Protecting Your Children in the Car: 5 Tips for Choosing the Right Car Seat
Budget: Because car seats can range from well under a hundred dollars to several hundred, many people automatically assume more expensive must mean a better seat. But this is not actually true. One seat that is frequently recommended by Child Passenger Safety Technicians as easy to use and install runs right around $40. All seats must pass the same basic set of testing standards and ultimately the best seat is the one that is installed and used properly, so take an honest look at your budget and then find a seat within that budget that fits your child’s needs (see below) and your vehicle well, have a CPST teach you how to install it and always use it properly. Visit www.car-seat.org to find a CPST near you.
Age/Size of Child: Even the best car seat is useless if it is the wrong seat for the age and size of your child. Many seats are labeled in ways that are misleading to parents. For example, many booster seats say on the package 30lbs-100lbs. We all have seen one year olds who are pushing 30 lbs. That does not in any way mean that a one year old is ready for a booster seat—many children are not ready for boosters until age seven or eight because size alone is not the determining factor. So do some research and figure out what seat (infant, convertible, forward facing, harnessed booster or unharnessed booster) is best for your child based on both their age AND their size. As of 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children under age two stay in a weight appropriate rear-facing car seat or to the maximum weight and height limitations for their car seat for maximum safety and head/neck protection. For some children, this may mean rear-facing until age three or four. A good place to start is the NHTSA website. In addition, since many harnessed car seats (often called a harnessed booster) now offer weight limits up to 80-85 lbs, it is wise to consider extended harnessing for your child for ultimate protection. There is a reason that even race car drivers use this kind of harness—it helps keep the passenger in the safest position and protects them better. Don’t be in a rush to move “up” to the next style of seat. Each step “up” is actually a step “down” for safety.
Needs: What is the need of this seat? Do you need one that comes in and out easily (and therefore is super easy to install correctly) since your baby needs to be transported in other vehicles often because of who is the primary caregiver or because you travel a lot as a family? Or will this seat be installed and rarely ever moved? This can affect your decision making process as you review possible seats and is a major consideration for families that need to move seats because of particular needs. Whether it’s moved often or not, you still need to be able to install it correctly every time.
How long do you need this seat to last? For some families on a tight budget, the need for a seat to last as long as possible is a major consideration. These days, car seat manufacturers are starting to take this into consideration and a few are making seats designed to go from infancy all the way to the booster stage and have a 10 year expiration on them. Wait… expiration? Yes, car seats have expiration dates set by the manufacturer of the seat based on when it began to fail in testing, as seats are made primarily of plastic, which breaks down over time. It’s important to know those dates as you consider various seats for your needs. For other families, budget is not as much of a concern as convenience is, so they might not mind having an infant bucket seat with a base and then purchasing a new seat when baby outgrows the bucket. It matters more to them to have the ability to lift a bucket in and out of the vehicle with the baby still in it.
Will you actually use it properly? A seat, no matter the cost or reputation, if not used properly, is simply not a good seat for your needs. So make sure you select a seat that is easy for you to use properly from installation to daily use. If your seat is beautiful, but takes you 30 minutes to take in and out even though you need an easily moved seat, you are less likely to install it properly due to frustration with the process. Or if it is difficult to adjust when needed, the straps might be positioned improperly and not provide the protection that is needed. If you can, it is a great idea to go to a store that will actually let you try out the various seats in your car to ensure that that particular seat is easy for you to use with the vehicle you own. This ensures you are more likely to use it properly.
You can and will receive all kinds of advice on nearly every aspect of child-rearing, including car seat selection and use. What it all comes down to in the end is selecting a seat that fits well for your budget, your needs, your child and your vehicle. Make sure it is easy for you to use AND ensure that a CPST has checked your install and assisted you with any special needs you might have for your particular situation so that you know your child is as safe as possible within your car. This includes reading your car seat and vehicle manual for child restraint use and making a check list of things to be covered when you meet with a CPST. This list should include vehicle belt tightness, harness tightness and placement, coats and items that did not come with the child restraint. Your tech should cover each of these items, however, it is good to have a list just in case something is missed. Your tech should also review your seat’s weight limits and advise you on extended rear facing and extended harnessing. Using a car seat properly takes a bit of learning and absolute consistency, but it is SO worth it.
Note: It is recommended to NEVER purchase a used car seat unless you know without a doubt that you can trust the person you are purchasing it from because without knowing the true history of a car seat, it may have been cared for improperly, checked on an airplane or even been in an accident, therefore making it unsafe for use.
All material in this article was reviewed and approved by a CPST.