When preparing for a new baby or your child’s next stage, one of the most important decisions you’ll make is choosing a car seat worthy of protecting your little one. The glut of reviews, personal recommendations, and articles can be overwhelming. But picking the right seat—and installing it correctly—doesn’t have to be stressful.
This guide will walk you through the basics of child car seat safety and help you choose the best seat for your child, install it properly, and decide when it’s time to move your child into a forward-facing car seat or booster seat. It will also give you simple steps to ensure that your child’s seat is properly installed and as safe as possible.
How to Choose a Car Seat
There are many brands and styles on the market, but there is no one-size-fits-all car seat. "The best car seat is the one that fits your child, fits your vehicle, is in line with your child's development, and is used correctly every time," says Angela Knudson, a community impact program specialist for AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah and a certified child passenger safety technician who works with parents and families to help keep them safe and prepared on the road.
When buying a car seat, you'll need to decide whether you want a rear-facing only (often called an infant car seat) or a convertible car seat that adapts as your child grows. Deciding between the two is a personal choice based on your individual needs and preferences.
A rear-facing only car seat has a handle, and the seat can be easily removed from its sturdy base once the base is installed in your car. This means you can carry your baby into the house or clip them into a stroller without taking them out of the car seat—and interrupting a nap. Rear-facing only car seats typically hold children up to 40 pounds or up to 30 to 32-inches tall (check the manual for the manufacturer’s specific guidelines), and you can install a base in each car so you can quickly snap the seat in place and go. Additional bases are a fraction of the price of another car seat.
A convertible car seat, on the other hand, remains in your car at all times and has a higher height and weight limit. The car seat can be adjusted and repositioned as your child grows from a newborn to a toddler to a big kid. Many hold children that weigh 65 pounds or more. However, you need to properly reinstall the car seat or purchase more than one seat if your child will frequently ride in more than one vehicle.
As you begin to research specific car seats, look to trusted sources such as the Consumer Reports car seat buying guide or the New York Times product review site, Wirecutter, recommendations for infant and convertible seats. Also check car seat recalls on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website before purchasing or reusing a seat from an older sibling.
When to Pick Rear- or Forward-Facing
Although laws vary by state, for maximum safety your child must start rear-facing and should ride this way until the car seat's upper weight and height limits are reached rather than transition from rear-facing to forward-facing when they turn 2 years old. Infants and toddlers should ride rear-facing as long as they can to best protect their head, neck, and spine while the vehicle is in motion. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which issued this new recommendation in August 2018, most convertible seats now have weight and height limits that allow children to ride rear-facing for two years or longer before needing to transition to forward-facing.