How to Choose the Right Car Seat for Your Child

Baby who sleeps by child seat when being driving
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Like your baby's crib, a car seat is one of those essential baby products. And unfortunately, like a crib, a car seat can be rather expensive.

That makes it important to choose the right one, especially as you will have to get another car seat as your baby grows up into his toddler and preschooler stages.

Understanding which types of car seats are available can make it much easier to choose which car seat is best for your child.

Available car seats include:

Infant Car Seats

  • Can be used in the rear-facing position only
  • Have the added benefit of being able to be used as infant carriers
  • Can often be attached to a stroller (travel system)

Convertible Car Seats

  • Can be used in the rear-facing position until your child is 35 or 45 pounds, which can help parents meet car seat guidelines to keep kids rear-facing until age two years
  • Converts to a forward-facing car seat and sometimes even a booster seat, depending on which one you buy

Forward-Facing Toddler Car Seats

  • Can only be used as a forward-facing car seat with a harness strap until a child is 60 pounds

Combination Car Seats

  • Can be used as a forward-facing car seat with a harness strap until a child is 65 to 85 pounds, and then as a booster seat

Booster Car Seats

  • Are used with a car's lap and shoulder belt
  • Include high-back and no back booster seats
  • Can usually be used until a child is 100 to 120 pounds and 57 inches tall (around the time he is ready for regular seat belts)
  • Remember that kids should stay in a booster seat until they are 4'9" tall (about 8 to 12 years old) and seat belts fit correctly

Choosing a Car Seat

Instead of choosing a brand or style of the car seat, your first decision when choosing a car seat should really be the type that is best for your child.

You are going to have to buy more than one car seat as your child gets older and bigger, but by choosing the right combination of car seats, you can likely get away with buying just two. On the other hand, if you make poorer choices, you may have to buy three or even four car seats until your child is eventually ready for regular seat belts.

For example, consider that you could use the following two car seats for your newborn up until the time your school-age child outgrows his booster seat:

1) An infant-only seat with a 30-pound weight limit, which can be used in the rear-facing position for your infant and younger toddler, such as the:

  • Chicco KeyFit 30 Infant Car Seat 
  • Graco Infant Safe Seat 
  • Peg Perego Primo Viaggio SIP 30/30 

2) A combination seat that can initially be used as a forward-facing toddler car seat with a 5-point harness. Once your child meets the height and weight limits of the seat, you can then use your combination seat as a booster seat until your older child is 57 inches tall seat belts fit well. Examples of combination seats with these weight and height limits include the:

  • Evenflo Generations 
  • Graco Nautilus 
  • Recaro Young Sport 
  • SafeGuard GO Booster 
  • Safety 1st Apex 65 

Couldn't you get the same utility from a convertible car seat (used rear-facing for your newborn and infant, then forward-facing for your toddler) and a combination seat for your older child? You could, but many experts recommending starting with an infant-only seat. If you were going to go that route, you could even use one of the newer 3-in-1 convertible car seats, such as the Eddie Bauer Deluxe Convertible 3-in-1, that can be used both rear-facing and forward-facing with harness straps and then as a booster seat.

If you aren't careful, you could end up needing to buy an infant-only seat, a convertible car seat, and a booster seat as your child passes the weight or height limits of the car seats that you buy. The Britax Marathon convertible car seat is a very popular model, but it's weight and height limits as a booster seat are only 65 pounds and 49 inches, which most kids reach before they are ready for regular seat belts. That means you will have to get another booster seat for your child when he outgrows his Britax Marathon seat.

For older kids, choose a car seat with high weight and height limits that is easy to use and will last your child as long as possible. Remember that the AAP states that "no one seat is the "best" or the "safest," so choose a seat that fits in your car, meets your child's height and weight requirements and is easy to install.

Using Your Car Seat

To keep your child safe, in addition to choosing the right type and model of the car seat, it is important that you use your car seat correctly:

  • Register your car seat so that you will be notified of any car seat recalls.
  • Use your car seat in the correct position, in the back seat:
    • Rear-facing until your infant is two years old or outgrows the limits of your rear-facing car seat, although since it is thought to be safest to continue rear-facing until age two years, consider moving to a rear-facing convertible car seat with high weight and height limits if you have a larger infant or toddler that outgrows his car seat too early.
    • Forward-facing in a five-point harness until your child outgrows his car seat, remembering that it is likely best to ride in a harnessed seat as long as possible, so choose a car seat with a harness that has higher weight and height limits.
    • In a booster seat until he is ready for seat belts (when he is 4 feet, 9 inches tall, between 8 and 12 years old).
  • Avoid common car seat mistakes, such as putting harness straps or harness chest clip in the wrong position, not using the LATCH system correctly, taking a child out of his booster seat and putting him into regular seatbelts before he is ready, or letting kids ride in the front seat before they are old enough.
  • Avoid reusing a car seat after an accident, especially a moderate or severe accident.
  • Follow your state car seat laws, but where they are lacking (some states say it is okay to take kids out of a car seat at age 4 or 5, for example), follow the recommendations of the AAP and keep your kids in a booster seat until they are about 4' 9" tall.
  • Do some research to find the right car seat for your child with special needs.
  • Avoid dressing your child in a heavy coat in the winter under her harness straps in her car seat.
  • Consider visiting a car seat inspection station to make sure you are using your child's car seat correctly.
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Article Sources

  • American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement. Child Passenger Safety. Pediatrics 2011;127:788-793.