Expert Car Seat Buying Guide
Safety, price, ease of use, lifestyle and size
considerations should all inform your decision.
Convertible car seats are
designed to start out in a rear-facing position for infants and children up to
about 35 pounds with an upper limit of 45 pounds on some of the newer models.
When your child gets big enough, you can turn the seat forward-facing and use
it until they reach 40 or 50 pounds (high-capacity seats can hold kids weighing
up to 80 pounds). Height limits vary greatly, from 40 to 57 inches. With the
AAP and the NHTSA both recommending that children stay rear-facing in their car
seats longer and in five-point harnesses longer, convertible car seats are less
of a stopover between the infant car seat and the booster seat, and more of a
long term seat that will potentially grow with your child from infancy into
This possibility of long-term
use likely makes a convertible car seat the best choice financially, regardless
of price. That does not mean anyone has to spend a fortune to get a very safe
convertible car seat. As our section on car seats costing less than $150
explains, less-expensive car seats are as safe or safer than the most expensive
models. Where consumers can be tricked is in the area of weight ratings. An
inexpensive car seat that only holds a child forward-facing up to 40 pounds
will have to be replaced with another car seat or a booster seat when a child
reaches 40 pounds.
When shopping for a car seat consider the
1) Age and size of the child
For a newborn, look
for a model that reclines easily and comes with infant-appropriate supportive padding
and harness height. A convertible car seat with a tether that works in the
rear-facing position offers even greater stability.
For an older infant
or a toddler look closely at the weight and height ratings in both the
rear-facing and forward-facing position. If you have a tall child, avoid seats
that have lower height ratings regardless of the weight ratings. To keep your
child in a five-point harness for as long as possible, look for a car seat in
the higher weight rating category.
2) Size of your car and family
that parents measure the width of their car and the forward to back space
between the front passenger and driver seats and the back seat before choosing
a car seat. Be realistic about front seat leg room. Don't take measurements when the front seats are pulled fully forward.
If you drive a
small sedan, a hatchback, a pickup truck with rear seating or a smaller SUV
some of the bigger car seats simply won't fit, especially in the rear-facing
position. A safely installed car seat should not touch the seats in front of
If you are a
one-child family, sacrificing rear seating space may not be much of an issue.
However, if you need to fit two to three car seats across one row of any car,
car seat width becomes a major issue. Before investing in a car seat, measure
the width of your car to make sure multiple car seats will fit.
3) Use of the seat
If you are
purchasing this seat for long term, regular use, in your main car and/or long
driving trips it may be worth spending a little extra on comfort features such
as softer padding, cup holders, etc. Car seats that are easy to recline in the
front-facing position are particularly important if you are clocking major time
on the road.
If you are buying
the seat for an extra car, a caregiver car, and/or infrequent use you may want
to look for a less expensive seat that still has a good safety rating. Also, be
sure that the harness is easy to adjust from the front. Caregivers who are less
familiar with car seats are less likely to secure them as well, particularly if
the harness is difficult to adjust.
If you plan to move
your seat between cars, look for a seat that is easily to install.
Experts say the
following about buying a car seat:
Do not buy a used car
seat. You won't know if it's been in an accident,
and because the product isn't registered in your name, you won't receive recall
notices. In addition, seats come labeled with an expiration date. That's
because over time (usually around six years), the plastic can dry out and
degrade, increasing the possibility of cracking. Experts say you should not use
a car seat after its been in a moderate to serious crash -- that's because car
seats are made to withstand only one serious accident. However, the NHTSA has revised
its guidelines with respect to minor accidents, and experts now say if your
vehicle is still drivable, nobody inside the car was hurt, the airbags did not
deploy and the door nearest the child's car seat is not damaged, it's generally
safe to keep using your existing car seat as long as it is not visibly damaged.
A five-point harness (which has straps for the
shoulders, waist and between the legs) provides the best support and puts the
least amount of pressure on the rear-facing baby and forward-facing
toddler/child. Harnesses that adjust the belt from the
front are easier to use than those that adjust from the back.
When purchasing a car
seat for infants, don't buy seats
that come with padded overhead shields that swing down in front of the harness. The NHTSA says these shields come up too high on infants
and make proper harnessing difficult.
Chest clips that snap
the two belts together (like a car seat belt) seem to be more kid-proof than slide-in clips. Reviewers say some older toddlers can slip out of the
Check the return policy and keep the receipt until
you're sure the seat is compatible with your vehicle. Not all seats fit perfectly in all cars. CarseatData.org
features a car seat compatibility database to match up makes and models of cars
with appropriate car seats.
After installing your
car seat, take it to your nearest fire station for inspection to ensure that it is installed
correctly. Up to 80 percent of all child seats are installed incorrectly,
according to the NHTSA. Also on the to-do list after purchase: Register your
car seat. This will ensure that you get all safety recall notices.