What are the tips for buying a baby car seat?
Of all the things you’ll buy for your child, a good car seat is one of the most important. You’ll need one from the moment you take your baby home from the hospital until he or she grows enough to fit into an adult seat belt, typically around the age of 10 or later. What’s scary is that nearly 46 per cent of child seats and boosters are installed incorrectly. A poorly installed seat leaves a child vulnerable in a crash.
All car seats are required to meet federal safety standards in a 30-mph crash test. CR has tested seats for more than 30 years, and we go further today with a simulated 35-mph crash that better represents current vehicle environments. We also test for ease of use: How simple it is to follow instructions or manage buckles and straps; and how well the car seat fits into five different vehicles with challenging interiors. So the better a seat does in our tests, the better your chances of installing it correctly, and safely securing your child.
Spending a lot of money doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get the best car seat. Many mid priced models work as well as or better than pricier ones. Whatever the cost, a certain seat may simply just not work with your car. This is why we strongly recommend planning ahead. Use our guide to figure out the right seat for your child (and car), and to know when you’ll need to move your child to the next one.
Why is it so important to find the perfect car seat?
First of all, the hospital won’t let you leave if you don’t have a properly installed car seat for your newborn. Your local city and state regulations will also determine what car seat you can have and how you use it. As your child grows, their car seat needs will change as well, so you may have to purchase additional seats depending on what kind you buy.
Scope out your car before you shop
First things first: Read your vehicle’s owner’s manual before buying a car seat. Car seats can be attached using either the seat belt or the LATCH system (which stands for the Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children system, and which all new vehicles have). You can decide before buying which one you want to use and then look for a seat based on how you want to install it — belt or LATCH.
If you decide to use LATCH, make sure you know where the LATCH attachments are in your vehicle — there may not be any in the middle, rear-seating position, which is the safest spot for a child.
Another tip? Measure your back seat to know how much room there is for a car seat. A car seat with a large base may not fit in a small car — you may have to opt for one with a narrower base instead. Also, consider who’ll be sitting in the back seat. How many children do you have? How many are in car seats? Take back seat measurements before you go shopping and bring the measuring tape with you to the store to measure the base of the seats.
What to know before you buy?
- Know your child: Get used to keeping track of your child’s height and weight, which (along with age) can determine seat size and when its time to move up to the next level. Note: Any behavioural or health issues will also affect your choice.
- Know your stores: Some retailers will let you test-install a seat in your car, which is great because we’ve found that cushion angle or seat belt placement can make a car and child seat incompatible. Also, a must: a store that accepts returns. Large department stores such as Target and Walmart offer a limited range of products in stores and a wider selection available online. Online retailers such as Albee Baby, Amazon, Buy Buy Baby, and Diapers.com offer an even larger selection of seat brands and models. Many retailers offer free shipping on car seats. Make online purchases only after you’ve seen the models in real life. You can find higher-end models at specialty stores or boutiques.
- Know your car: Check the child-safety sections of your vehicle owner’s manual, and study up on relevant features such as belts, LATCH, and seats.
All car seats sold today meet basic safety standards — which should make shopping for car seats a piece of cake, right? Well, almost. You’ll also want to consider factors such as your budget, your lifestyle, your family plans and even the size of your car. Your answers to the following questions should help make the decision an easier one.
How long do you plan to use it?
Safety-wise, the smartest bet is to use a rear-facing seat as long as possible. But if space and budget are concerns, then it may be wise to invest in a convertible seat for long-term use, especially since many modern convertibles offer extended rear-facing use (up to 40 pounds or more).
How much room do you have?
Some car seats are much larger than others — and if you’re driving a smaller vehicle, they can be a tight squeeze. Measure your space (and consider other passengers) before you buy, so you know that you have enough room for car seat — and baby — to fit comfortably.
Do you need more than one car seat?
If you and your partner drive separate vehicles, you may assume you need a car seat for each vehicle. But if your schedules and coordination allow it, you could instead buy one car seat that can be moved between cars as needed. If you go this route, look for a seat that’s easy to install and uninstall, and relatively lightweight, so it’s easy to make the switch. If you’re starting with a rear-facing infant car seat that snaps into a base, another option may be to buy an extra-base in favour of investing in an extra seat.
How portable does your car seat need to be?
Some parents will install the car seat and leave it in place for the entire two to five years their little one will use it. But you may need a more mobile option if you’re planning to use the same seat in more than one vehicle, or if you’d like the option of carrying the baby in the car seat — or snapping the car seat into a compatible stroller. If you plan to move your car seat a lot, look for an option with an ergonomically designed handle and a smaller, lighter footprint: Seats can weigh in at a manageable 10 pounds or a more heavyweight 20 to 30 — and that’s not counting baby’s weight!
Pick a convertible car seat that’ll grow with your child
Take it from us: Not having to invest in another car seat in the midst of that crazy first two years will be a blessing. Newborns can sit in two kinds of car seats: a rear-facing infant seat, or a convertible seat (which faces the rear of the car at first and later is turned toward the front). Buying a convertible car seat saves money because it lasts through toddlerhood, and it’s completely sound in terms of safety.
The only drawback? Convertible car seats cannot be taken in and out of the car like an infant seat can.
Check out our range of the best baby car seats for your baby.
Consider a car seat stroller if you’re trying to save
While convertible will save you money in the long run, some parents agree that the ability to move a sleeping baby in an infant car seat — even if the baby fits the seat for only a year — is priceless. If you want to buy an infant car seat but need to trim costs, consider shopping for a travel system — an infant seat and stroller that are sold together at a discount. You may find these in the stroller aisle, not the car-seat aisle.
Is stroller compatibility important?
If you’re on the go a lot, you may need a car seat that’s easy to snap into a stroller. One option is investing in a travel system with an infant car seat, then eventually upgrading to a convertible seat. Most travel systems consist of the stroller and an easily attachable car seat — either with an adapter or an easy one-click connection — and may offer a price break since you’re buying both together.
Option two is to buy a car seat and a stroller that can be connected using an adapter piece. If you’re interested in a stroller that isn’t quite newborn compatible (with a bassinet or deep recline to support a new baby’s neck and squishy body), infant car seat adapters are available for a number of stroller brands — do a search for “car seat adapter” and your stroller. This option allows you to use your regular stroller from day one, then keep using it once baby outgrows the infant car seat.
Another option: a snap-and-go stroller frame — essentially a set of wheels for an infant rear-facing car seat. These tend to be cheaper and smaller but remember, a baby will outgrow this option relatively quickly.
Spring for a new seat to be safe
Understandably, you want to know which car seat is safest. But all car seats that are on the market have been tested and approved for the current safety standards (check for the JPMA stamp on the box which means it’s been approved by the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association).
Because safety technology improves so frequently, the most important thing you can do is buy a new car seat and not accept a hand-me-down.
Focus on the most important features
At the lower end of the price range ($80 to $200), whether you’re purchasing an infant car seat or a convertible car seat, look for a model that has a 5-point harness (two shoulder straps, two waist straps, and one strap between the legs that meet in the middle), side-impact protection (extra foam or air pads at the side of baby’s head), and compatibility with the LATCH system (a way to fasten the base tightly without using seatbelts).
If you can afford to buy a premium car seat, priced above $200, expect additional features, such as an anti-rebound bar at the foot of the seat that limits the amount of movement during a crash. Other features that bump up the price include cushier fabric, accessories such as a little “boot” around baby’s feet, and a larger canopy.
Another feature to size up is the straps: To save trouble, check to see if straps of the car seat you’re buying will be easy to adjust as your baby grows. Ideally, you want straps that will not have to be rethreaded. Many brands now have adjustment handles in the back of the seat, or a pull cord between baby’s legs, that make rethreading a thing of the past.
Opt for one with installation diagrams as well as text
You’re not finished once you walk out of the store. Make use of all the instructions you can — those in the instruction booklet (which should always be kept with the seat), and the diagrams on the seat itself — to have the best possible chance of installing the seat correctly.
Although all companies continue to simplify the installation process — videos on YouTube supplement some instruction books — it’s still recommended that, after you install the car seat, you have your work checked by a professional. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration makes it easy for you to find an inspector near you: Just enter your location here at NHTSA to search.
The easiest way to ensure correct installation, though? Have a Child Passenger Safety (CPS) technician in your area do it for you. CPS technicians can be found at police stations, fire stations, hospitals, your local AAA, and more.
Safety first! And foremost.
Read the manual and follow installation instructions to make sure your car seat is correctly installed and secure for the baby. Make sure your baby fits the height and weight guidelines on the car seat, and replace the seat or switch it to the next stage as needed. (Some parents even set “check car seat” reminders in their phones to coincide with their child’s first four birthdays!) And remember that while many babies are lulled to sleep by a ride in the car seat, a car seat is not a safe place for extended sleep — so be sure to transfer your sleeping baby to a crib or bassinet once they’re out of the car.
My Baby Nursery has a wide range of baby car seats to help you choose.