Car seats are the single most important products that you will buy for your child in the first few years of life. Children need to be restrained in car seats for more safety. Research shows the difference a car seat can make in a child’s life. There are numerous injuries and fatalities every year in young children due to being unrestrained in vehicles.
With car seat regulations and laws that have changed so much in the past 40 years, it is very important to stay up to date and know exactly what to buy.
Did you already buy an infant car seat and you are almost ready to transition? Or are you considering to buy a convertible car seat for a newborn baby? In either case, in this convertible car seat buying guide, we will share all you need to know before you make a purchase. It is crucial that you make an informed decision because your child’s safety is at stake.
What You Need To Know About Car Seats
Most hospitals in the USA will not let you leave with your newborn baby without having a car seat properly installed in your vehicle. Regardless of hospital regulations, you do need a car seat before your baby is born so you have it in hand on time.
What should move us as parents to have a car seat? It should not be regulations and laws but the safety of our children. Adults use the seat belt without any problem, why shouldn’t children enjoy the same or even more safety?
However, there are a few things you need to know about car seats in order to be able to choose what is best for your child.
1) There are 3 types of car seats: Infant, convertible, and booster car seats.
Infant car seats can be used in the rear-facing position only. You have a carrier that attaches to a base. The base stays in the vehicle, but you can remove the carrier. Seat belts cannot be used to fasten your child. Instead, a harness system is used to tighten your child.
Convertible car seats cannot be removed from the base. They can be used in the rear-facing or forward-facing position. Some of them can also convert into high back booster seats and others also into backless booster seats. Convertible car seats have harnesses as well, but as your child grows, you can also use seat belts to fasten your children.
Booster seats are divided into 2 groups: High back boosters and backless boosters. The first ones have a high back and sides that protect your child even when she is using a seat belt, like a convertible car seat. The backless booster seats are just elevated seats so your child can use the seat belt properly. Neither of these seats have a harness system. They can only be used with seat belts.
The following graph gives you an idea of what kind of car seat you need for children of what age.
Note that most infant car seats can be used only up to the age of 1.5 years because children outgrow them very quickly. Also, you should know that depending on what model convertible car seat is the age for your child. Some convertible car seats are for all stages, while others are only for ages 2-8 years old. Booster car seats also can be used at different ages, depending on what you buy. And lastly, most children are ready to transition into the vehicle seat at the age of 10, but that also varies greatly from child to child.
2) Car seat laws are frequently updated.
Only in the recent past, a new car seat law was passed that children have to be rear-facing until they are at least 2 years old. Research shows that a child’s spine and neck are not fully developed until she is around 6 years old.
In the image, you can see the vertebrae of a young baby vs the vertebrae of a 6-year-old child. Can you see how the bones are still not forming a ring around the spinal cord? It takes until around age 6 when it finally is formed. However, the skeleton is only developed at around age 15.
That is why car seat laws expect babies to sit rear-facing. The back of the car seat is will protect the child’s spinal cord in the event of a crash.
Research has shown that regardless of where the crash comes from, a baby’s neck, head, and spine, and consequently its brain are all protected when in the rear-facing position.
Take a look at this crash test which explains why your child should always be rear-facing.
3) The size of your child.
The spine and skeleton are not stronger when a baby is taller. Age is what matters when switching from one car seat to another one. We switched our oldest 2 sons way too early into the forward-facing position because we falsely believed that because they were taller than most other children their age, it was ok to move them into the forward-facing position. We wouldn’t do it again. We are so thankful that we have not been in an accident so far.
4) Harness vs seat belt
Whenever you transition your child into a different car seat because it has outgrown the infant car seat, you should go with a harnessed car seat. Convertible car seats always have a harness. A seat belt will protect your child, but it does not come close to the effect a harness has on your child’s security. If you are able to work it out with your child, you should have her in a harnessed car seat until she is at least 8 years old.
It sounds impossible to keep your children that in long in that position. However, you as a parent need to decide what is best for your child and your child should not have a word in it. Yes, we understand it is a battle very often, but the more consistent you are, the quicker your child will know there is no way around. There are great things for your child to do while on the road.
5) Get a new car seat
Car seats should never be used after they have been in an accident, neither should you buy second-hand car seats. Before we knew much about car seats, we thought we would find a second-hand convertible car seat in a nearby store. We wondered why they did not have any. But now we are happy we did not find one.
The structure of a car seat is damaged when in a crash and it does not provide the same safety it did before. It does not matter if it was not a life-threatening crash, you should get rid of it. Do NOT sell nor give it away. Label it all over with big letters with “CRASHED. DON’T USE”. You can always donate one of your car seats to the local fire and police department or to hospitals. They often use them to do demonstrations or to give courses.
Also, do not buy second-hand car seats since you do not know about the history of that seat. Often they have been through strains that you know nothing about. Thus the importance to buy a new car seat. Since you have to invest, it is best you know all about it and buy the best convertible car seat that fits your needs.
6) Car seats expire.
Most people do not know that car seats expire. Parents sometimes store their gently used car seats in the basement in hopes that their grandchildren will one day use them.
Car seats are made of plastic which brittles over time, and since they have to stand tantrums, UV rays, liquids, frequent cleaning, etc, they just don’t have the same properties that they had when you bought them.
One thing that parents disregard is the fact that car seats are constantly updated and newer models come out that are safer than the ones that you bought 10 years ago.
And lastly, some models are under recall, which is why you should not use an expired car seat.
7) Never install a car seat in the front seat.
All children under the age of 13 need to ride in the back of your vehicle. Airbags can potentially kill your child because they are not developed enough.
8) Don’t go for recalled car seats
We mentioned before that some car seats are under recall. Never buy a car seat that has been recalled. It is very important to register your car seat as soon as you buy it. That guarantees that you will be notified if the company finds your particular car seat unsafe. Companies spend thousands and thousands of dollars to test their seats. When they find that one is not safe enough for your child, you can trust them. Discard that car seat or do whatever the company instructs you to do.
9) Size and Seat Belt
Your child is ready to transition out of car seats in the vehicle seat when she is 57 inches tall or old enough that the seat belt fits correctly. As you can see in the image, the seat belt goes nicely over the shoulder.
Seat belts were intended for adults and never for children. Children that are too small for seat belts can have the “seat-belt-syndrome” which can lead to serious and life-threatening injuries.
Knowing that your child has to be old enough to sit in the vehicle seat helps you understand in what phase your child is and what it needs and for how long it can need it. Buying the correct car seat is easier if you are aware that your child will have to travel in it for a few years still.
What You Need To Consider When Buying A Car Seat
Once you know all about car seats and what car seat is for your child, there are a few things you need to consider.
With hundreds of convertible car seats on the market, there is one for you, but you need to know a few things and what features you can expect to find.
Here are some questions that can guide your thinking and understanding the hundreds of features you will find and which one is just the right one for you.
1) How much can you spend?
All parents learned how much a child can cost once the child was there. Most parents, we included, do not expect that babies will cost that much.
However, a car seat is, as said before, is one item that you need to buy and need to buy new. Carefully check your budget and know how much you can really spend.
Do not go overboard in buying the most expensive car seat just because you want more safety. You must know that there is no car seat in the market that has not met the standards of the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). So, any car seat that is $100 dollars is not less safe than one that costs you $400 dollars.
The price goes up because of certain features, different types of fabrics, more reclining positions, more headrest positions, etc. You do not need all that if you cannot afford it. Only if you can afford it, go for it.
2) How much are you traveling?
Some people are seldom on the road and their children grow up at home. The farthest they go are trips to grocery shopping, and maybe once a year an outing. Other kids can be found on the road almost daily because of the lifestyle of their parents. When both parents work, it is likely that your children will be in daycare and you bring them there and pick them up there every single day.
IF your children are frequently on the road, consider buying a more sophisticated car seat so your child has some extra and convenient features. You should avoid buying a cheap car seat and adding lots of accessories. Everything that you buy besides the car seat has not been crash-tested and can pose a danger to your child.
However, if you are almost never on the road with your children you can consider buying a simple car seat with only basic features.
3) How do you travel?
If you commute between vehicles very often, or if you are a city dweller traveling in Uber and Taxi, you will want to buy a different car seat then when you only have 1 vehicle and your children rides in it most of the time.
There are models that are very bulky and hard to install, which are not convenient when you use more than one vehicle frequently. Some parents have even opted to buy a few car seats, one for each vehicle. However, your budget will decide if that is an option.
Other car seats are easy to move around and can be installed in less than 60 seconds.
Do you need an infant car seat because you want to carry your baby around in the carrier? Or do you prefer to carry your baby? If that is the case, the convertible car seat is perfect for you and you do not need to look at infant car seats.
In recent years, traveling by plane has become so common to many businessmen and women. That makes whole families travel quite often on the plane. If that is the case, you can even find convertible, fold-up car seats that meet your needs.
And lastly, there are those who walk with their children a lot. Those will want to buy car seats that are compatible with strollers.
Whatever your traveling style and your personal preference are, there is something for you on the market. Know beforehand what you need and look specifically for that. Don’t be fooled by looking at expensive and good-looking car seats that do not fit your needs.
4) What does your child need?
Regardless of how cute infant car seats are: If your child is almost too old or big for one, don’t bother to buy one. Also, if your child is almost old enough for a backless booster, why bother with buying a convertible car seat.
Know that children under the age of 2 years should be rear-facing and longer if possible. After that, children should be in the forward-facing position in a harnessed car seat until they are old enough for the seat belt.
Keep track of your child’s growth by measuring and weighing her so you know what to expect and what is best to buy.
5) What size of vehicle do you have?
We had a small car when our first 2 children were born. We never considered that vehicle size could really matter. After buying 2 extra large all-in-one convertible car seats, we figured that they almost did not fit into the car and it was a struggle to put them in.
Although we were able to install them correctly, we should have searched for something where the children could sit a bit more comfortable, without obstructing the front passenger’s seats too much.
However, we made the mistake of buying expensive car seats because we thought they were much safer. We now understand that this is not the case. Any car seat would have done the job well. We do not regret that we bought this particular car seat because they have many awesome features that we absolutely loved from the moment we installed them, but the size of the vehicle was not right for those car seats. One would have been ok, but 2 extra large and bulky car seats do not work very well.
Any car seat will fit into any car, and you will be able to install them properly, which is crucial. However, consider the front passengers and the comfort of your child.
6) What model of car do you have?
After 2003, all car seats came with the LATCH system, which are anchors that are in the bottom of the back seats in cars and also tethers which are the 3rd point of anchoring the car seat. Car seats now come equipped with these lower anchors and top tethers.
If you own a vehicle that is older than that, you will have to look for car seats that can still be installed the old-fashioned way, and they do still exist.
Parents should never neglect to learn about car seats. We think we know all about them and listen to our babies’ grandparents, neighbors or other people who really don’t know what is best for our children. That is why everybody planning to have a baby, or having toddlers should stay up to date with information regarding car seats.
Car seat safety is so important and it is always a good idea also to know what you can expect when looking for a new car seat.
There are so many different car seats for all needs and budgets that you need to know before you buy what you really need.