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Having A Baby? Here Are the Carseat Basics You Need to Know

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Carseat 101

pg hwYou’ve peed on the stick and found out you’re pregnant. Yay! (Or not. Who am I to say?) You’ve gone to Target, Buy Buy Baby, and Amazon.com and registered for every single baby item under the sun that’s plastic and can be sanitized and trust me, it all coordinates, right? Now you’ve come down to the final weeks and it’s panic time when you realize this baby is coming out one way or another and you have to get it home. You just stick Baby in the carseat and go, right? No. Nope. No way, new parent. You are now attending Carseat 101 and there will be a quiz at the end. I have no doubt you will pass with flying colors!

First, let’s go over some vocab you’ll need for the next, oh, decade or so. Yeah, baby, your precious is going to be in a seat for a loonngg time. In chronological order, please:

Rear-facing only infant seat:

This carseat is used for newborns to sometimes toddlerhood. It’s easily identified by its handle, canopy, and left-in-the-car base. The carrier portion fits onto the base.

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Convertible seat:

This carseat can be used for newborns, but is often used after a child outgrows a rear-facing only seat. It rear-faces, then converts to forward-facing for older kids.

GracoSize4Me70newborn2  

Combination (harness-to-booster) seat:

This carseat is for older kids, the kind who order combo meals at fast food restaurants (and yes, you too, will succumb to buying your child a grease-loaded meal item at some point). A combo seat FORWARD-FACES ONLY. It has a harness to keep wiggly kids safe, then the harness comes off (many store on the seat itself now) and it can be a belt-positioning booster. See why it’s for older kids only? It combines a harness and a booster into one seat. You don’t always need a combo seat. Sometimes your child can go straight from a convertible seat to a belt-positioning booster, depending on which convertible she uses and how old and big she is.

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Belt-positioning booster seat:

This carseat is for kids who nearly have gray hair. Just kidding. Barely. The purpose of a booster seat is to boost a kid up higher so that the vehicle’s lap and shoulder belt will fit them superbly over their bones, not their soft bellies. Kids have to have a certain amount of maturity in order to sit still in a vehicle seat belt and that comes around ages 4-6, depending on the child. Most parents find their kids transitioning out of a harness around ages 5-6, when “real” school starts, not that “pre-“ stuff. There are highback and backless varieties of boosters. Highbacks are great for the younger crowd because they provide head and torso support for sleeping. Backless boosters are harder to see from outside the car, so older, image-conscious kids like them better. Kids use booster seats until they can 5-step—fit in the belt like an adult—which is when they get to be the size of a small adult, around age 10-11.

lap and shoulder belt fit  

Let’s identify that you’ve gotten the right carseat for you. It used to be that an infant seat was an infant seat was an infant seat. Basically, all the carriers did more or less the same thing—it was the bases that distinguished them. Now we have carriers that fit small babies very well, some that don’t, some that have no-rethread harnesses, some that have canopies that disappear, and some still hanging around that fit kids up to 40 lbs. There’s quite a variety from which to choose and that can cause more confusion than ever! What’s my very first piece of advice to you in this area? Don’t insist on a travel system. Pick the very best rear-facing only seat that will work for you, then pick the very best stroller you can afford and put them together. Many strollers come with adapters and with a little bit of research on their website, you can find if the infant seat you want will fit on the stroller you want. The patterns may not match perfectly, but you will get a much better stroller this way usually unless you buy a high-end infant seat/stroller combo to begin with. I speak from experience: you don’t want to be stuck with a stroller you hate for years because you wanted to be all matchy-matchy with an infant seat you use for months. To help you in your search, we have both thorough, professional reviews and a list of our favorite seats.

Most of the time you will know if you’re going to have a small, average, or large baby by the end of your 40 weeks. If you and your partner are small folks and come from small families, genetics won’t let you down. Look for a rear-facing only seat that starts with a low birth weight of 4 lbs. It’s the same if you’re having a difficult pregnancy or if you’re having multiples. Fortunately, there are lots of rear-facing only seats that now have a minimum weight limit of 4 lbs., but they don’t always fit the preemie-sized babies well. We have a list of our favorite seats that fit preemies and multiples. If you’re having an average- or large-sized baby, any infant seat will do, though you’ll get more bang for your buck with a larger one. The size of your vehicle also has to be factored in since the larger the infant seat, the more space it takes up in the vehicle.

Now for some answers to common questions:

Safest Family Minivans and SUVs for 2019 with 3rd Row Seats

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Safest Family Vehicles for 7 or 8 Passengers in 2019

Are safety and seating at least a few kids your most important considerations when selecting a new vehicle?  You aren’t alone!  Sure, it looks great that the model you want has an IIHS Top Safety Pick “Plus” award, but for many vehicles, this award only applies to top trim levels with options packages that may cost a fortune if you can even find one on a dealer’s lot.  Plus, a top IIHS rating doesn’t always mean top crash test results from the NHTSA.  SafeDad helps you shorten the list of dozens of very safe 7+ passenger vehicles to just a handful of the safest and most family friendly models for 2019.  We also identify which ones can be inexpensively equipped with the necessary features to qualify for top safety awards, such that you can find one properly equipped at a local dealer.

For 2019, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety not only requires a “Good” result in the driver-side small overlap crash test to qualify for a “Top Safety Pick+” rating, but now also requires a “Good” headlight rating as well a “Good” rating in the newer passenger-side small overlap crash test.  Models that earn an “Acceptable” headlight or passenger-side small overlap test rating can earn the “Top Safety Pick” rating only.  The IIHS also demands a front crash prevention system.  These systems are not all created equal; some are only basic warnings that no longer qualify for an award, while advanced ones can actually brake in emergency situations and some are more likely to avoid a crash than lesser systems.  To earn IIHS awards, an auto-brake system with an “Advanced” or “Superior” rating is still required. The IIHS claims that most automakers have pledged to make these features standard by 2022 or earlier, though some already do.

The NHTSA ratings remain the same in 2019, with a 5-star overall rating based on two frontal crash tests, four side impact tests and a non-crash rollover risk rating.  It’s not always clear how the individual crash test results affect the overall rating, so we must rely on the overall rating to separate our qualifiers from the rest of the pack.

Subaru and Honda have set a nice trend for inexpensive advanced safety feature packages available on low and mid trim levels.  This year, we again recognize Toyota for making all these features standard on all trim levels of nearly all of their vehicles. That means even the least expensive Highlander and Sienna models now have advanced crash avoidance features for 2018 and 2019, making these important improvements to safety easy to find on dealer’s lots!

Many publications only use either the NHTSA crash tests OR the IIHS ratings as the basis for their recommendations, leaving an incomplete assessment of overall safety.  Some are subjective and apply different standards based on personal preferences or corporate sponsors.  So how do we filter the list of so many family vehicles that have earned safety awards?  It’s very simple and completely objective:

What 3-row vehicles make the cut to qualify for our awards?  Even with new IIHS Top Safety Pick requirements, a record 14 make the cut in this review, up from 10 in last year’s guide.  Some models simply lack test results and may be added later. For example, many very safe luxury models like the Volvo XC90 have not been tested in the newer IIHS passenger-side small overlap crash test or the NHTSA crash testing.  Other very safe 3-row vehicles miss our requirements simply due to a “Marginal” headlight rating that prevented them from earning an IIHS Top Safety Pick award.  The Audi Q7, Volkswagen Atlas and GMC Acadia AWD would all be standout qualifiers other than this minor shortcoming.  Slightly larger than many other midsize crossover SUVs, these models are all definitely worth considering as well.  Our threshold for qualification is high, but based upon objective IIHS and NHTSA ratings that are well known to manufacturers.

As a testament to how safe all these vehicles are for families, we recommend nearly all of the 2019 qualifiers as well as those Honorable Mentions that fell a little short, usually only in terms of the IIHS headlight ratings. The exception is the Mitsubishi Outlander, due to its relatively small size and various restrictions that make installations of multiple carseats more difficult than the others on the list.  If your vehicle is not on the list, that doesn’t mean it is unsafe!  That said, here are the finalists:

  1. 2014-2018 Acura MDX
  2. 2017-2019 Chrysler Pacifica
  3. 2018-2019 Honda Odyssey
  4. 2016-2019 Honda Pilot
  5. 2018 Hyundai Santa Fe
  6. 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe XL
  7. 2017-2018 Kia Sedona
  8. 2018-2019 Kia Sorento
  9. 2018 Lexus RX
  10. 2018-2019 Mazda CX-9
  11. 2017-2019 Mitsubishi Outlander
  12. 2019 Nissan Pathfinder
  13. 2019 Subaru Ascent
  14. 2017-2019 Toyota Highlander

For our top pick, we give preference to models that have already received a “Good” result in the newer passenger side small overlap crash test.  A top-rated frontal crash avoidance system that earns a 6-point “Superior” rating is also an advantage, as are STANDARD active crash avoidance features and flexible seating for passengers and car seats.  For our runners-up and honorable mentions, we do not place as much emphasis on non-crash test results, such as headlight ratings.

And the Safest 2019 3-row Family Vehicle is:

2018-2019 Honda Odyssey. The 2018-19 Odyssey is among a handful of qualifiers to receive a “Good” IIHS Small Overlap frontal crash test result for both driver and passenger sides.  In addition, it has stellar results in all the IIHS and NHTSA crash tests.  Its long overdue “Superior” front crash prevention system avoided crashes in both IIHS tests and is STANDARD on the EX trim level and up starting in 2018.  The Odyssey’s only blemish is headlight coverage that kept it from an IIHS TSP “Plus” award, as it earned an “Acceptable” rating on Touring and Elite trims only.

While the EX and EX-L trims have only a “Marginal” headlight rating, they are still an impressive value for excellent safety with standard front crash prevention and top crash test results for around $34,000.  Also, in our opinion, the Magic Slide feature is very handy, and Odyssey is still the best family hauler on the market in terms of fitting multiple child safety seats.  In that regard, it’s also one of the few 3-row vehicles to earn the IIHS “G+” rating for ease-of-use with its plentiful top tether and lower car seat anchors.  The increased weight and larger dimensions may also be a benefit in terms of crash safety over a midsize SUV, while that added interior space makes those SUVs pale in comparison when looking at flexibility for passengers and cargo.

Finding a Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST)

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We recently held a big child passenger safety education and carseat giveaway event in my city where we gave out 241 carseats. It was awesome reaching so many families and making sure that their children are riding more safely than before they came to the event. Many of the parents told me they had only heard of the event that morning on the news, which was great, but we had been heavily advertising it on social media and at the school where it was held. I was disheartened because we had been heavily advertising the event, but we hadn’t hit our target audience. How can parents find the help they need?

We’re fortunate to have regular monthly carseat checkup events in my city. I know in many places, weather makes it so that events have to be cancelled during the colder months (we dial it back during the hot months!). That means parents, caregivers, and professionals who work with them come to expect these events and know they’ll be taking place. But what about other locations around the country? How do you find CPS technicians or events to help you?

I bet you’ve heard to go to the fire department or police station to have your carseat installed; however, many firefighters and police officers aren’t trained. In fact, they’ve probably installed their own carseats incorrectly! In my major city, we have 0-zero-zilch currently certified firefighters and 1 city police officer, though we do have many highway patrol and school police officers certified as technicians. Though every community is different, we’re pretty average when I compare notes with other CPSTs around the country. Some communities may have a few firefighters and cops trained, but on the whole, the budget isn’t there to pay them for events.

So how do you find someone in your community to help you with your carseats if you can’t run to the nearest fire or police station?

First, look for a Safe Kids coalition near you; they will often have checkup events. Not every coalition has checkup events, though, and not every checkup event is sponsored by a Safe Kids coalition. As long as you have certified technicians on hand to check your carseats and educate you, you’re good to go!

Even though police and firefighters may not be trained as CPS technicians, they partner with us because they want everyone to be safe. Following their social media pages makes it more likely that you’ll hear about which events they support.

Following the social media pages of local mom and playgroup groups can give you a heads-up on events happening too, though you have to be really careful because it seems bad child passenger safety advice on these groups spreads like wildfire while good advice spreads like a molasses spill. However, when we have events, we try to spread the word to these groups because we want *you* to know about them.

One way you can find carseat help is through an inspection station. Inspection stations are “permanent” locations where you usually make an appointment with a CPST. They can be anywhere that has a CPST on staff, such as a retail store, AAA location, hospital, or a family resource center.

For those of you who prefer to have a customized experience at home, there are techs who will take an appointment with you, either for free or for a fee. Usually you’ll hear about these techs through word-of-mouth or they’ll filter through your social media feeds. Another way to find a tech is on the National Child Passenger Safety Certification website. The key to using this search engine is to be as broad as possible; the more specific you are, the more likely you are to confuse the search and not find someone near you. For instance, enter your county and state only instead of your zip code. CPS Certification also posts facts and other tidbits on their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/CPScert .

The internet is obviously a way to get personalized help with your carseats and our forums at car-seat.org are the OG place where techs used to hang out. There are Facebook groups to handle carseat questions, but you have to weed through well-intentioned responses that may not have accurate information. Some manufacturers offer help in the form of video chat so you can show their techs up close your carseat installation and child fitting in their carseat. Since more manufacturers add this support feature each year, check with yours but Evenflo and Dorel are currently two of the manufacturers who actively use it.

There are a tens of thousands of us across the US and Canada (and around the world!) who want to help you keep your children safe as you drive each day. We’re out there and we’re not hiding!

Load Legs 101: What Is a Load Leg?

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Load Legs—Foot Props—Stability Legs

Load legs were first introduced to Americans in 2004 by Britax on the Baby Safe, a short-lived rear-facing only seat popular in Europe, but we weren’t quite ready for it. It had an anti-rebound bar, rigid LATCH, and a load leg: things American consumers simply didn’t understand, or want to pay the hefty price tag for at the time. Today’s shoppers are more sophisticated and researching such features is second-nature now.

Let’s address why load legs—aka foot props or stability legs—exist. Here on this side of the Atlantic, we find them on rear-facing only infant seats, but in Europe, you will find them also on forward-facing carseats. Load legs limit downward rotation toward the front of the vehicle. Statistically, frontal crashes account for the majority of crashes so we design carseats to protect children in them. Carseats move toward the point of impact, so rear-facing carseats rotate down and toward the front of the vehicle in a frontal impact.

According to FMVSS 213, the safety standard to which all U.S. carseats are tested, rear-facing carseats may rotate downward up to 70° and still pass testing. During this downward rotation, the child will also ramp up (slide up) the carseat. As the child slides up the seat, crash forces are felt in the neck and shoulders as they make contact with the harness.

Harnesses, seat belts, and LATCH belt webbing are designed to stretch for energy management. This stretching of the webbing—plus any removal of slack in the harness—and vehicle seat cushion compression causing downward rotation, is called “payout.” Payout happens before ride down, which is when the carseat and vehicle come to a stop. The more movement a child has during a crash, the more chance for injury, which is why child passenger safety technicians emphasize snug harnesses and installations. Eliminating the downward rotation by using a load leg means the child stays down in the seat and payout is reduced. This is a good thing because the less time that’s spent on payout, the more time that’s spent on ride down, which is when the carseat itself starts absorbing energy. The carseat stays more upright allowing the back of the carseat to absorb energy instead of the harness; the crash forces are distributed along the child’s back instead of concentrated on the neck and shoulders.

Another benefit from load legs, especially in smaller vehicles, is that by allowing the carseat to stay more upright in a crash, there’s less of a chance a child will ramp up and out of the carseat and strike the vehicle interior with their head. Head injuries lead the list of injuries to rear-facing children in vehicle crashes.

The video below compares a Cybex Aton 2 without its load leg to an Aton 2 with its load leg. You can see how a load leg affects downward rotation. Be sure to notice the position of the dummy’s head on each side of the video.

Another thing to point out with load legs involves FMVSS 213 and testing with load legs. The test sled for 213 doesn’t have a floor, so load legs can’t officially be included in federal testing. When manufacturers test their carseats with load legs, they add a floor piece onto the sled so the load leg has a place to rest. This is why load legs aren’t required to be used and bases with this accessory have a storage area for them to be tucked away.

What about Rebound?