Congratulations! You’re expecting a baby! Now comes the fun part of buying all that plastic stuff that comes with the baby: the bouncers, the rattles and toys, the day prisons, er, pack and plays, the swings, the high chairs . . . You get the picture. There’s a tremendous amount of baby gear out there and when you’re in that initial state of shock, you feel like you have to buy it all. At some point you throw your hands up in the air and just start grabbing because you really are overwhelmed. As a parent of two, I’ve been there, done that twice. It’s amazing what you forget after your first! But when it comes to your child’s safety, you shouldn’t simply grab a carseat off the shelf because you’ve given up hope of figuring out what you need. Let’s take a look at how to narrow down your choices.
What is an infant seat?
It’s a rear-facing-only carseat that has a handle and, in most cases a base. You can still get what we call a “program seat”: a carseat from an agency to help low income families, that doesn’t have a base. But it’s rare. Some people call an infant seat a“bucket seat,” or a “carrier.” Doesn’t matter—it’s all the same thing. You say tomato, I say tomato. Oops, that doesn’t translate very well in print, does it?
The base is installed in the vehicle and left there for eternity. Or what seems like eternity until grandpa sits in the backseat and accidentally pops the buckle and you panic because suddenly the carseat is loose! You’ll occasionally see someone in a pediatrician’s office carrying the whole shebang, base included, which is pretty funny until you realize that they probably aren’t installing it correctly when they get back to their car – and that’s a scary thought. For the record, most infant seats can be installed without the base (there are exceptions so make sure you know what you can and can’t do with your particular infant carseat model). Installing the carrier without the base is very convenient if you’re traveling on an airplane or in a taxi or in a friend’s car. However, installing the carseat properly every time you put it in the vehicle gets old fast and greatly increases the risk of making a mistake or forgetting a critical step. By using a base, you generally install it once properly and therefore eliminate the chance for installation error that you get when you repeatedly install a carseat. It’s normal to think that you would never “forget” something important but even CPS Techs and seasoned parents can make mistakes sometimes if they’re not careful ;).
The base can be installed using EITHER the vehicle’s seatbelt OR the LATCH strap. You can’t use both at the same time. You’ll need to check the vehicle and carseat owners’ manuals to see if you can use LATCH in the middle of the back seat if that’s where you want to install the carseat. Some allow it, some don’t, but the key thing is that BOTH manufacturers have to allow it at the same time. One of the most common mistakes we see is using LATCH in the middle position when it can’t be used there. If you can’t use LATCH, you’ll need to install the base with the seatbelt*. Remember that point. I put an asterisk there so you know to do so.
Key features to look for
- Energy Absorbing Foam (EPS or EPP foam): Pull back the cover around the head area and look for white or black Styrofoam. This is energy absorbing foam and is a good thing. You want this, but it does add to the cost of a carseat. Dorel (Safety 1st, Maxi-Cosi) also uses an energy absorbing technology in some of their carseats called Air Protect® that looks like plastic-encased squishy gray foam in the head area.
- Front Harness Adjuster Strap: Look for a pull strap at the front of the seat where the child’s feet go. This is called the “harness adjuster strap.” You will be using this strap EVERY SINGLE RIDE so it’s important that you find a carseat with it on the front of the seat. There are still infant seats made with back harness adjusters and unless you live in a climate that doesn’t change much, you’ll tire of those adjusters very quickly.
- Smooth Harness Adjuster: Pull on the front adjuster strap and see how smoothly it pulls. Is it like slicing through butter with a hot knife? Or are you actually using muscles? There are infant seats on the market with both kinds of adjusters and the ones with stubborn adjusters will only get worse with a child in the seat.
- Weight: That infant seat may only weigh 10 lbs. now, but when you put your 15 lbs. baby in it later, it’s going to weigh 25 lbs. If you have an SUV, think about schlepping 25 lbs. up into it, over and over. Yeah. Who needs a gym?
- Canopy: How does the canopy adjust? Is there much of a canopy? It may not matter much if you’re installing the carseat in the middle of a van or SUV, but if it’s going into a small sedan, the sunlight will be in baby’s face. You can always drape a baby blanket over the top of the handle, but finding a seat with a good canopy to begin with if you’re going to need one is worth it.
- Low Bottom Harness Slots: The harness slots should be at or below the baby’s shoulders on any rear-facing carseat. Some infant seats have bottom harness slots that are pretty high for newborns; these bottom slots will come out above a noob’s shoulders meaning that the noob doesn’t fit in the carseat. If you know your baby will be early or on the small side, look for bottom harness slots that are 6” or lower (and check out our Recommended Carseats List for Preemies & Multiples).
- Anti-Rebound: What’s that? Rebound is when the carseat rotates up around the seatbelt/LATCH belt during a crash and hits the back seat. Some bases are designed to have anti-rebound features. They either have an anti-rebound bar or are taller where they meet the vehicle seat back to keep them from rotating up. Rebound is normal movement in a rear-facing carseat (there’s nothing securing the carseat at the child’s head!), so anti-rebound is considered extra protection.
- Built-In Lockoffs: *Remember from earlier about using the seatbelt to install the base if you can’t use LATCH? This is the time when you’ll want to have a base with a built-in lockoff. The lockoff will hold the seatbelt tight for every day driving and will make installation a breeze. Some lockoffs clamp down on the seatbelt while with others, you slide the seatbelt into them.
Now you know about features. Is that all you need to know? Yes and no. There’s a lot more, believe it or not.
How do I know the carseat I choose is the safest one? Are there any ratings?
The safest carseat is the one that fits your vehicle the best, fits your child the best, and has features that allows you to use it correctly each and every ride. It goes without saying that it has to fit in your budget ;). What does that child passenger safety mantra mean? The very best thing you can do for your child, above all else, is to make sure your carseat fits in your vehicle with less than 1” of movement at the belt path. The carseat must also fit your child well. Not every child will fit in every carseat. OMGosh, how am I going to know if my baby fits in the seat when she’s not even here yet? That’s why you find a carseat that’s easily adjustable and has low bottom harness slots.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has Ease of Use ratings for carseats, but those cover labels, instructions, securing the child, and installation features. I have found the ratings to be overly harsh in areas and not harsh enough in others.
Consumer Reports is famous for its carseat ratings every other year or so. While they’ve identified real problems in the past, such as infant seats that detach from their bases during crashes, Consumer Reports doesn’t tell the public how they conduct their tests nor do they tell us what their circles mean. A half-circle could mean 50% or it could mean 35% and that’s a vast difference in quality. Again it comes down to how well the carseat fits in your vehicle. If the carseat isn’t tight to your vehicle, crash energy is transferred to your child. We want everything snug in child passenger safety: tight to vehicle, child snug to carseat so the vehicle can eliminate as much of the crash forces as possible.
Should I get the biggest infant seat?
There are infant seats that go to 22 lbs. maximum weight limit and infant seats that go to 40 lbs. maximum weight limit and everything else in between. Doesn’t it make sense to get the biggest seat you can afford? Perhaps. Getting the biggest infant seat means that you will use it for a longer time than you would a smaller infant seat. But it also means that the carrier itself is heavier and the child sitting in it will be heavier. At some point, it will become a carseat that you leave in the vehicle for the most part simply because it’s too heavy to carry around. On the other hand, it will remain highly portable for longer, so it will be easier to travel with and more useful if you use taxis. Simply pop it on a stroller frame and go.
If you drive a small car or truck with a small back seat, you may have trouble getting one of the bigger infant seats to fit in the back seat. The Cybex Aton and Chicco KeyFit 30 are two infant seats that have maximum weight limits of 30 lbs. that fit very well into tight back seats.
Many manufacturers now allow the handles on their infant seats to remain in the UP position when the carseat is in the vehicle, but there are still a few that require the handle to be down. When the handle is down, it takes up 2-3” of precious front seat space unless you are able to rotate the handle all the way to the floor of the vehicle. This terrific resource from SafetyBeltSafe USA lists the positions the handles must be in the vehicle.
Ah yes, now we talk about strollers because you’ll most likely want one. You’ve probably heard your friends talk about travel systems—matching infant seats and strollers. It’s an idea that’s been around for a very long time—at least 13 years, because I had one for my first child! I know they’ve improved a lot since I had mine, but I can say truthfully that I hated mine with a passion. The stroller sucked. It was big and bulky and plasticky and rolled over countless people’s toes. Given what I know now, I highly suggest buying an infant seat separately from the stroller. There are inexpensive stroller frames you can buy to hold the infant seat when you’re out and about. Or, look into other manufacturer’s strollers. There are hundreds of strollers on the market and all of the higher end manufacturers have adapters for various infant seats. Research your stroller as much as you’ll research your carseat, then come back and thank me :). I wish someone had given me this advice so many years ago.
Sharing infant seats
Perhaps not so much anymore with the advent of infant seats going to 35+ pounds, but infant seats are the least used carseats in terms of time. Kidlets grow so fast that they’re out these smaller seats around age 1, typically. Your mileage may vary, of course, depending on which carseat you buy. Both of my kiddos were out of their 22 lbs. infant seats by the end of 4 months. Chubbos! This means that infant seats are often shared among family members and friends because they are expensive and they last for 5-6 years, depending on the manufacturer. If you borrow an infant seat, check it out as you would a brand new carseat. You want the very best safety-wise for your baby, so don’t hold back. Ask yourself: Do I trust the person who gave me this seat with my child’s life? Ask the person if the carseat has been in a crash. If so, it needs to be thrown out in a black garbage bag. If the straps have been washed, how have they been washed? Just wiped down with a wet washcloth? Great. Thrown in the washing machine? You’ll need a new set of harness straps. Has the carseat been bleached or sprayed with a chemical like Febreze? Uh oh. Bad news. Do you see mold? There’s no way to get rid of mold. Toss it. Is there an instruction manual? Without a doubt, the infant seat is still set up for the last child who used it and you’ll need a manual to help you get it set back for a newborn.
Favorite infant seats
Finally, what do we recommend? Do we have favorites? Of course we do! We install these things day in and day out! Our fingers get numb from the sheer number of infant seats we install on a weekly basis. I’m sure, due to recent weather patterns, we’ll see a huge increase of infant seat installs in 9 months ;). My point is, there are lots of infant seats from which to choose on the market and please look at more than just the fabric because one day your child’s life may depend on how easily you were able to put your child snugly in the seat and how easily you were able to install the seat properly in your vehicle. It really doesn’t have to match your nursery theme!