What You Need to Know Before Buying a Car Seat

A car seat. The one baby gear item so important, they won't let you leave the hospital unless you have one. Car seat safety is something I am incredibly passionate about. Many of you know I work in the baby gear industry and that part of my professional training is as a Child Passenger Safety Technician. This means I'm specifically certified to educate parents about car seats, and check car seat installations. At my job, I help parents make decisions about which car seats are the best fit for them on a daily basis. With this post, my goal is to help you understand the different types of car seats available, who they are appropriate for, and how to choose a car seat that is the best fit for your family. 

There is a lot to consider when shopping for a car seat–convenience features come into play, budget, aesthetics, etc. However, all of those criteria are not the most important distinctions we should focus on when choosing a car seat. The three questions parents should focus on first when researching car seat options are:

  • does this car seat fit my child?
  • does this car seat fit my vehicle?
  • do I feel confident that I can install and use this car seat correctly?

First: Does the car seat fit my child?

The absolute most important determination in choosing a car seat is that the seat you plan to use fits your child physically (height and weight) and developmentally. The chart below gives an overview of the different types of car seat, and what stages they can be used for. (Tip: zoom in on your browser to read it more easily. My old lady eyes liked 175% zoom. Ha! :)

Just a few notes real quick:

Infant Car Seats

Most people will call these "infant car seats," which is technically incorrect. The correct term is "rear facing only car seat". However, since "infant car seat" is the most widely understood term, we'll use that. :)

Most infant car seats can be used from 5-30 lbs, though some have a slightly broader weight range. These types of car seats are extremely convenient for use with an infant. A Rear-Facing Only (RFO) car seat features:
  • a carry handle
  • a base that can stay behind in the vehicle, making removing the seat and transporting baby quick and easy. Most RFO car seats can be installed without the base using only the vehicle seat belt, though some cannot. 

Do you have to use a RFO or "infant car seat?" with a newborn?

NO! You have the option to bypass this seat and use a convertible car seat (in rear facing mode of course!!) with a newborn. Most convertible car seats feature infant position pillows that make them suitable for infants 5 lbs and heavier. We actually brought Theodore home from the hospital in a convertible car seat. Because he's our last baby, it made more sense for us to spend our money on a really nice convertible car seat, rather than purchasing a new infant car seat that we would only use for a short amount of time with one baby. 

Our sweet little Theodore heading home from the hospital at 4 days old in his rear-facing convertible.

Using a convertible car seat from the get-go is a great option if you are on a tighter budget, or if like me you don't have a great need for an infant car seat. You do lose a little bit of convenience by not being able to easily remove the car seat from the car with the child still harnessed in it. As an avid baby-wearer I haven't found it to be terribly annoying, though. 

Okay, next!

Second: Does this car seat fit my vehicle?

Once you've determined which car seat is developmentally appropriate for your child, you need to be certain the seat you're hoping to use fits your vehicle. I find a lot of parents I assist are shocked when I tell them that some car seats just don't play nicely with certain cars. It is always a good idea to install the store display of a car seat in your vehicle before purchasing it. It never hurts to ask a sales associate if you can try the car seat in your car.

If you're local to Utah, The Baby Cubby has all the car seat models they carry on display and we (yes, I say we because I work there!) love helping parents check fit of a car seat in their vehicle and helping them learn how to install it correctly.

A few things to consider when you're checking fit:

  • Does the slope of my vehicle seat make it difficult to install the car seat at the correct level, even when I use the car seat's built in level adjustment (if it has one)?
  • Once the car seat is installed, can the driver adjust their seat back far enough to drive comfortably without touching or putting pressure on the car seat?
  • Once installed, does the car seat in any way obstruct the driver's view?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it would be best to look into other car seats that will fit in your vehicle better. Or, just upgrade your car to a minivan–those suckers fit everything! (I joke, I joke. But in all seriousness, I freaking love my minivan!)

Lastly: Do you feel confident installing and properly using the car seat?

Do your research here. If you have the benefit of speaking with a knowledgeable sales staff  who can show you how to install and use all the features of a car seat (cough cough, The Baby Cubby!), take advantage of that! If not, take some time to watch installation videos on YouTube. Get a feel for installation features and how they make installing a car seat easier or more difficult.

A word on price: While a car seat of any price range will adequately protect your child in a collision (assuming it's installed correctly, and the child is harnessed properly), more premium car seats usually include additional features that make correct installation easier for the parent, and lower the risk of incorrect installation.

Below are some of my favorite installation features on a few of my favorite seats, just to give you an idea of what is out there and what the benefits of some of these features are:

Rigid LATCH (Seen on the Nuna Pipa)

All car seats (with the exception of boosters) have a LATCH system (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) that can be used to install the car seat. Most car seats have tether latches, that once clicked into the anchors in the vehicle have to be manually tightened by the parent. When I check car seats for parents, I often see loose installations. Under-tightening of the car seat means it's not going to perform correctly in a collision, which could result in injury or fatality for the child. Rigid LATCH is awesome, because there is no tightening involved. Once clicked in, the car seat is rock solid tight. It's an awesome safety feature that I love!

SUPER Easy Seat Belt Installation (Seen on Britax Clicktight car seats)

Image result for britax clicktight

Most people don't know that LATCH has a weight limit (65 lbs in most vehicles. This weight is your child PLUS their car seat) and that at some point in your child's life, you MUST install the car seat with the vehicle seat belt. The Britax Clicktight car seats are super cool because with the twist of a dial, a huge hatch opens up, exposing the rear and forward-facing belt paths. This makes it insanely easy to route the vehicle seatbelt through the appropriate belt path. Closing the hatch tightens and locks the belt into place. This is one seat that virtually any parent can install in just minutes without breaking a sweat. 

Seatbelt Lockoffs

A lockoff is a device built into the car seat that immobilizes the seatbelt, making it impossible for it to become looser once installed with a car seat. When installing with a vehicle seatbelt, if the seat belt is not locked, the car seat is not correctly installed. Lockoffs in the car seat itself are handy because they are easy to use. If you don't have a lockoff on your car seat, you have to lock the vehicle belt using the retractor, or the latch plate of the seatbelt, which requires knowledge about the technical side of seat belts that most parents just don't have.

Lockoffs come in many forms and can be found on lots of car seats, but many budget seats do not have them.

I hope this gave you an idea of where to focus your research on the car seats you choose to look at! If you have questions about car seat safety, please don't hesitate to ask me. :)

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