Car Seat Guide: How to Choose -- and Use -- a Car Seat
When it comes to your child's safety, what's more important than the car seat?
Car seats have been proven to save lives and reduce injuries - a critical fact when you consider that car accidents remain the leading cause of death in kids ages 1-14. No wonder they are required by law in all 50 states!
Yet according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a shocking four out of five car seats are being used incorrectly. The most common mistakes? Choosing the wrong type of car seat, installing it improperly, and securing a child incorrectly.
So how can you make sure that your precious passenger is fully protected? Read on! We'll tell you how to choose the right car seat for your child and how to use it correctly.
Choosing the Right Type of Car Seat
There are five basic types of car seats, based on weight capacity. It is essential to choose a car seat that is appropriate for your child's weight and to "upgrade" it as your child grows.
Don't make the mistakes that some parents make - hanging onto a car seat that's become too small, or buying one that's too big with the idea that your child will "grow into it." We have good news for savvy parents: some state-of-the-art car seats are cleverly designed to accommodate growing kids - which means fewer purchases for you!
- The Rear-Facing Car Seat
This is baby's first car seat. Also called an infant seat, it is generally designed for babies weighing 20 pounds or less, although some now support up to 30 lbs. This is desirable, because according to safety experts, the longer you keep your baby in the rear-facing position, the better.
- Infants under 20 lbs. are required by law to ride in the backseat in the rear-facing position. Based on body weight, most babies remain in a rear-facing car seat for most or all of their first year.
- Why rear-facing? Because it's safer. Infants have heavy heads that make them vulnerable to whiplash. The rear-facing car seat best supports an infant's head and spine. Position your car seat in the center of the back seat, where it is surrounded by a safety zone of open space.
- (A clever variation of the rear-facing car seat is the travel system -- a car seat/stroller combo. This three-piece system includes a removable car seat, car seat base - which stays permanently mounted in your vehicle - and stroller base. The idea? You can move baby from the car to the stroller without ever removing him from his car seat!)
- The Forward-Facing Car Seat
Once baby attains a weight of 20 lbs. (or higher, depending on the above), it is time for a forward-facing car seat. Like its rear-facing counterpart, this seat is secured in the middle of the back seat.
- In general, the forward-facing car seat is appropriate for children between 20 and 40 pounds, usually between the ages of one and four. Again, some versions offer higher weight maximums.
- Forward-facing car seats are now required to have a safety tether - an adjustable strap that clips the car seat to an anchor on the frame of your car's rear window shelf. (If you have a van or wagon, the anchor may be founded on the rear floor of the vehicle.) Anchors are automatically built into new vehicles and may be custom-installed in older models. It makes sense to do so, because tethers have proven effective in crash tests.
- The Convertible Car Seat
- This clever model is basically two car seats in one, converting from a rear-facing infant seat to a forward-facing seat. As a result, it can generally support a child from birth - 40 lbs, making it an especially good choice for large, fast-growing infants.
- The Belt-Positioning Booster
- This booster seat is designed for kids 40-60 lbs., although some advanced models feature weight capacities as high as 100 lbs or more. The booster functions to raise the child so the vehicle's lap and shoulder belts may be correctly positioned. Most kids are simply not large enough for adult belts until age nine.
- Some boosters offer backrests; others do not. A backrest is not required if your car has a built-in headrest, but many parents like the added protection.
- New Category: The Car Seat/Booster Combo
- This state-of-the-art safety system is specifically designed to accommodate growing kids. It converts from a forward-facing car seat to booster, supporting kids from 20 lbs. up to 100 lbs. We know of (and offer) at least one model that converts from rear-facing to forward-facing car seat and then to booster, making it the only car seat a parent need buy. You may pay more, but you save more in the long run. In our opinion, these multi-use car seats are an excellent choice.
- We urge you to take full advantage of the protection offered by booster seats - particularly those offering new, higher weight capacities. Parents tend to discard their boosters too early, before their children are large enough to safely wear a seat belt. According to the NHTSA, only 6% of kids who should be traveling in boosters are actually using them!
Tips For Choosing a Car Seat
In addition to safety features, you'll want to consider factors such as comfort, adjustability, and the ability of the seat to grow with your child. Here are some things to look for:
- All car seats must meet or exceed Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213. (Make sure your car seat features a label bearing this certification.)
- Look for substantial, all-over padding, which is not only comfortable but offers added protection.
- Although several harness systems are available, we strongly prefer a five-point harness - the same type used by racecar drivers. The "five points" refer to five straps: two at the shoulders, two at the waist, and one at the crotch. According to the experts we consulted, this harness provides the best support and lightest pressure.
- Make sure the seat has an anti-skid base.
- Look for a level indicator, which helps you attain proper installation.
- If you plan on traveling by plane with baby, choose a seat that is certified for use in an aircraft. This certification is indicated right on the car seat.
- Forward-facing car seats should feature a tether for added safety.
- An adjustable back will ensure baby's comfort.
- Your seat cover should offer generous cushioning, plus a soft, comfortable fabric cover.
- Some models offer adjustable headrests and removable pillows.
Adjustability and Grow-with-Me Capabilities
- Look at the car seat's weight capacity. See if it can be used in more than one position.
- Insist on a harness that is easily adjustable, with a single button or toggle. Avoid harnesses that adjust from the back.they're hard to reach. The easier it is to adjust, the more likely you'll do it correctly.
- Your car seat should offer two or three sets of harness slots to maintain a perfect fit as baby grows.
- Fabric seat covers should be removable and washable.
Tips for Rear-Facing Car Seats
- Consider a model with a detachable base. The base stays secured in the car, while the carrier removes for transporting baby. (If baby rides in two cars, you may be able to buy an extra base for convenience.)
- If you're frequently out of the car and into the stroller, consider a stroller/car seat combo.
Tips for Booster Seats and Car Seat/Booster Combos
- Look for a model that supports a higher weight limit. While many max out at 60 lbs., some go as high as 100 lbs. Keep your child in a booster seat as long as possible!
- Easily adjustable harnesses and multiple harness slots are especially important for growing kids.
- Look for an ergonomic design - such as an anti-slouch back and extra-long seat - to keep growing kids comfortable.
- Some deluxe models feature handy cup holders and side storage pockets for toys and such.
How To Install Your Car Seat Correctly
- Always follow the manufacturer's directions; consult your vehicle manual, too.
- Install the car seat in the center of your back seat - the safest place in the car. Never place baby in the front, where air bags can be fatal to infants. (Instead, get a baby-viewing mirror for rear-facing babies.)
- You car seat shouldn't slide or wiggle. If you can move it more than an inch in any direction, it is not installed properly. Use a seat belt tightening device to eliminate dangerous belt slack.
- Rear-facing car seats should ride at a 45-degree angle to insure baby's breathing is not restricted. Use a bolster or padding under the front of the car seat to angle it properly. Many seats feature a level indicator to help you attain the proper angle.
- Take advantage of safety seat checkups in your area. Often, local police departments sponsor these events.
How To Properly Secure Your Child
- Make sure your infant's head is properly supported. Head bolsters and inserts will support tiny babies.
- Insert the harness straps in the correct slots - just at or below baby's shoulder height. Move the harness as baby grows.
- Keep the harness snug; you should not be able to fit more than one finger under it. A correctly-fitted harness will lie flat against baby's shoulders and thighs.
- Position the harness clip so it is level with baby's armpits, keeping shoulder straps in proper position.
- For kids in boosters, make sure shoulder belts are worn properly. (Kids often tuck them under their arms for comfort - don't let your child start this dangerous habit.) Use a seat belt positioner to keep shoulder belts correctly in place. If your booster doesn't come with a positioner, purchase one separately.
Other Car Seat Safety Tips
- Register your car seat with the manufacturer. This way, you will be notified in the event of a recall.
- Remove loose objects from the back seat, which may become airborne in a crash. Stow your shopping bags in the trunk.
- Check your car seat every time you use it. Make sure it is securely locked in place.
- Always buckle everyone up, even for the shortest trips (Most accidents occur within 25 miles of home.)
- If your child has Houdini tendencies, invest in a seat belt childproofing device.
We Care About Car Safety
At One Step Ahead, we've evaluated many car seats and booster over the years. We review manufacturer's specifications and make sure they meet or exceed government standards.
We keep abreast of new design innovations. That is why we offer grow-with-me car seat/boosters that accommodate kids longer, convenient stroller/car seat combos, and safety devices that enhance car seat performance to offer the best possible protection.