General|Newborn Care and Parenting

Shopping for the Right Car Seat


“Car Seat Safety” series. Guest Author: Angel Mattes

We get a lot of questions about the best or safest car seats to use. While car seats are products sold in stores, they are considered a safety device, and as such, you can’t necessarily rate or compare them as you would with other products. While there are many consumer reports and lists of rated best car seats available on the internet, you must take those with a grain of salt. Many of the features available on more expensive car seats are luxury items, extras, or make installation easier; they don’t necessarily make for a safer seat. There are many child restraints on the market today that are the cheapest options out there, and are just as safe as their more expensive counterparts! Federal law requires that they all must pass the same safety tests. Individual companies may offer additional testing, but as this is not regulated, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to compare apples to apples. Ultimately, the “Best” Car Seat is one that is new, that fits your child and your vehicle, and that is used correctly every time. Let me explain.

Why it must be new

Car seats that are either bought used or passed down from a friend or family member have an unknown history. They may have been involved in a crash or gate-checked at an airport, they may have been left out in the rain, washed incorrectly (or not all), have mold, may be missing parts, or have unseen damage. There are too many possibilities for what that seat may have gone through, and all of them make it unsafe for your little one. Be safe and buy new!

Why it must fit YOUR child and YOUR vehicle

Children are born and grow at very different sizes and rates, and also have different physical needs and capabilities. As a result, they will outgrow their seats at different times, be able to rear-face longer than some, and can pass the 5-step test at different ages. In addition, cars have different seat belt arrangements, LATCH availability, air bag placement, tether locations, manufacturer rules, and huge variance in the amount of back seat space available. The complexities that vehicles bring to the equation mean that there just can’t be a universal car seat recommendation for every family. This is where working one-on-one with a tech can help you find the best seat for your child, for your vehicle, and for your family.

Why it must be used correctly, every time

You can buy the most expensive car seat on the market that’s received high ratings across the board, but if you don’t know how to install it properly, your child simply won’t be safe. You must familiarize yourself with your car seat, your vehicle, have your installation checked by a professional, and check the install each and every time you use the seat. Even the best installations can loosen over time, and should be checked for tightness with each use. Many families don’t realize that their car seats have been uninstalled when they’ve taken their cars in for detailing, or might have a pet who rides in the car and can unbuckle a seat belt unknowingly. Mistakes can happen. Car seat safety is not a one-and-done deal. It’s a practice that you must implement into your life as an ongoing assurance.

Now that we’ve covered these important guidelines, I’ll share with you some factors to consider as you shop for the perfect seat:

  • Your car
    • Where is LATCH available? Are there lower anchors AND a top tether for each seating position? Beware – many cars do not allow LATCH installation in the center seat!
    • Where are the top tether(s) located? (Top tethers are necessary for forward-facing children but aren’t available in every seating position) Many minivans may only have tether anchors for 1 or 3 out of the 5 or 6 back seat positions.
    • Do you have leather seats or protruding head rests?
    • How much space is available in the back seat? CarSeat Blog has a wonderfully put together list of car seats by the amount of space they take up. This is just a snippet, but please check their web site for the complete (and current) list.
    • Can your vehicle accommodate your baby, their seat, and the rest of your cargo? What about other children, or plans for future children? Some helpful links:
    • Who will be installing/using the seat?
      • Will you be the primary caregiver using the seat? You may want to try out the demo models in stores to see which one you’re most comfortable with. Protip – big box stores like Babies ‘R Us and Buy Buy Baby will allow you to test out their floor models in your vehicle prior to purchasing. This is highly recommended, so you can ensure that the seat will fit in your vehicle!
      • Will your elderly mother be babysitting regularly? You might want to consider a car seat that’s easier to buckle and rated for ease of use.
      • Do you babysit and plan to use this seat for multiple children? You may want to consider a seat with a no-rethread harness.
    • Your family
      • Are you planning on having more children? You may be able to use this seat for multiple children, depending on the expiration date. If you anticipate having two or three children in car seats at the same time, you may want to prioritize the width of the seat. Car seats that are narrower are much more likely to be able to puzzle next to each other and fit side-by-side in your back seat. See recommendations on the narrowest boosters.
      • What is your budget? A typical infant “bucket” seat is more affordable now, but will need to be replaced with a bigger seat once your child outgrows it. Convertible car seats are more of an initial investment, but will last you much longer and are worth considering. Consider researching your car seat and registering for it as a baby shower gift. Or use those returns/gift cards to help you offset the cost!
      • How long do you plan to rear-face? If you’re committed to keeping your child rear-facing for as long as possible, you may want to consider a seat that can take up less space from front to back, and/or a seat with a higher weight limit for rear-facing.

Bottom line:

The safest seat for your child is the seat that you will most likely use correctly, each and every time.

Helpful Resources:

Angel Mattes is a Doula, Lactation Educator, and serves the Birthways community as our Labor Support & Continuing Education Coordinator. She trained and certified as a Child Passenger Safety Technician in 2013 and is passionate about educating parents and keeping children safe.

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