Expectant parents often consult child passenger safety (CPS) technicians to help them decide on a car seat to get for the coming baby. New moms, dads, and grandparents routinely ask me: “Did I get a good seat?” Here’s information about car seat selection for your new passenger.

What is a “good” car seat?

All car seats are required to meet federal safety standards. So, while they may look different, all car seats do the job of protecting your child.

The best seat for any child is one that:

  • Fits the child’s age, size, and developmental level;
  • Fits the vehicle(s) where it will be installed; and 
  • Will be used correctly each time.

Some seats have convenience features that may make it easier for you to install and use properly. And, of course you will also consider your budget. 

What do most parents choose for a newborn?

The majority of seats I see for newborns are rear-facing-only “infant” seats, or “carriers.”

You may carry these with handle. They include a base that you install in your vehicle. The carrier can be snapped in and out of multiple vehicles with their own bases. You may also often snap them into a stroller. Many infant seats are designed for a child as small as 4 pounds (and up to 30 or 35 lbs.), but some children will outgrow the seat by the time they are 12-18 months old.

Some parents skip the rear-facing-only seat and start their child in a multi-mode car seat; that is, a convertible, 3-in-1, or all-in-one car seat.

While these seats must be rear-facing for a newborn, they can be moved forward-facing for older children who have outgrown either the weight limit or the height limit for rear facing.

A 3-in-1, or all-in-one seat, also becomes a booster, meaning it might be the only car seat your child ever needs. These seats are one-piece units designed to stay in the vehicle. Checking for the proper recline angle and the fit in the vehicle is important. Read both the car seat and the vehicle owner’s manual for specific information.

Whichever option you choose, a hospital is likely to ask you to bring the seat to the maternity unit ahead of discharge.

You and staff will check to make sure your baby fits in the seat. That means that the harness straps are at or below the child’s shoulders and can be made snug enough that you can’t pinch any of the harness webbing at your child’s collarbone. If you are not using a rear-facing only seat, someone might go to your car with you to help fit your child into the seat. Many convertible seats will fit a child as small as 4 or 5 pounds, but the seat may require specific adjustments or accessories (from the manufacturer) for a newborn. Finding out car side that the seat requires a lot of adjusting or does not fit your child at all is not ideal.

What about used seats?

You should always know the history of a car seat. Do not use one that has been involved in a crash. A close friend or family member may be relied upon, but not a stranger at a garage sale or online.

  • Make sure the seat has manufacturer’s labels so you can check for expiration date and recalls.
  • Don’t use a seat with cracks in the shell or if it is missing parts.

To quote the Vermont Health Department’s Be Seat Smart website: “Remember, you are trusting this seat with the life of your child!”

The bottom line?

The safest seat is the one that fits your child, fits your vehicle, and can be used properly every time.

Children are safest when restrained rear-facing for as long as possible. This is true whether parents select an infant or multi-mode seat. A change in seat does not necessarily mean a change in the direction of the seat. Always read the labels and the instructions for the car seat and review your vehicle owner’s manual.

Here are additional resources to help you with car seat safety – selection, direction, location, installation, and harnessing.

Maureen Johnson, CSP, CPST-I, is a Child Passenger Safety Specialist at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

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