A child car seat should be high on your to-buy list. You’ll need one to bring your baby home from the hospital and for every car trip thereafter. In fact, hospitals and birthing centers generally won’t let you leave by car with your newborn if you don’t have one. Every state requires that kids up to 4 years of age ride in a car seat; many require booster seats for older children.
The major brands of car seats you’re likely to encounter are, in alphabetical order: Baby Trend, Britax, Chicco, Combi, Cosco, Eddie Bauer, Evenflo, Graco, Peg Perego, and Safety 1st.
There are also car beds for preemies and other very small newborns if there’s a concern that a car seat may not provide a secure fit or that it may exacerbate breathing problems. In addition, there are specially designed car seats for children with physical disabilities. Every model of car seat sold in the U.S. must meet federal safety standards. These are your basic choices:
Infant seats. These rear-facing seats are for babies up to 22 pounds. They allow infants to recline at an angle that doesn’t interfere with breathing and protects them best in a crash. Many strollers are now designed to accommodate infant car seats. All infant car-seat models come with a handle, and nearly all have a base that secures to your vehicle with LATCH connections or a vehicle safety belt, a convenience that lets you remove the seat and use it as a carrier. You can strap most infant seats into a car without a base, using the vehicle safety belts, but most people don’t use them that way.
Infant seats have either a three-point harness–two adjustable shoulder straps and a lock between the child’s legs or–even better–an adjustable five-point system–two straps over the shoulders, two for the thighs, and a crotch strap. The handle usually swings from a position behind the seat’s shell when in the car to an upright position for carrying. Remember to swing the handle to the vehicle position before each trip. Slots underneath most seats help them attach to the frame of a shopping cart.
With an infant car seat, you also can move your baby from car to house or vice versa without waking him or her up–a plus for both of you. Note also that extra bases are available so you can keep a secured base in each of your vehicles. Your baby may outgrow an infant car seat quickly and become too heavy for you to use it as a carrier. As a result, you may find yourself having to buy a convertible car seat after your baby is 6 to 9 months old. However, our advice is still to start with an infant seat before moving up to a convertible seat.
Price range: $30 to $180.
Travel systems. Travel systems offer one-stop shopping: You get an infant car seat and a stroller all in one. Most car-seat manufacturers offer these combination strollers/infant car seats. And many stand-alone strollers are now designed to accommodate infant car seats. With these strollers, you create a carriage by snapping an infant car seat into a stroller. The car seats of travel systems also come with a base, which stays in the car. The snap-on car seat is generally positioned atop the strollers so the infant rides facing the person pushing. Your baby can also ride in the stroller seat alone when he or she is big enough.
Most travel-system strollers can be used only with a car seat from the same company. They can also be bulky, so if you’re a city dweller who negotiates more subway stairs than highways or if the trunk of your car isn’t too roomy, you may be better off with a separate car seat and a compact stroller that is appropriate for a newborn.
Price range: $40 (stroller frame only) to $400.
Convertible seats. With a convertible seat, the child faces rearward as an infant, then toward the front of the vehicle as a toddler. The seat can function as a rear-facing seat for infants up to 30 or 35 pounds, depending on the model, and as a front-facing seat for toddlers generally up to 40 pounds (a few have a 65-pound limit). Models typically have an adjustable five-point harness system–two straps over the shoulders, two for the thighs, and a crotch strap between the legs. Some models have a tray shield that lowers over the baby’s head and fastens with a buckle between the legs. However, our tests show that children, especially small ones, are better restrained with a five-point harness.
A convertible car seat can be a money saver, taking your child from infancy to kindergarten and beyond. We advise starting with an infant seat first, though, as mentioned earlier. Keep in mind that convertible seats are not compatible with strollers, so you will have to transfer your baby from the convertible car seat to a carriage or stroller when you’re ready to set out on foot. Such jostling can wake a sleeping baby, a problem if you need to take your child on frequent shopping expeditions or other errands.
Price range: $50 to $290.
Toddler/booster seats. Looking like large versions of convertible seats, these front-facing seats are used with an internal harness for toddlers 20 to 40 pounds. They’re either LATCH-attached or can be secured using the vehicle belts and tethers. When kids reach 40 pounds, the seat becomes a belt-positioned booster seat, which children can use until they’re 80 or 100 pounds. With a belt-positioned booster seat, the child is restrained using the vehicle’s lap and shoulder belt system.
Booster seats. These are generally for children weighing 40 to 80 pounds. (A very tall child may begin using a booster seat at 30 pounds.) Booster seats use the vehicle’s own safety belts to restrain the child.
Built-in seats. Some U.S. and foreign automakers offer on select cars and minivans an integrated, forward-facing child seat that has a harness and accommodates toddlers weighing more than 20 pounds. There are also some booster-seat versions. Built-in seats must meet the same performance standards as add-on child seats. However, they offer little or no side protection and they’re usually located next to a door, instead of in the center–the safer position. You may also need a regular car seat for when your child travels in other vehicles.
Since Sept.1, 2002, all child car seats with an internal harness and nearly all passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. have been required to include equipment designed for simpler buckling. This system, called LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children), consists of child car-seat connections that attach to anchor points in the vehicle, eliminating the need to use a vehicle’s safety belts to install the seat. You can still use safety belts to install a LATCH-equipped child car seat–for example, in an older car that lacks LATCH anchors. You can also retrofit some non-LATCH car seats with LATCH features.