So you’re in the market for a new car seat; lucky you! A friend recently shared this little gem (before you ask, no it’s not available in the US) and my response was, “What a time to be alive.”
I truly feel that way, you know. The field of child passenger safety is ever-changing and I feel so lucky to bear witness. There are so many neat features on car seats nowadays ranging from smart little designs, (the kind where we know they actually consulted a seasoned parent) to the truly awe-inspiring.
But therein lies the problem, right? How do you know what seat is right for you? With so many options to choose from how can one possibly narrow them down to the one that’s perfect?!
Relax. Breathe. It’ll be okay. I am here for you with this list of things to look for in a car seat.
- Ease of Use
The ability to properly install and use a car seat is directly proportionate to the rate of misuse. That is to say: the harder something is to use, the more likely it is to be used incorrectly. When you use a car seat incorrectly it’s not as simple as starting over and trying again; it can be a life and death situation.
Ask other parents who have used the seat you’re thinking about what they did NOT like about it. If you can, look over the manual. A lot of times you can find those right at the manufacturer’s website but if not (or if reading car seat manuals doesn’t seem like your idea of fun) you can always read online reviews or ask your friendly local CPST. Pay special attention to any statements involving the word “MUST” or “DO NOT”. When reading, try to find the answers to questions such as: How easy is it to adjust the harness? Are there special rules regarding the recline settings for children of a certain weight – and will the car seat fit in your vehicle at all recline settings? Does this seat allow the use of pool noodles or towels to achieve the proper recline? Does the manual seem easy to use as a reference guide later?
If anything in the manual seems too difficult to understand don’t hesitate to reach out for help! If you can’t find the answer or the answer doesn’t clear things up for you, move on. That’s not the seat for you. You will find the magical unicorn seat of your dreams, I promise.
- Longevity & Usefulness
How old is the baby or child that will go in this seat? Make sure it’s appropriate for their height, weight, and maturity level.
Rear-facing only seats, or infant seats, are a very common seat for newborns. As their name suggests, RFOs will only accommodate a rear-facing child. These seats are designed to be removed from the vehicle frequently and most will come with a detachable base. The base stays installed in the vehicle and the infant seat will simply click on it when it’s time to go for a drive.
Shown: rear-facing only seat and detachable base. Sassy baby not included.
These kinds of seats are super convenient, especially in our bitter cold Michigan winters, because it’s easy to get the baby safely secured while in the comfort of your home. Most have weight limits of around 22-30lbs, but the majority of children will outgrow these seats long before that milestone is met; in my experience infant only seats are outgrown before the baby’s first birthday. When your child outgrows their RFO it’s time to move them to a convertible car seat.
Convertible car seats can be used both rear-facing and forward facing. Unlike an RFO, most convertible car seats stay in the car. Even the select few that do allow you to attach it to a base are not exactly easy to lift with a child inside of them. Note: If you are transitioning your child from a rear-facing only seat to a convertible, keep them rear-facing. It’s just ridiculously safe.
Rear-facing, safe, and smiling!
When choosing a convertible car seat for an older baby, look at your baby’s height and weight stats. Keep in mind how tall most members of your family are and take that into consideration. Again, most children will outgrow their car seats by height before they will by weight, and if your amazon baby is already 32in tall at 13 months old it’s probably not a good idea to get a convertible car seat that will be outgrown at 40in. On the flip side, if your child is petite it’s not likely you’ll ever need the seat that keeps her rear-facing until 50lbs. Car seat needs are different for every family; take the time to determine what’s right for yours.
If you’re buying a convertible car seat to use with a newborn, look at the lowest harness slot height. Many convertibles can be used safely with newborns but ONLY if it fits them well, and if a harness slot is higher than baby’s shoulders it’s not safe. Find one that has a reputation for fitting newborns well.
Also take note of: height and weight requirements for both rear and forward facing, how wide the seat is side to side (this will affect the comfort and safety of other passengers in the back seat), and how easy it will be to get the child in and out of the restraint.
Alright, say you have a super tall 4 year old who is on the cusp of outgrowing their harnessed seat, or maybe you need to pass their seat down to a younger sibling. These are perfectly valid reasons to get a new seat – but don’t rush to the next step just yet! This hypothetical 4 year old is very likely not ready for a booster seat (I have yet to meet a 4 year old who was – so. many. ants. in their pants!), but that’s the natural order of things, right? Well… yes. And no.
Combination car seats are the kind of seat that will keep a forward facing child in a 5 point harness, thereby keeping them in the ideal pre-crash position, but will also accommodate a larger more mature child as a belt positioning booster seat.
Combination seat in use with internal harness (left); harness is removed for use in booster mode (right)
But wait, there’s more! A multi-mode car seat is a great option for lots of children. These seats are designed to be used rear-facing, forward facing, AND as a booster. They’re cost effective since they can be used for much longer than other types of seats because a child’s rate of growth usually slows down once they’re old enough to use one forward facing, and they can accommodate different children in multiple ranges of maturity – perfect for day cares, preschools, and reality TV show contestants. The belt fit in booster mode can be finicky on them though, so as always: do your research!
Multi-mode seat: rear-facing, forward facing, belt positioning booster.
Finally, a belt-positioning booster seat is designed to protect children by ensuring the vehicle seat belt fits them appropriately. Like I said before, these are not the same as a seat with an internal harness and will not protect a child in a crash if they are out of the ideal upright position.
- Vehicle Safety Systems
When deciding on a car seat or booster seat, take a look at the seating positions in your vehicle. Does the spot where you want your child have the following:
– a lap/shoulder belt? Booster seats should never, ever be used with a lap only belt. If your vehicle doesn’t have any lap/shoulder belts then you should keep your child in a harnessed car seat as long as possible.
– head rests? Some car seats and high back booster seats require a head rest behind them to help protect against whiplash, and a child that’s in a backless booster MUST have a head rest behind them for the very same reason. They’re also important for adult passengers!
– lower anchors? Lower anchors are part of the LATCH system; they are small metal loops built into vehicle seats and are primarily used to install a harnessed seat. It can be an easier option for some parents than a seat belt and it’s nice to have choices. Some boosters have lower anchor attachments that will clip on to these anchors in your car. If you’re in a crash while the booster seat is NOT in use, having these clipped on will prevent that booster from becoming a dangerous projectile. If there are no lower anchors or the booster you have doesn’t have this feature make sure your child buckles the empty seat when they get out.
– tether anchors? A tether is the other part of the LATCH system. It is a metal loop that is mounted behind the vehicle seat. When a forward facing restraint is installed in a seating position with a tether, the restraint’s tether anchor attachment will secure to this and provide additional protection to the child, cutting down on 4-6in of forward movement in a crash. Every forward facing harnessed seat should utilize a tether anchor if possible.
Note how the restraint without the tether has significantly moved forward upon impact.– side impact protection (SIP)? While there is no federal standard – yet! – for side impact protection claims on car seats, there may be an advantage to using a seat with it and we just don’t know it yet. If your vehicle doesn’t have side air bags, consider choosing a car seat/booster seat with SIP.
– inflatable seat belts? Some new Ford, Lincoln, and Mercedes vehicles are equipped with inflatable seat belts. These are a great safety feature for adults but can wreak havoc on car seat installations. The majority of car seat manufacturers haven’t done sufficient testing to say for certainty that their seats will perform the way they should if they are installed with inflatable seat belts. If this is a problem for you, choose a car seat that will allow them (check the manual) or defer to an installation using the lower anchors. For more info on this, check out The Car Seat Lady’s post on the subject.
Take a look at your budget. That will really help you narrow down the list of possibilities to a more manageable number. All car seats sold in the US must meet the NHTSA’s stringent standards, but seats that are higher in price may have some additional safety and ease of use features that lower-end seats don’t have. This doesn’t mean you should automatically buy the most expensive seat, though! Many features usually reserved for higher end seats can now be found on seats with a lower price tag. And keep your eyes peeled for sales!
After all of this, know that if the car seat doesn’t fit in your car there’s no way you can use it. Go somewhere and try out the seat if you can. Think about the comfort of other passengers, both in the front and back seat, and any additional seating information; for instance, do you have a school aged child that needs to be seated on the passenger side for drop off? If so, be certain the rear-facing seat you want to buy will fit behind the driver or in the middle of your sedan!
Dana is the lucky mother to two incredible kids (aged 10 & 6) and the happy wife of Nate. She stumbled around in her adult life for a while before finally realizing that she could get paid to pursue her passion: keeping kids safe. In 2013 she started working at Modern Natural Baby in Ferndale where she eventually became a Child Passenger Safety Technician with additional Special Needs training. Dana also runs the child passenger safety-focused Facebook page Buckle Up Detroit and works with the amazing lady bosses at Metro Detroit Doula Services offering car seat classes, consultations, and more!