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Car Seat Selection

by Kathleen Roberts | March 1, 2010
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Car Seat Selection

Selecting a car seat or travel system for your baby can be mind-boggling with all the latest options available. Take a moment to understand the basics of choosing a car seat and your decision will be a bit easier.

Types of Car Seats

There are four basic types of car seats that you will find. When you see all the brands with their bells and whistles, you might be tempted to just grab the first seat you see and make a break for the check out. However, if you take a moment to learn what type of seat you need before you shop, your eyes are less likely to glaze over and you'll make the best decision.

Rear-Facing Car Seats

Many parents purchase a rear-facing infant seat for their new baby. These seats are intended for babies that weigh from 5 to 20 pounds, though some may be rated for a bit more weight. Some are strapped into the car with the seat belt after the handle has been turned to the bottom. Others have a base that stays in the car, making it simple to snap the seat in and out as needed.

The benefit of rear-facing car seats is that they have a handle that makes it easier to carry with Baby inside. It is also much easier to put a newborn into a car seat that is right in front of you than it is to crawl into the car while carrying your baby.

The downside is that these types of seats can get very heavy, even with ergonomic handles, which makes the stroller option a very useful thing. Some rear-facing seats will have a nice feature that your baby will thank you for--a sunshade. Keep in mind, if the seat of your dreams doesn't have a sunshade, you can purchase one. But this is definitely something you will want because few things are more stressful than trying to drive with your baby screaming in the back seat because the sun is in her eyes. A sunshade will prevent this from happening.

Convertible Car Seats

Convertible seats are handy because when your baby exceeds 20 pounds (which will happen sooner than you think!) you can just turn it around and make it a forward-facing seat instead of purchasing a new one. Typically, you will want to turn it forward when your child is one year old and at least 20 pounds--both of these criteria need to be met; not one or the other.

Travel Systems

Travel systems offer a rear-facing seat that will snap onto a wheeled base, creating an instant stroller. Some travel systems also incorporate a convertible seat that can be changed from a rear-facing to a forward-facing seat as the child gets older.

This can certainly save the hassle of having to shop again when your baby gets too big for her infant seat, but it can also mean you are stuck with a high priced piece of equipment that you don't especially like if it doesn't meet your expectations.

A basic rear-facing seat isn't terribly expensive, but a complete travel system can run from 0 to 0 or more. Compare prices and features to see if this type of system is right for you and your budget. Before purchasing any car seat or travel system, visit websites such as Amazon.com and read reviews of people who have tried the product. This will give you an unbiased view of what it is really like before you fork over several hundred dollars.

Consider, too, what your travel habits will require. Many complete travel systems are FAA approved to be used on airplanes as well. Converting from car seat to stroller to flight seat can be very handy if the need arises.

Combination Seats

Combination seats are intended for children who are at least one year old and at least 20 pounds and up to 100 pounds. They can be converted from a five-point harness to a booster seat. The high-back style is probably more comfortable for your child because it offers more head support. This is especially nice for little ones who like to snooze in the car. No more neck kinks!

Features to Look For in a Car Seat

Whatever type of car seat or travel system you choose, you will want to look for certain features. Rear-facing and convertible seats should both have easily adjusted straps. Just be sure they aren't so easy that you baby can adjust them herself and climb out! They should also offer adequate head support and have a way of adjusting the angle of the seat as your baby grows. Make sure the buckles are easy for you--but not your baby--to open and close.

Newer seats have a feature called LATCH. This stands for Lower Anchored Tethers for Children. If you have a car as well as a car seat with LATCH, seat belts are not needed. The seat just snaps right in. However, if you don't have a compatible vehicle, you can still use a seat belt to secure the seat.

Another point to consider is the fit of the seat. Not only should you think about how long the seat will fit your child, you should also be sure it will fit into your car. You can research this with the Car Seat Compatibility Database. If you have found several that seem to be a good fit, look at the seat itself. Will your baby be comfortable in it? Is it soft and cozy? Does it have metal part that might burn tender skin if it has been in the sun? Is it going to be easy to keep clean?

Car Seat Safety

It is always safest to get a new car seat for your baby. If you must get a used one, be sure it is less than six years old to be sure it meets current safety standards. If it has ever been in an accident, do not use it. Its safety will be compromised. You should also check to see if the model you are considering has been the subject of a recall. Check this out at the Office of Defects Investigation website.

Once you have your baby's car seat, be sure that you know how to install it properly in your car. Often, police departments have an officer who can provide a free check to assure your car seat is safe to use and correctly installed in your car. You can find an inspector near you by visiting www.SeatCheck.org and entering your zip code.

Many hospitals and police departments will provide free car seats for low income families. Call before your baby is born to see if this is a possibility for you. If you wait until it is time to bring Baby home, you may find that the hospital won't let you leave unless you have an approved seat. You don't want your baby's homecoming spoiled by a last minute, frantic trip to find a car seat. Do your homework and plan ahead and that first car trip will go much more smoothly.

Kathleen Roberts is a freelance writer/editor specializing in health and parenting topics. She is the mother of five beautiful children who all live happily on their family farm in Colorado.

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