Car Seats: How to Choose

Car Seats: How to Choose

By request, how to choose a car seat for your infant! This is one of my favorite topics, second only to vaccines! This isn’t so much a list of favorite car seats as it is a primer in how to decide. What factors are important in making a car seat choice? The cowhide pattern? No! Best Amazon reviews? No! Best Consumer Reports review? No!

If you’re looking for recommendations on specific seats, I like these sites because the recommendations are made by experienced car seat techs (CPSTs) with experience with lots of seats and lots of cars. They evaluate based on real world usage, not the manufacturer’s claims.

Now, on to the decision matrix!

Rear-Facing Only vs Convertible

The first decision to make is whether you want a rear-facing only car seat (the bucket kind with a handle that you can click in and out of a base and stroller) or a convertible car seat (the kind that stays in the car and can later be turned to front facing). Yes, you can use a convertible car seat for a newborn! But not every convertible is appropriate, so if you think you’ll want to leave the car seat in the car and carry your baby, wear your baby, or plop them in a regular stroller, then skip to the convertible section.

Rear-facing Only

Basics about rear-facing only seats, and if this sounds really basic, ask me sometime about the conversations I’ve overheard at Buy Buy Baby.

A rear-facing only seat has a seat and a base. The base is installed into the car (with the seat belt or with LATCH) and then the baby seat clicks into the base. Almost all rear-facing only seats can be used without the base (appropriately called ‘baseless’) by using the car’s seatbelt through special slots to keep the car seat in place.

If you are installing with LATCH, you only use LATCH. You do not use the seatbelt “to make it more secure.”

If you are installing with the seatbelt, you only use the seatbelt. You do not use LATCH also “to make it more secure.”

If you are using the base, you do not also use the seatbelt through the car seat.

CAR – (seatbelt or LATCH) BASE – (click) CAR SEAT

CAR – (seatbelt) CAR SEAT

I was a huge fan of the RFO seat for my son. We live in an apartment and park in a garage, so it was easy to pop the car seat into the stroller caddy, take the elevator up to our hall, and then park the stroller just inside the apartment. It meant that I could buckle him into his car seat in the comfort of our apartment, instead of bending over the car. It meant that I could get him moving quickly (in the stroller) if he was getting agitated with getting buckled into the seat. And, if I ever didn’t want to take the seat out of the car, I could just as easily leave it in the car.

But! That beast was heavy. We had a Chicco Keyfit 30, which I picked because it would fit even a small baby well, and I liked the way the buckles felt and worked on small bodies. The base is also incredibly easy to install. The seat itself weighs ?12 pounds though, so carrying the seat plus the baby got to be pretty heavy pretty quickly. I almost always used the Keyfit Caddy, which is a lightweight stroller frame that you can open and fold with one hand and just toss in the trunk. With the Caddy, I never had to carry the carseat, and I always had ample storage space underneath.

If you live in a walk-up apartment, you might want to pick something lighter. A Graco, Britax, or Cosco Light’n’Comfy are going to be much lighter.

As you’re shopping for rear-facing only seats, consider:

  • Will this truly fit a newborn? Some rear-facing only seats, even though they are marketed for newborns/infants, and claim to have a 5-pound weight minimum, don’t actually fit newborns. How is this possible? In a rear-facing seat, the shoulder straps much be at or below the baby’s shoulders. If the first set of slots is too high, the baby’s shoulders will be below the straps (i.e. the straps will be above the shoulders), which is not safe or proper use. The older Baby Trend seats were famous for this, as are/were some of the seats with 22-pound weight limits. If you are anticipating a preemie or small baby, make sure your seat has a 4- or 5-pound weight limit AND low slots. Check csftl.org for reviews, which all show how a preemie doll fits in the seat.
  • How big is this seat, in terms of how it will fit in your car? Some seats are very wide, and some are very bulky front to back. How tall are you? How tall are the other people riding in your car? Additionally, some seats require that the handles be in a certain position while driving. If they require that the handle be all the way back, that can add 2+ inches to the space required.
  • How easy is it to install in the car? Are you planning to use LATCH or seatbelt? Do you have LATCH anchors in all three seating positions, or just on the sides? Can you “LATCH share” if you’re planning on installing the car seat in the center but don’t have dedicated anchors in the center seating position?
  • Does it have front adjust straps? Most car seats adjust in front, where you pull a strap by the baby’s feet to tighten the harness. Some seats are rear adjust where you tighten each strap individually from the back. This is not unsafe, but it’s more challenging to do properly, and most families I see with rear adjust seats rarely tighten or loosen the straps.
  • How easy is it to wash the fabric? Is it machine washable? My son had so many blowouts in his car seat that I got to where I could strip the seat with my eyes closed, so I was very glad I could just throw the cover in the washing machine. Would have been nice to have been able to put it in the dryer too!
  • Do you have to replace the car seat in any accident, or only those that the NHTSA doesn’t consider minor? Car seats are effectively single-event-only products, much like bike helmets. When they are involved in accidents, the force applied to them can weaken straps or stress plastic. They did their job in protecting your baby, now you have to replace them. Many seats require that you replace them in any accident, so the car seat forums are filled with “does this fender bender/shopping cart in the parking lot/huge pothole count as an accident?” Other manufacturers, like Britax, allow you to follow the NHTSA definition of minor accident in deciding whether or not it needs to be replaced.

Weight Limits

Let’s say you’re looking at the Gracos, and you’re wondering if you should get the Classic Connect 22, the Click Connect 35, or the something 40. Higher weight limit is better, right?

Not necessarily. A car seat is outgrown when ANY of the limits are met, and almost all seats have a weight limit, a length/height limit, and a limit on how close the top of the head can be to the edge of the shell. Manufacturers almost all grossly overstate the limits on their car seats. That 30 pound weight limit on the Keyfit 30? Outgrown at 30”, which for most babies is far, far before they reach 30 pounds. And do you want to carry a 40-pound baby around in a rear-facing only seat? I doubt it. And none of these seats are going to get your kid to 2, when they could theoretically front face, unless you have a very small kid.

The flip side caution is that seats with very low weight limits are usually low end seats, and they get their cheap price by skipping a set of shoulder slots, meaning that the first set of slots is too high for a newborn.

Sometimes seats with reasonably high limits are constructed in such a way that they are outgrown very early. The Britax B-Safe 35 is like that – it has a 35-pound weight limit, but the shoulder area is so narrow that many babies are outgrowing it by six months.

If you have no idea how quickly (or slowly) babies grow, check out the WHO growth charts. (Stay tuned for an article on reading and understanding growth charts!)

Should You Accept Your Brother-in-Law’s Cousin’s Neighbor’s “Perfectly Good” Car Seat?

Car seats are life-saving equipment. When you’re thinking about using a hand-me-down seat, or buying a seat used, ask yourself if you trust this person with your kid’s life. It’s a serious question, and the answer might be yes, but if it’s not, don’t do it.

Questions to ask:

  1. Has this seat been involved in an accident? If so, don’t use this seat.
  2. Is the seat expired? Deal breaker. Car seats have expiration dates, and the date on the seat is often different than the date on the base. Plastics weaken over time, fibers weaken over time, rules, regulations and laws are upgraded over time. The expiration on most rear-facing only seats is 5-8 years. If they only list the manufacturing date (and not the expiration date) on the sticker, download the manual for the seat and check how many years it’s good for. There is often a date stamped into the plastic that says “do not use after [whatever] date” and the manual will tell you where to find that too.
  3. Has it been cared for according to the manual? How was it cleaned and washed? The straps can’t be submerged or soaked. If they have been submerged or soaked, the fibers might be weakened.
  4. Has there been a recall on this seat? That might not be a deal-breaker, but you’ll need to go through the process of replacing whatever part or sticker was part of the recall.
  5. Does it have all the original parts, including the correct fabric and any inserts, cushions, strap covers, etc? You can only use the parts that came with the seat. If they don’t have them, you can try to call the company to order replacements. You can NOT use the inserts they sell at Babies’r’Us or Target. There are entire aisles of products you CAN NOT use, because those products were not tested with the seats.

Aftermarket Products

Going to say it again: you can only use the parts – fabric cover, cushions, head supports, body supports, strap covers, etc — that came with the seat. If they don’t have them, you can try to call the company to order replacements. You can NOT use the inserts they sell at Babies’r’Us or Target. There are entire aisles of products you CAN NOT use, because those products were not tested with the seats. The only exception is one Britax insert that WAS tested with Britax seats, and Britax allows its use in Britax seats.

The only thing you are allowed to do – for most seats, not even all seats – is add rolled receiving blankets on either side of the torso.

Many seats also don’t allow toys hanging from the handles. Read the manual before you buy all the fun things.

Check out this article on unregulated aftermarket products.

Where to install in the car?

By and large, the center of the back seat is considered the safest place to install a car seat, because it is the furthest from any and all possible points of impact.

However, not all cars support a center install. Sometimes there’s a weird hump in the bench or the back or something else makes it impossible to use the center position. In that case, you can choose which side of the back seat you want to use. I put my son on the passenger side so that I could easily hand him things from the front seat, and because that’s the curb side, so I would be unloading him onto the curb and not into traffic. Other families choose to have baby behind the driver to avoid so many walks around the car.

Many cars also don’t have LATCH anchors in the center position. You don’t have to use LATCH, but you should find out whether you even can. Download your car’s manual and search for LATCH. If it allows LATCH sharing (meaning use one anchor from the driver’s side and one anchor from the passenger side), check to make sure your car seat allows it. Otherwise, use the seatbelt. Neither LATCH nor the seatbelt is superior in terms of safety. LATCH was invented to try to make correct installation easier, which is important, because an incorrect installation isn’t safe, but a correct LATCH installation and a correct seatbelt installation should be equally safe.

Conclusion: use the spot where you get a good install.

Convertible from Birth?

Many families skip the rear-facing only seat and jump right to the convertible car seat. This makes a lot of sense – most babies only use the RFO for 6-12 months, they’ll need a convertible after that anyway, and they can use the convertible for 3-4 years. The downside is that the convertible remains installed in the car, so you don’t have the convenience of clicking a sleeping baby in and out of the car as you run errands or head into the doctor’s office.

Convertibles are also a good investment for foster families, since, if you get the right one, it can be used for a wide variety of babies and kids, from a rear-facing 5-pounder to a front-facing 45-pounder.

If you want to use a convertible, you need to make sure that it’s appropriate for newborns. Newborns require a more reclined position and more body support. The shoulder strap height needs to be appropriate for a small torso. Car Seats for the Littles has a good discussion and list.

Most Importantly…

Read the manual. Seriously. Almost all of the families in my office are using their car seats incorrectly, and the only ones not making some kind of car seat error are those who read the manual. There are tons of rules on how to use the car seat correctly, and you won’t know that they even exist if you don’t read the manual. If you don’t have the paper manual, download it.

I would also strongly recommend a visit with a car seat tech before baby arrives. The tech will teach you how to use the seat properly and make sure you feel confident in installing it.

There are also car seat check events where you can have your install checked.

Oh yeah, how do I put the baby in?

The Car Seat Lady has a pretty comprehensive article on positioning, which has videos on how to buckle in your baby. It’s more challenging than you think. Maybe I’ll make a video too.

The AAP’s car seat guide is good too.

And don’t put the car seat on top of a shopping cart. The grooves and metal connectors on the underside of the seat are intended for clipping onto the car seat base, not the shopping cart. The baby is unlikely to be at the correct angle (recline). It raises the center of gravity and increases the risk of the whole shopping cart tipping. Don’t do it. If you need to have baby in her car seat while you shop, put the car seat in the main body of the cart, or use a stroller, or wear her in a front carrier.

What About Strollers?

In general I don’t recommend travel systems, which are when a stroller and car seat are bundled together. The strollers are not generally the best strollers, and you’ll have a lot more opportunities to make customized selections on both the car seat and the stroller if you buy them separately. Not all car seats are compatible with all strollers, but I also prefer using a stroller frame like the Keyfit Caddy when I was using the car seat, and a regular stroller when I wasn’t. Car seats should really only be used in the car, so it’s probably best to use a different kind of stroller for actual strolling.

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