Planning for a baby? Knowing how to choose a car seat for your infant is one of the most important steps you'll take as a prospective parent. Every state requires that an infant or child travel in a car safety seat, and as your child grows, you'll need to upgrade their seat as necessary. So if you're wondering how to choose a car seat, start by understanding that the right seat will depend on your child's age, weight, and height. You should also know that every car seat is different, so it's important to read the height and weight requirements. Here's a general guide to help you make smart, safe decisions.
Infant-only seats are designed to protect your child from birth until they're about 22 to 40 pounds, depending on the model. They are rear-facing, have carrying handles, and usually come with a base that can be left in the car. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends keeping your toddler in a rear-facing seat until age 2.
With a convertible seat, you can change the configuration of the seat as your child grows. This kind of seat is designed for a child from birth to about 40 pounds (facing backward) and up to about 65 to 85 pounds (facing forward), depending on the model. This means the seat can be used longer by your child. They are bulkier than infant seats, however, and do not come with carrying handles or a separate base that stays in the car.
Forward-facing car seats are for children who weigh up to about 40 to 80 pounds, depending on the model, and are at least 2 years old. According to the AAP, "children should transition from a rear-facing seat to a forward-facing seat with a harness, until they reach the maximum weight or height for that seat."
When your child outgrows their car seat -- but is not yet large enough for your car's seat belts -- use a booster seat. It raises the child so that the car's seat belt fits. When your child meets any one of these three conditions, you know you can comfortably move them to a booster seat:
- The tops of their ears are above the top of their forward-facing seat.
- Their shoulders are above the car seat's top harness slots.
- Your child exceeds the seat's height and weight limits.
After the Booster Seat
In many states, there are laws on when a child can graduate from a booster seat to the regular, unassisted car seating. The AAP believes that your child should stay in a booster seat until the car's lap and shoulder belts properly fit them, which is typically when a child reaches about 4 feet 9 inches in height, weighs about 80 pounds, and is between 8 and 12 years old. Some states also have laws on when a child can sit in the front seat, and the AAP cautions that a child should sit in the back seat of a vehicle until they're at least 13 years old.
Cost is obviously an element in how to choose a car seat. You'll find them ranging from $40 to $450, and convertible seats cost more than single-purpose seats. Remember: The most expensive car seat isn't necessarily the best choice. All child seats must meet federal safety standards, and Consumer Reports test results show that many mid-priced models work as well as, or better than, pricier ones.
The Inch and Pinch Tests
Purchasing the correct seat is just part of the solution. Nearly 73 percent of seats are not properly installed or are not used at all. Safe Kids Worldwide recommends using "inch" and "pinch" tests to ensure that your seat is properly installed. After you install the seat, give it a tug where the seat belt goes through it. It should move less than an inch from side to side. Too loose? Tighten things up. Then, with the chest clip placed at armpit level, pinch the strap. If you can't pinch any excess strap, you're good to go.
Now that you know how to choose a car seat, you can feel confident that your child will be safe in your vehicle. If you have any further questions, talk to your pediatrician for advice.