Car Seats: Everything New Parents Need To Know

Car Seat

I just bought our third car seat, and if I’ve learned anything about buying car seats it’s that buying carseats is daunting and miserable.

Not only do you have to find the right seat among hundreds of options — infant seats, forward facers, rear facers, forward and rear facers, all-in-ones, 3-in-1s, and boosters — but then you have to custom install the thing based on your child’s size and your vehicle’s’ specifications. It’s too much.

In fact, a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that 3 out of 4 car seats are installed incorrectly. Another study found that 95% of new parents made installation mistakes with their first car seats.

I’d like to think I could install a car seat correctly, but man those are bad odds. And even if I’m one of the lucky 5% who aces the first install, there’s a 75% chance I’ll mess up the second…and the third….which brings up another issue: How many car seats do I have to buy?

I assume car seats follow some natural progression that mirrors the growth of your child, but what happens when you have multiple kids and multiple vehicles? Does your life just become a terrible word problem?

Child A must use an infant seat until he turns 1, a rear facing seat until 2, a forward facing seat until 4, and a booster seat until 8. Child B must follow the same pattern but is 20 months younger than child A.

If both children ride in the sedan on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the SUV on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, how many car seats can Children A and B’s father afford before he has to find a second job?

In this post, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about the most important piece of child equipment you’ll ever buy. Now, let’s get to it.

Simple Tips for a Safer Seat

You might be wondering what’s the safest car seat on the market. Well, technically, any new car seat you buy is safe. Before a seat can be sold, it must pass the U.S. government’s crash and fire safety standards. This prevents shoddy products from ever reaching the market.

And although companies like Consumer Reports and Baby Gear Lab complete their own independent safety tests, the results are inconsistent at best, as winners and losers often flip flop based on the criteria of the test.

So, what can you do to make sure your car seat is safe? Well, a few things:

Buy brand new. The government is continually increasing safety requirements and safety technology is continually improving. The best way to make sure your seat has all the newest safety features — 5-point harness, 2 piece chest clip, etc.— is to buy a brand new seat.

Know the law. Laws regarding how long kids must remain in carseats and boosters differ by state. For a map outlining a state-by-state breakdown, click here.

Watch an installation video. Installation is easier when you can watch someone else do it. The NHTSA provides instructional videos for car seat installation on its website. These videos cover many things that aren’t necessarily obvious in your owner’s manual like where to position the harness straps and chest clips. Watch the videos here.

Have the car seat inspected after installation. Places like local police departments and fire stations will inspect your car seat for free. To find the nearest car seat inspection station, just type your zip code into this handy widget on the NHTSA’s website.

Read reviews. The safest seat is the seat that’s installed correctly. By reading reviews and paying attention to factors like ease of use and installation, you can find a seat you can safely install.

Buy the right seat. Before my daughter was born, I thought a car seat was a car seat. I was wrong. There are infant car seats and booster seats. There are convertible seats and 3-in-1s and all-in-ones, and at some point in her life, your child will need most or all of them. Here’s a rundown.

Types of Car Seats

This grid outlines the seats your child will need as he grows. All size limits are approximate and will vary by individual make and model.

Car Seats

Note: Recently, car seat companies have started manufacturing all-in-one models designed to grow with the child from infancy until they no longer need a booster. Many reviews and safety tests have determined that, by trying to do too much, they don’t do any one thing particularly well. As a result, all-in-one models are excluded here.

How to Buy Car Seats For Your Growing Family

This infographic from the NHTSA outlines car seat recommendations based on the age of your child.

Car Seat Timeline

Now, here is a more specific plan. By no means is it the only plan. But based on the research required for this post, here is my answer to the great car seat riddle. Again, ages listed here are approximate. When your child transitions seats will depend on his size and the specifications of the seat.

Phase 1: Your newborn

Although most convertible seats technically can contain a newborn, most researchers agree that infants are safest in an infant seat.

Also, I can’t imagine life without the baby carrier. Like how do you get the newborn to and from the car? With your bare hands? Because that seems dangerous. I do not trust myself to safely deliver the newborn to his car seat. I need that carrier. Anyway…

The Decision: Graco SnugRide Click Connect 35 and an additional base

The Graco SnugRide Click Connect 35 (click images to see on Amazon) is the number one seller on Amazon and also goes on sale frequently. We bought the seat, which includes a base, and then an extra base for our second vehicle. With our car seat needs covered, we could then worry about other things for the first year of parenthood.

Phase 2: Your 1 Year Old

A new study from Consumer Reports recommends that children transition from an infant seat no later than their first birthday, and sooner if they reach the size limit. However, a lot of research shows 1-2 year olds are safer riding rear-facing than forward-facing — in some cases 5 times safer — because a rear-facing seat offers the best protection for a small child’s head, neck, and spine.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) cites that children under 2 are 75% less likely to die or be severely injured in a crash if they are riding rear-facing. So to be in line with the AAP’s official recommendation that all kids ride rear-facing until at least 2, you’ll need a convertible seat, one that rides rear-facing from 1-2 (or longer) and forward-facing thereafter.

What about my second vehicle? Of course, since convertible seats don’t come with a detachable base, you’ll have to figure something out for your second vehicle. You could, theoretically, switch the seat between vehicles. But as a new parent, who is permanently running 20 minutes late, I don’t have time for that.

So, maybe a better bet is to get a budget seat. Remember, all car seats have passed government testing. A lot of times, what you pay for is comfort and extra features. And although this seat might not be as posh as the one in your primary vehicle, it’ll offer a safe ride a few times per week.

The Decision: Graco Contender 65 & Evenflow Tribute LX

I promise I don’t work for Graco. But after assembling and using hundreds of baby products from different companies, Graco is just simpler. And you can’t put a price on simplicity, especially when you’re a new parent.

The Evenflo Tribute LX has performed incredibly well in safety and ease-of-use testing, and at half the price of its competitors, makes a great seat for your second vehicle or for grandparents.

Phase 3: Your 2 Year Old and (maybe) New Baby

With two convertible seats and an infant seat with an extra base, you’ll be covered until your youngest child turns 1. Then it’s time to think about booster seats.

Remember a booster seat uses your vehicle’s seat belts, as opposed to the 5-point harness. The harness offers the best protection for small children because it prevents them from wiggling around and also distributes the force of impact over a larger area of the body, should a crash occur.

Therefore, your child should only be moved to a booster when he meets the following requirements:

  • At least 4 years old
  • At least 40 pounds
  • Mature enough to stay seated

Since my daughter won’t meet the booster requirements by the time her younger sibling turns 1, we bought a 3-in-1 Harness Booster to bridge the gap. She can sit forward facing using the 5-point harness until she’s ready for a booster and then use the booster until she graduates to sitting like a normal person in the back seat. Since most states mandate that kids ride in a booster until at least 7 years old, we’ll likely have to buy a couple backless boosters (~$25) in a few years. But I’ll worry about that another day.

The Decision: Graco Nautilus 65 3-in-1 Harness Booster


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