Parents-to-be have a lot going on in the months leading up to the birth of their child—everything from attending childbirth classes to preparing a room for their newborn. Some action items can be put off, but at least one can’t: buying a car seat.
Every state requires infants to ride in safety seats, and hospitals won’t let newborns out the door without one. Choosing the right car seat and installing it correctly can be a mini project. But when it comes to your child’s safety, it’s well worth the investment of time.
Here’s a primer to get you started.
Why rear-facing seats?
Children should ride in the back seat in rear-facing car seats until they are at least 1, and preferably until they are 3. That’s the best way to keep a child safe, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA. Rear-facing seats have a harness, and they cradle in a crash to reduce possible stress on an infant’s fragile neck and spinal cord.
There are three types of rear-facing car seats:
- Infant car seats: These seats are rear-facing only. They typically snap in and out of a base you install in your car for easy carrying. Because these seats are designed for small babies, children usually outgrow them by 8 or 9 months. Check the weight and height specifications for your car seat for more information. Parents then have two options: a convertible car seat or an all-in-one car seat.
- Convertible car seats: Children of various sizes can use these seats, so as they grow the seat can be converted from rear-facing to forward-facing. These seats usually are installed in the car and do not snap out.
- All-in-one seat: This seat can be used as a rear-facing seat and, as a child grows, a forward-facing seat and then a booster seat.
Rating car seats
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tests car seats to make sure they meet strict crash performance standards. But car seats can vary greatly in how easy they are to use. The NHTSA uses a five-star rating system to evaluate car seats in these categories:
- Instructions: Is the instruction manual easy to follow?
- Installation features: Is the car seat easy to install?
- Labels: What content is on the car seat’s labels and is it easily understood?
- Child restraints: Is it easy to secure a child correctly?
Help installing a car seat
Choosing a car seat is a great topic to discuss with your health care provider. Your provider may suggest a model, or know which car seats are easiest to use.
Installing a car seat can be the tricky part. Car seat manuals and even YouTube how-to videos can help, but in the end, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says nearly 75 percent of car seats are installed incorrectly. The agency suggests contacting a child safety seat inspector in your community to double-check your work. These inspectors usually are members of police or fire departments, or work at local hospitals. To find someone in your area, click here, or call 1-866-SEAT-CHECK.