As far as the law is concerned, diapers, clothes, and a bed for your baby are all optional. A car seat is the only item you're legally required to buy—no ifs, ands, or buts. It doesn't even matter if you don't have a car; they won't let you take your child home from the hospital until you have a car seat, even if you just carry your child in it as you walk home on foot.

So there's no question whether you're getting one; the question is just what kind and how many. We might as well go ahead and break it to you, you'll probably end up having to buy three separate car seats to cover three different sizes of child: an infant seat, a toddler seat, and a booster seat. The only exceptions are if you buy a convertible car seat that covers two stages, allowing you to buy just two seats, or if you have a newer-model car that comes with its own booster seat, thus cutting out one of the purchases.

This is one of the few categories that the experts unanimously recommend not taking a hand-me-down to save some expense. Car seat technology is always changing, and since it's a safety issue, you'll want the most up-to-date style available.

The sheer quantity of seats to choose from can be intimidating, but you can narrow the field pretty quickly if you have an idea of what you're looking for. So buckle up—you're about to learn everything you ever needed to know about car seats!

your basic choices

There are four basic types of car seat, and the difference between them has to do with what size your child is. We'll go into more detail in the stage considerations section, but here are the basic differences.

infant seat
Your infant car seat is designed for approximately the first six to nine months. The primary feature of infant car seats is that they're portable, thanks to their detachable base, which means you can get sleeping babies in and out of the car without waking them. These seats are designed for rear-facing installation only. Yes, this means the child will be in the backseat facing away from you, which can be hard, but it's much safer (and it's the law).

toddler seat
This is the car seat you'll need from around six months of age up to four years, or 40 pounds, whichever comes first. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping car seats rear-facing until your baby reaches two years of age. After that, these car seats can be installed facing forward.

booster seat
The booster seat is for kids who are too big for a toddler seat but too small to be released from car-seatdom altogether. They get to use the car's seat belt system just like the grown-ups; the booster seat just provides a little extra protection—and a little bit of a height boost. State laws vary for how long you must keep your child in a booster seat, but the seats are designed to be used from the ages of four to eight and from 30 to 100 pounds.

convertible
Remember how we said you might be able to get away with just two car seats? The key would be to buy a convertible car seat that covers two of the three stages. There are two types: one that combines the infant seat and toddler seat, and one that combines the toddler seat and booster seat. They still haven't found a way to make one seat that can work from infancy up to eight years (and would we really want them to?).

general guidance

All the different combinations might start to make your head spin (or is that just morning sickness?), so here's a quick synopsis of your options.

  • Infant seat, toddler seat, and booster seat. By buying all three seats separately, you get the best features of each stage, but it does end up costing a little more.
  • Infant/toddler convertible plus booster seat. This combination saves money since you're only buying two seats, but you lose the portability of a dedicated infant seat.
  • Infant seat plus toddler/booster convertible. This combination also saves money since you're only buying two seats, but there's a space trade-off since the toddler/booster convertibles are typically a lot bigger than a booster seat.

The good news is, you only need to make one choice to start with, and that's whether to buy an infant seat or an infant/toddler convertible seat.

Parents who will take the baby in the car only occasionally might opt for the convertible seat at this stage. Here's why: the infant-seat stage only lasts around six or seven months—nine tops. This means that if you don't drive much, you'll only enjoy the portability of the infant seat a handful of times—which probably won't be worth the extra expense. But parents who are in and out of the car all the time will probably prefer to spend the money on a standard infant seat.

Whatever you decide, a car seat is one purchase you shouldn't skimp on. Your primary consideration should be the car seat's safety ratings; then you can factor in ease of use, cost, and style to make your final decision. The car you drive will also impact your decision. If you have a newer car with a high safety rating, you don't need to worry quite as much, but if you have an older model, you'll want the biggest, safest car seat money can buy.

Car seats today come in a range of fabric and textile choices. Don't be swayed by nice upholstery before you've checked up on the safety features. And if your favorite car seat comes in an atrocious pea green or a tacky pattern that you just can't bear, you can always disguise it with a pretty car seat cover, which manufacturers have started to make in a variety of colors, patterns, and materials.

features to look for

  • Good safety rating. Every seat on the market meets the minimum safety standards, but you'll want the safest car seat you can find, especially if you have an older car. Generally, more expensive models are more expensive because of their extra attention to safety features like head cushioning and side-impact protection.
  • Easiest installation. If your car is LATCH-equipped, you won't have to worry as much about proper installation. But if your car seat isn't LATCH-equipped, at least make sure it's reasonably easy to install with confidence. Remember, the key to a safe car seat is proper installation.
  • Five-point harness. These secure your child in place at the shoulders, hips, and between the legs for maximum security and come standard in every car seat. If you do use a hand-me-down seat, make sure it has this important safety feature.
  • Front harness adjusters. Adjusting a harness in the back is like doing it with your eyes closed, so make sure you can adjust it from the front—especially considering you'll have to do it every time you put the baby in the car.
  • Level indicator. This mechanism—which varies by model—is a gauge that eases your stress level at initial installation by letting you know whether or not you've installed your car seat properly.
  • Adjustable sun canopy. This is a simple device that protects your child from the sun's glare, no matter which direction it's coming from.
  • Removable/washable fabric and pads. Unless you bought the car seat just to spring your baby from the maternity ward, it's going to get dirty, so look for removable and washable pads and upholstery.

stage considerations

first stage: infant car seat You've already read about all the features you should look for in a car seat, but here are some guidelines that are specific to the infant car seat.

  • Separate car-seat base. This is one of the key features of an infant car seat and what makes it portable. You install the base, have your local fire or police department review your installation, and then never have to worry about it again. From there, you just click the seat in and out of the base.
  • Weight. One of the big advantages of the infant car seat is that it's smaller and more portable. To take advantage of this portability, make sure the one you select is light enough for you to carry.
  • Stroller compatibility. To take convenience and portability one step further, you might want to consider an infant car seat that's compatible with your stroller, or even get a universal system. Instead of trying to transfer your sleeping baby to a stroller without waking her up—good luck with that—you can just pop the car seat into the stroller base and be on your way!
  • Cushioning. In the beginning, your newborn will seem tiny and fragile in a car seat. Whether you buy a seat with lots of padding or buy separate inserts, you'll definitely want some padding, so factor it into your pricing up front.
  • Adjustable recline option. This feature allows you to recline the seat, making it easier for your child to sleep in the car. (No more lolling heads!)

second stage: toddler seat
You already know what to look for in a car seat (and you can refresh your memory in the car seat section if you haven't read it since you were picking your infant seat). Once you've checked off everything you want from that list, factor in these considerations that are particular to toddler car seats.

Remember, this is the car seat your child will spend the most years in, so don't try to cut corners—you'll want the best!

  • Size. Some toddler seats are huge. Before you purchase, be sure to test your top choice in your car to make sure it fits, especially if you have multiple car seats or a really small car.
  • Safety rating. Safety ratings in second-stage car seats cover a lot more variables, so keep your particular car in mind when making your choice. Consider your car's rollover and side-impact ratings and discuss these factors with your retailer. If you drive an economy car, it makes more sense to spend more on your car seat than if you drive a top-of-the-line, safety-rated vehicle.
  • Convertibility. If you plan on having more than one child, you may want to consider buying a seat that converts from a toddler seat to a booster seat at this point. There are a lot of great options, and this choice will help minimize your parenthood product-accumulation problem.
  • Cushioning. Make sure your toddler has plenty of padding and that the seat is comfortable, especially since this is the seat your child will use the longest. Cushioning and head support in the car seat will encourage naps—always welcome with a toddler—and help prevent drooping heads.

third stage: booster seat
These seats are made to accommodate children up to eight years old and 100 pounds, but check your local laws; children may be able to graduate out of their boosters sooner than that. As a general rule, however, once your child's ears extend above the back of the booster seat, or if his shoulders reach the top harness slots, he's ready to use the car's regular seat belt system.

  • Seat-belt adjusters. Make sure your booster seat includes seat-belt adjusters. This will help you avoid the unnecessary frustration of twisted or tangled seat belts and ensure that the seat belt is at the right position for your child's changing height.
  • Booster back. Boosters come in two forms: one with a back and one without. Both use the car's seat belt system and give the child added height. Which style is right for you depends on your car, your child's age and size, and how many car seats you need to fit in your back seat. As a rule of thumb, children below 40 pounds need a booster with a back. After that, it's a matter of personal preference (and state law—so check yours).
  • Convertibility. If you bought a toddler seat that converts into a booster, you'll configure it like a toddler seat until the child is about 40 pounds. After 40 pounds, simply remove the five-point harness and use the car's own seat belt system until the child outgrows the need for a booster.

convertible/multistage
In general, you'll want to look for the same features in a convertible seat that you would with the two regular car seats it will replace.

But the bigger question is whether a convertible car seat is right for you. We'll let you in on a little secret here: most people eventually end up buying all three seats. But a convertible seat remains a great choice for certain families. It really depends on your lifestyle.

A convertible car seat that covers both the infant and toddler stages saves you money, but you'll be sacrificing the portability of the infant seat. This might be a good option, however, if you don't drive very often.

With a convertible seat that covers the toddler and booster stages, you'll sacrifice backseat space as your child gets older, since toddler seats can be a lot bigger than booster seats. For families trying to fit multiple car seats in their car, it's worth buying a separate booster seat. Another issue is that, as your child gets bigger, they might resist getting in and out of the more cumbersome convertible.

lifestyle considerations

Space: Since toddler car seats seldom make it into the house, you only have to worry about whether it will fit in your car. Before you buy, try it out in your backseat—especially if you're going to have more than one car seat. Unless you have a particularly large child, you can get a smaller seat by giving up some of the bells and whistles.

Multistage: A convertible car seat saves you a purchase by allowing you to buy two car seats instead of three.

On the go: There's no getting around the fact that later-stage car seats are inherently unwieldy and inconvenient to travel with, but you can ease the burden with a wheeled or backpack-style car seat carrier. In general, look for a smaller and lighter car seat or booster with a high safety rating, and make sure you can carry it.

usage tips

For car seats, most usage issues are related to safety and installation. Here are the things you should keep in mind when using your car seat.

  • Follow the manufacturer's instructions for installation; if your car seat moves more than one inch in any direction, it's not installed correctly.
  • Don't be shy about asking for help installing your car seat. If you don't have an experienced friend you can ask, call the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or your local police or fire department.
  • Car seats should always be installed in the backseat (the exceptions, of course, are pickups and other cars without backseats).
  • When possible, position the car seat in the center of the backseat, which is the safest place in a vehicle, even if that means attaching the car seat with the car safety belt and not the LATCH system.
  • For safety purposes, never use a car seat in a seat equipped with air bags. The force with which they deploy is too strong. If your only option is a seat with an air bag, you'll need to have the air bag disabled; if you don't know how to do this, ask your mechanic.
  • The carry handle on an infant car seat usually swings from an upright position for carrying into a downward position when in the car. Remember to place the handle in the vehicle position before each trip.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping your car seat rear-facing until your child reaches two years of age.
  • Adjust your seat straps at the right height. In general, straps should be snug. For rear-facing seats, the shoulder straps should be at shoulder height or slightly lower. For front-facing seats, the shoulder straps should be slightly above the shoulders. If you can slide one finger between the baby and the strap, you've got it in just right.
  • Send in your manufacturer's registration card to ensure that you're notified of any recalls.
  • If you have a LATCH system, use it—unless it's not available in the middle-seat position. Never install a car seat using both the LATCH strap and the vehicle safety belt. This restricts the belts from absorbing crash energy and lowers their crash safety ratings. If you don't have the LATCH system, just be sure to follow your safety installation instructions.
  • Always defer to the car seat manufacturer's instructions for optimal use -- those instructions were written specifically for that car seat make and model.

accessories

  • Car seat insert for newborns. A newborn can look awfully small and vulnerable in a car seat, but a padded insert can keep your baby extra snug. Many car seats come with more than enough padding, though, so wait until you've made your car seat purchase.
  • Car seat blanket. These special blankets stay in place much better than a standard blanket because they work with the car seat's harness and zip up around the child. The blanket will keep your little one warm and cozy during car trips, and you can easily zip the top part off without removing your child from the seat.
  • Car seat cover. Love the seat but hate the fabric? Or has your beautiful car seat suffered one too many juice incidents? A spiffy new car seat cover can add new life—and style—for a lot less money than buying a replacement.
  • Extra infant car seat bases. If you have more than one car, go wild! Equip each vehicle the baby rides in with its own car seat base. Then you never have to worry about re-installing the base, and you can just click the seat in and out.
  • Car seat carrier. If you're taking your car seat on a plane, you might want a carrier that allows you to carry it more easily while protecting the upholstery from the perils of travel. Some have backpack straps and others even have wheels.
  • Seat protector. Consider buying this accessory to protect your vehicle's seat from the wear and tear of having a car seat in place—especially if you have leather seats. Some car seats can't be installed correctly with a seat protector under them, but most can. Save your receipt just in case.
  • Window sunshade. Sun protection is an important consideration for cars without tinted windows and car seats without canopies. Even in a car with tinted windows, the direct sun can be uncomfortably warm.
  • Pacifier strap. The worst part about the rear-facing car seat is listening to your baby cry and knowing there's nothing you can do about it, short of pulling over. One of the leading culprits of an upset baby is a dropped binky. Get a strap that hooks onto the car seat to help prevent this mid-trip meltdown.

additional information

car seat safety standards
All child car seats sold in the United States must be designed to meet a safety standard set by the federal government in 1981, so you never have to worry whether a car seat being sold in a store is "up to code." But there are a lot of other ratings that could help you decide just how far beyond the basic requirements a car seat manufacturer has gone. See Resources for further details.

  • The NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) does an annual Ease of Use rating.
  • The JPMA (Juvenile Products Manufacturers' Association) has developed a unique certification program that has been guiding parents for more than 25 years. The JPMA Certification Seal on a product or its package ensures the product was built to the very highest safety standards.
  • The ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials), a highly regarded nonprofit organization, publishes the voluntary standards used in the JPMA Certification Program. Industry members work together with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, consumer groups, and other interested parties to develop the standards.
  • Consumer Reports is the only organization in the United States to rate car seats for crash protection (though they don't do it every year).

to LATCH or not to LATCH?
In September of 2002, U.S. government regulations mandated that new cars and car seats must be manufactured with the LATCH system (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children).

The LATCH system lets you attach your car seat to sturdy upper and lower anchors that are built into your car—a faster, safer, and easier alternative to using the seat belts to buckle in the car seat. The result is a more solid connection between car and car seat, giving you more stability in the event of a crash.

If you have a car with the LATCH system, you'll want a LATCH car seat to match. If you have an older car that doesn't have the LATCH system, this feature won't be as important. However, if you think you might change cars at any point, you might want to get the LATCH car seat anyway. You can still attach it to your old car using seat belts, and you'll be glad to have it if you upgrade cars.

a tip for two-car families If you're a two-car family, and the child will travel in one car most of the time, you might want to buy both an infant seat and an infant/toddler convertible at the beginning to save yourself the expense of having to buy an extra infant car seat base to install in the second car.

Here's how it works: Install the infant seat in the primary car your child will travel in, so you can still enjoy the portability of the infant seat most of the time. Install the infant/toddler convertible seat in the second car, the one that's not used as often. That way, there's a car seat ready and waiting in that car—one that you would have to buy eventually anyway. With the money you saved by not buying a second infant car seat base (which isn't cheap), you can afford to buy an even better infant/toddler seat.

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