These days we have so many options when it comes to baby gears, and car seats are no exception. A baby car seat is a modern necessity and most hospitals in the United States won’t let you check out unless you demonstrate that your newborn fits properly in their car seat. Some hospitals even have staff come out to make sure it is installed safely in your vehicle.
So with your child safety a paramount importance, what should you look for in a baby car seat? Here are some tips to consider when making your first infant car seat purchase.
Consideration #1: What Kind Of Car Seat Do I Need?
First of all, you need to understand that car seats for babies come in four different types namely:
- Infant car seats
- Convertible car seats
- All-in-one car seats (also known as 3-in-1)
- Travel systems
There is another type of car seat called booster seats but it is important to distinguish them from car seats that are built for babies. Booster seats are meant for older children who weigh at least 40 pounds and above, therefore it will not be the first car seat you will buy for your newborn baby.
1. Infant Car Seats
Infant seats are meant for newborns and smaller babies that are less than a year old. They often have a handle for carrying and most snap into a portable base that you installed in your car to make boarding and removing the seat easier. Many parents find them convenient because it is easy to transport their newborn baby safely around while strapped securely in their seat. Some infant car seats are attach to popular stroller models by design, or with an attachment. These seats are typically made to be installed facing the rear of the vehicle. Most infant car seats can carry babies from birth to about 30 pounds (14 kg) however some infants can out-grow the seats, which may mean you can end up purchasing both an infant seat and a convertible seat later on. One really nice thing about infant car seats is that you can purchase bases individually so that, if you have more than one vehicle, you can move the seat easily from one car to another instead of buying multiple seats.
The top recommended car seats in the infant category are:
The Chicco Keyfit 30 ($180)
The Chicco Keyfit 30 is a top-ranked infant seat that earned top scores for safety under both the old and new crash test system conducted by Consumer Reports. Added to their extreme safety, they are one of the easiest to install car seats on the market, both with the LATCH system and five-point safety harness. However one drawback of the seat is that babies may outgrow the seat before they reach the maximum weight limit.
The Cybex Aton 2 ($300)
Safety comes at a high price with the Cybex Aton 2. The Aton 2 has several of the same features as its predecessor, the Aton, but has a few extra that make this seat the safest infant car seat on the market. One of the new features, a load leg, connects the seat to the floor, preventing it from rotating in a crash. This is a feature common in the European car seat market, but new to the United States. It is an important feature but can make it difficult to achieve proper installation if placed in the middle seat in a vehicle with a raised center floor. The Aton 2 also has a tension plate that helps make sure that a tight fit is achieved when installed with the LATCH system.
2. Convertible Car Seats
Convertible seats are meant to carry your infant safely from infancy through toddler-hood. Convertible car seats are larger and weigh heavier than infant car seat but they can support up to 60 pounds. These seats can be installed rear facing until the baby turns two and then switched to a forward facing position as required by your state or until your child surpasses the weight and/or height limit.
The top contenders in this category are:
The Chicco NextFit Convertible ($280)
Chicco leads the way in this category as well with its only convertible seat. It scores high marks in crash test safety, easy installation, and its easy recline feature. Most testers found it very easy to get a secure fit when used with the LATCH system.
The Britax G4 Convertible Series (from $145 to $305)
Now in the fourth generation of production, Britax clearly makes great convertible car seats that have great safety features. The Advocate, Pavilion, and Boulevard all have side impact cushions, a special click feature that alerts you to when your child’s harness is fastened tight enough, and flip forward buckles at the crotch, making it easier and more comfortable for you and your child during installation. The Marathon ranks similarly in the safety category, but is not as posh or feature laden. The budget friendly Roundabout still has high marks when it comes to safety but lacks some of the more convenient features. For instance, when adjusting the settings on the harness, it involves a little more effort and is a bit less convenient, but overall is very wallet friendly, while still very safe.
Graco Size 4Me 65 Convertible ($180)
This Graco model ranked highly when it came to ease of installation and safety tests. The seat also performed well when forward facing, but it proved harder to adjust the belts, making it less likely that parents will be able to install them securely on their own.
3. All-In-One Car Seats (Also Known As 3-in-1)
Much like convertible car seats, an all-in-one car seat can be switched between rear-facing and forward-facing position with the added difference that it can convert into a booster seat for older kids weighing up to 100 pounds. That’s why they are also sometimes refer to as 3-in-1 car seats. All-in-one car seats are generally more bulky and heavier than the average convertible car seats. And because they are more sturdy and can accommodate infants, toddlers and older children, they are usually some of the priciest seats on the market.
The best all-in-one category goes to:
The Diono Radian RXT All-In-One Convertible ($350)
This Diono Radian RXT convertible car seat is really the gold star of all car seats. It can be used from 5 pounds rear facing to 80 pounds front facing and up to 120 pounds when used as a booster. The five point harness can be used all the way to 80 pounds (the highest on the market), it an be used rear facing until 45 pounds (also on the high end), and it has multiple adjustment features and levels of padding making it easy to get just the right fit for a comfortable ride for your infant as she grows. It’s steel frame, aluminum reinforced sides and extra layers of foam make it super safe, it has a very tall backrest so it grows with your child, and its narrow design makes it possible to install three of these in one bench seat in a vehicle, perfect for triplets!
Other pluses are that it has a 10 year expiration date, it folds flat for travel, and if in an accident, you can ship it back to the manufacturer for a free replacement. The only real complaint is that it is heavy!!! At nearly 25 pounds, even if it folds flat and has a backpack style carrier, it is super heavy to carry especially if you need to travel on other modes of transportation other than your own vehicle. Though it adjusts very easily, a number of parents who are currently using the seat complain that it is difficult to remove and re-install.
4. Travel System Car Seats
Travel system car seats are those ubiquitous cute matching stroller car seat combinations seen in every shopping mall and neighborhood in the United States. Many parents think these are a great buy because they are usually a little cheaper than buying a baby car seat and stroller separately and they come in cute patterns and often match other accessories like bouncer seats.
If you decide you want a travel system, the following are the ones you should consider:
The Graco FastAction Fold Jogger Click Connect Travel System ($260)
This Graco travel system is compatible with every infant car seat that Graco makes. Users report that it is very easy to fold and unfold, has good maneuverability and has a full recline, making it a decent stroller when your infant no longer needs an attachable car seat.
The Chicco Cortina Keyfit 30 Travel System ($300)
This travel system fits with Chicco’s highly rated Keyfit 30 infant car seat model. Besides having lots of fabric options, being easy to use, and having great maneuverability, like the Graco model, users report this is just a fabulous stroller and can be rated on its stroller qualities alone.
Consideration #2: Would The Car Seat Be A Right Fit For My Car?
When looking to buy an infant car seat, it is really important to take the size of your vehicle’s seat into consideration. Some small cars have very little room in the back seat and it may be difficult to accommodate a few of the convertibles or all-in-one car seats in a rear facing position.
If you are in doubt, you can always check this information on the respective merchants’ websites, or you can also ask a store employee to help you try out the floor model in your car before you make the final purchase. Many stores will be glad to help you do this.
Consideration #3: What Kind Of Strap System Should I Look For?
Straps can be arranged differently across brands, but one thing that is becoming standard internationally, is that most seats are currently produced with a five point harness strap arrangement. This means straps cross over five points on your child’s body. Straps should cross their shoulders, their hips and their crotch. Look for straps that can be pulled quite tightly and loosened easily, preferably with one hand if at all possible. Straps should also feel that they are made of comfortable material and won’t chafe or cause discomfort. A five point harness system is the safest harness system on the market at the moment and any seat you buy should have this kind of strap system.
Consideration #4: What Safety Features Should I Look For?
The LATCH system is the primary safety feature to look for. The majority of vehicles and car seats manufactured after 2002 have the LATCH system as a feature.
The LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system is a feature that allows the car seat to attach securely to the seat of your vehicle without a safety belt. In the back seat two points of attachment will be in the creases of the seat and one will be a tether in the back window of the car and in the floor as well, for rear-facing seats. In mini-vans and SUVs (Sport Utility Vehicles), the third tether is usually found on the floor in several spots.
If you are unsure if you have your car seat securely in place, many stores employ Car Seat Safety Technicians who are certified to check correct installation and placement of car seats. If you cannot find one at a store near you, many police stations also have at least one officer who is a certified Car Seat Safety Technician.
Additionally it is also good to look at the model’s crash test safety rating to help make your decision easier.