A child car seat should be high on your to-buy list. You’ll need one to bring your baby home from the hospital and for every car trip thereafter. In fact, hospitals and birthing centers generally won’t let you leave by car with your newborn if you don’t have one. Every state requires that kids up to 4 years of age ride in a car seat; many require booster seats for older children.
The major brands of car seats consumer reports you’re likely to encounter are, in alphabetical order: Baby Trend, Britax, Chicco, Combi, Cosco, Eddie Bauer, Evenflo, Graco, Peg Perego, and Safety 1st.
There are also car beds for preemies and other very small newborns if there’s a concern that a car seat may not provide a secure fit or that it may exacerbate breathing problems. In addition, there are specially designed car seats for children with physical disabilities. Every model of car seat sold in the U.S. must meet federal safety standards. These are your basic choices:
Infant seats. These rear-facing seats are for babies up to 22 pounds. They allow infants to recline at an angle that doesn’t interfere with breathing and protects them best in a crash. Many strollers are now designed to accommodate infant car seats. All infant car-seat models come with a handle, and nearly all have a base that secures to your vehicle with LATCH connections or a vehicle safety belt, a convenience that lets you remove the seat and use it as a carrier. You can strap most infant seats into a car without a base, using the vehicle safety belts, but most people don’t use them that way.
Infant seats have either a three-point harness–two adjustable shoulder straps and a lock between the child’s legs or–even better–an adjustable five-point system–two straps over the shoulders, two for the thighs, and a crotch strap. The handle usually swings from a position behind the seat’s shell when in the car to an upright position for carrying. Remember to swing the handle to the vehicle position before each trip. Slots underneath most seats help them attach to the frame of a shopping cart.
With an infant car seat, you also can move your baby from car to house or vice versa without waking him or her up–a plus for both of you. Note also that extra bases are available so you can keep a secured base in each of your vehicles. Your baby may outgrow an infant car seat quickly and become too heavy for you to use it as a carrier. As a result, you may find yourself having to buy a convertible car seat after your baby is 6 to 9 months old. However, our advice is still to start with an infant seat before moving up to a convertible seat.
Price range: $30 to $180.
Travel systems. Travel systems offer one-stop shopping: You get an infant car seat and a stroller all in one. Most car-seat manufacturers offer these combination strollers/infant car seats. And many stand-alone strollers are now designed to accommodate infant car seats. With these strollers, you create a carriage by snapping an infant car seat into a stroller. The car seats of travel systems also come with a base, which stays in the car. The snap-on car seat is generally positioned atop the strollers so the infant rides facing the person pushing. Your baby can also ride in the stroller seat alone when he or she is big enough.
Most travel-system strollers can be used only with a car seat from the same company. They can also be bulky, so if you’re a city dweller who negotiates more subway stairs than highways or if the trunk of your car isn’t too roomy, you may be better off with a separate car seat and a compact stroller that is appropriate for a newborn.
Price range: $40 (stroller frame only) to $400.
Convertible seats. With a convertible seat, the child faces rearward as an infant, then toward the front of the vehicle as a toddler. The seat can function as a rear-facing seat for infants up to 30 or 35 pounds, depending on the model, and as a front-facing seat for toddlers generally up to 40 pounds (a few have a 65-pound limit). Models typically have an adjustable five-point harness system–two straps over the shoulders, two for the thighs, and a crotch strap between the legs. Some models have a tray shield that lowers over the baby’s head and fastens with a buckle between the legs. However, our tests show that children, especially small ones, are better restrained with a five-point harness.
A convertible car seat can be a money saver, taking your child from infancy to kindergarten and beyond. We advise starting with an infant seat first, though, as mentioned earlier. Keep in mind that convertible seats are not compatible with strollers, so you will have to transfer your baby from the convertible car seat to a carriage or stroller when you’re ready to set out on foot. Such jostling can wake a sleeping baby, a problem if you need to take your child on frequent shopping expeditions or other errands.
Price range: $50 to $290.
Toddler/booster seats. Looking like large versions of convertible seats, these front-facing seats are used with an internal harness for toddlers 20 to 40 pounds. They’re either LATCH-attached or can be secured using the vehicle belts and tethers. When kids reach 40 pounds, the seat becomes a belt-positioned booster seat, which children can use until they’re 80 or 100 pounds. With a belt-positioned booster seat, the child is restrained using the vehicle’s lap and shoulder belt system.
Booster seats. These are generally for children weighing 40 to 80 pounds. (A very tall child may begin using a booster seat at 30 pounds.) Booster seats use the vehicle’s own safety belts to restrain the child.
Built-in seats. Some U.S. and foreign automakers offer on select cars and minivans an integrated, forward-facing child seat that has a harness and accommodates toddlers weighing more than 20 pounds. There are also some booster-seat versions. Built-in seats must meet the same performance standards as add-on child seats. However, they offer little or no side protection and they’re usually located next to a door, instead of in the center–the safer position. You may also need a regular car seat for when your child travels in other vehicles.
Since Sept.1, 2002, all child car seats with an internal harness and nearly all passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. have been required to include equipment designed for simpler buckling. This system, called LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children), consists of child car-seat connections that attach to anchor points in the vehicle, eliminating the need to use a vehicle’s safety belts to install the seat. You can still use safety belts to install a LATCH-equipped child car seat–for example, in an older car that lacks LATCH anchors. You can also retrofit some non-LATCH car seats with LATCH features.
Today’s car seats cater to every possible taste–plain colors, plaids, animal and paw-print motifs, and patriotic red, white, and blue. Remember that, style aside, babies tend to be messy, so washable fabric is a plus, especially if your car seat will be with you beyond the first year, when training cups and eating on the go can kick into high gear. Car seats from some leading brands, however, require hand washing and line drying. Make sure you’re up for that; most coverings are rigged through the harness-strap system and are held in place with elastic so they can be removed for laundering. But in some cases extracting the fabric from the seat can require extensive dismantling. Check the seat’s manual for how-to’s.
Extras such as add-on seat covers (“boots”), thicker padding, additional reclining options, or adjustable head-support cushions may offer greater comfort. But buy them only if they are sold by the same maker as the seat and for that specific seat, since they were tested that way; mixing brands is very risky. Some models have elastic side pockets for toys, bottles, or snacks. As your baby grows, they can come in handy, but they’re not absolutely necessary.
Some infant and convertible seats have a level indicator on the side to help you install them facing the rear at a safe angle. A top tether is a webbed strap that can be used with all front-facing seats for children up to 40 pounds and with some up to 65 pounds. It’s located on the back of a convertible or toddler seat and hooks into an eye bolt in a vehicle’s rear deck, floor, roof, or seatback. Passenger vehicles manufactured on or after Sept.1,1999 have the anchors in place in their rear seats, but older models may need to have the hardware added. Obviously, you can’t use a tether with cars that lack a top-tether anchor or that have no provision for a retrofit.
HOW TO CHOOSE
Start with an infant seat for a newborn and pay close attention to the height and weight limits as your child grows. When your baby reaches the infant seat’s limits for height and weight, or becomes too heavy for you to tote, use a convertible seat in the rear-facing orientation up to the seat’s limits in that mode. Then use the convertible seat front-facing until your toddler reaches the next height and weight limits. After that, use a booster seat until your child is tall enough to use the car’s safety belts, typically at least 57 inches. Buying three seats instead of two may cost more, but it can pay off in protection and peace of mind
Make sure the seat is compatible with your car. One of the first things you should do in choosing a seat for your child is to check the fit of any models you’re considering in your own car. Even before that, though, we suggest placing similar-looking models side by side in the store to compare features. (If you’ve already had your baby, place your child in the seat, to get a sense of the ease of buckling and unbuckling.) Then, if possible, bring the floor model to your car for a mock installation. Be aware that some vehicle seats are too short, indented, or excessively sloped to allow a good fit of a child car seats.
If you’re considering a convertible car seat, try the floor model in both the rear- and front-facing positions. Check out the harness release button in the rear-facing position; in some models it may be too low to reach comfortably. If you’re thinking about an infant car-seat/stroller combination, also known as a travel system, check to be sure that it fits in your trunk or vehicle cargo area. If the store won’t let you take the seat out to your car to try it, make sure you can return any car seat you buy–or go to another store.
Insist on new. Although there are many baby items you can borrow or buy secondhand, don’t make a car seat one of them if you can avoid it. A used seat may have been in a crash or recalled. The manufacturer’s instructions may be missing. If, for some reason, you must use a secondhand seat, avoid those with an unknown history or that are older than six years. In the world of car seats, a six-year-old model is a relic–and risky. You’ll also want to avoid recalled models.
Send in the registration card. You should be notified by the manufacturer if the car seat is recalled. To play it extra safe, you can also sign up for the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s e-mail subscription list at http://www.cpsc.gov/cpsclist.asp. Updated recall information will be sent directly to your e-mail in-box. Or check monthly issues of Consumer Reports or visit http://www.ConsumerReports.org. Other sources of information on car-seat recalls include NHTSA’s Web site (www.nhtsa.gov) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission site, http://www.recalls.gov.
Check the store’s return policy. If you’re not happy with a particular car seat for whatever reason, it’s important to know that you can return it and try again with another model. Be aware that a badly soiled or damaged seat may not be exchanged.