CHP officer with mom and child in car seat
Congratulations! You’re about to have (or maybe recently have had) a brand new addition to your family!
You’re probably already overwhelmed with advice and things to do. But, you surely know that your new baby’s safety will be a top priority. Read on to find out what you’ll need to know to choose the right car seat for your little one and keep him or her safe in the car for months and years to come.
Please note that in this article, we focus specifically on advice about car seats for newborns. See the links below for information that pertains to children of any age, from newborn to all the way up!
There’s no law or requirement that says you must use an infant carrier-type seat for a newborn. Most parents do choose this style for baby’s first seat, but this is all a matter of personal preference and convenience. If you plan to babywear or use a stroller, and leave the car seat in the car, there’s nothing wrong with going straight to a rear-facing convertible seat. As long as it fits baby correctly (see the next page), a rear-facing convertible is just as safe as an infant seat. If a hospital employee states that you are not allowed to leave the hospital without an infant seat, they are not correct.
A convertible seat can also be a more budget-friendly choice. Whereas most babies outgrow the infant seat within the first year (and will then need a convertible seat anyway in order to remain rear-facing until at least age 2), a convertible could be used for 5 or 6 years, maybe even longer.
Virtually all infant seats have a 4- or 5-pound minimum weight limit. You might be surprised to learn that this doesn’t necessarily mean a baby of that weight will fit safely in the seat. Why? Because for any rear-facing child, the straps need to come out of the shell from at or below their shoulders. If the lowest harness slots are too high, they can easily wind up being above a newborn’s shoulders. If so, that means they don’t yet fit safely in that seat, and cannot yet ride in it.
Whether you choose a convertible or an infant seat, make sure that it’s one that is appropriate for your tiny new little. Visit the links below for some ideas of seats to check out.
Photo by Jeff Glucker
One of the best things about an infant carrier seat is the base. You install it in the car, and then you can lift the whole seat in and out of the base as needed. This makes it easier to avoid waking the sleeping baby, and convenient to snap the seat into a stroller or carry it somewhere.
However, there are a few things that most new parents don’t seem to know about this nifty feature.
Sometime during the first year, your baby may start to get too big for the infant seat. If you didn’t choose a convertible from the beginning, well, you need one now! Children must be rear-facing until at least age 2 to ride safely, and preferably up to age 4.
Like I said, the infant seat base is intended as a convenience. Once you move to a convertible seat, the days of popping it in and out of the base are pretty much over. While there have been a couple of attempts at making convertible seats with stay-in-car bases, none are particularly long-lasting, and then tend to be pretty expensive compared to typical convertibles with the same features and limits.
Whenever you choose to start using the convertible seat, you’ll want one for each car your baby rides in regularly. Moving one convertible back and forth frequently (more than a few times a month) is not only a pain, it also increases the chance of installation errors. Many parents choose one convertible seat with more comfort and convenience features for their primary vehicle, and a more basic model for any secondary vehicles that will be used less often.
Photo by Chris Chavira
Every time you go to the grocery store, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll see at least one infant car seat perched on top of a shopping cart. This is very common practice, so most people don’t even give it a second thought. However, putting the seat there is actually very dangerous. Hit one unexpected bump and the seat can easily fall to the floor. It also makes the cart top-heavy and can cause the whole cart to topple over without warning. Babies have suffered skull fractures and other severe injuries from incidents like this. This mom's story was more than enough to convince me never to put the seat on top of the cart.
Your car seat manual will very likely specify not to do this, and there’s usually also a warning against it on the cart itself. Even if it seems like the seat “clicks” onto the cart securely, it doesn’t stop it from being top-heavy, and attaching the seat to something it’s not designed to attach to can damage the locking mechanism and prevent it from holding the seat into the base in a crash.
Remember how your parents told you that if your friends jumped off a bridge it doesn’t mean you should do it too? Same idea—just because all the other parents put the seat on top of the cart, that doesn’t make it a safe thing to do. So, don’t do it. Ever.
Everyone wants to get their money’s worth out of any purchase. So you went and bought a car seat that could be used to, say, 30 or 35 pounds. Sounds good, right? 35 pounds is approximately the average weight of a 3½ -year-old! But here’s the thing: seats also have height limits. Usually, for an infant seat, that limit is 30 or 32 inches. That’s average for about 12 to 18 months old. They must also have at least 1” of the shell above their head to keep using the infant seat.
As long as you keep within the seat limits, there’s nothing unsafe about maxing out the infant seat (or any car seat, for that matter). Just remember that height, weight, AND amount of space above the child’s head are all important for any rear-facing seat. Once any one of these limits is met, the seat is outgrown. My son hit 30” around 17 months (and at that time we had to stop using his infant seat), but he’s just now reaching the 30 pound weight limit for that seat, at almost 4 years old. The difference between outgrowing by weight or height can be huge!
I know, that booklet of directions that came with your car seat probably looks boring. But, take the time to read it anyway. All of it. It’s tempting to think “Hey, it’s just a car seat, how hard could it be?” Answer: pretty hard. Somewhere between 70 and 90% of car seats are installed incorrectly, and yet according to the NHTSA, 96% of parents believe their seats are correct.
So, sit down and read the darn manual. Download it on your phone from the manufacturer’s website. Take it on vacation for a relaxing beach read. Peruse it over a romantic candlelit dinner with your significant other. Whatever floats your boat, as long as you read it! Your baby’s safety depends on your knowledge here. It really is worth the time.
Like I said on the previous page, car seats are more complicated than they seem. That’s why Safe Kids Worldwide offers a four-day intensive course for people who want to become certified as Child Passenger Safety Technicians, or CPSTs. CPSTs are also required to recertify every two years.
People from lots of different fields are trained as CPSTs, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that anyone with a certain job title is qualified to give car seat advice. SOME pediatricians, nurses, baby store employees, firefighters, police officers, and paramedics are also CPSTs, but the vast majority are not. Don’t buy into the myth that “you can just take your car seat to get installed at the fire/police station.” I personally know very knowledgeable volunteer CPSTs whose “day jobs” include a mail carrier, a web developer, a college professor, a casino games supervisor, and a receptionist at a tractor dealership.
Visit the Safe Kids website to find a certified CPST. Their services are often free, and they can answer your questions and teach you to install and use your seat correctly. If your baby hasn’t yet arrived, I suggest setting up this meeting for at least a month ahead of your due date so you can be sure you’re ready.
Congrats again, and best of luck in your new life as a parent!