensive seats is that they lack "extras," including features that may make installation easier, plusher padding that can keep babies comfier, or harnesses that are a snap to tighten with each use and adjust as babies grow.

Watch for recent recalls. In February 2014, Graco recalled nearly 3.8 million convertible car seats due to an issue with the buckle that makes it difficult to remove a child from the seat, increasing the risk of injury when an emergency exit from the vehicle is required. The recall was initiated at the urging of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) following reports from a number of parents. We discuss this specific recall in our section on budget car seats; however, it's worth noting here that you should never buy a used car seat. Buy new and be sure to register it, and you will be notified of any recalls.

The NHTSA has also recommended that Graco recall millions of its infant seats, something that, at the time this report went to press, Graco has declined to do. For some safe alternatives to Graco for older babies, see our report on convertible car seats. If your child is ready to move up to the next level, see our report on booster seats.

ConsumerSearch has analyzed expert and customer reviews to evaluate safety, ease of use, lifestyle factors and customer service for popular infant car seats. The result is our picks for the best infant car seats on the market.

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