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The Safety Restraint Coalition

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Choosing a Child Restraint

Parents often ask “Which car seat is best for my child?” All child restraints sold in our country must pass the same Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. The “best” car seat for you is one that achieves a safe installation in your vehicle, fits your child’s growth needs, and is easy for you to use correctly every time. Consider the following when choosing a car seat:

1. What type of car seat should your child use?

There are different types of child restraints for the different stages of a child’s development. The weight and age ranges list below are averages, some seats vary.

Rear-facing Infant Seat

Rear-Facing Infant Seat

Infant seats are designed for a parent’s comfort in transporting babies. They can ONLY be used rear-facing. Generally, infant seats fit babies who weigh 5-22 pounds. There are many models on the market that accommodate a lower minimum weight (4 pounds) and a maximum weight of up to 35 pounds, who are less than 26 – 32 inches tall, depending on the model.

All infant seats have a handle to use to carry the baby. Extras, such as deluxe fabric or comfort foam may increase the cost of the seat without offering more safety. Infant seats will have one of these types of harness systems:

3-Point Harness
Two shoulder straps, one crotch strap

5-Point Harness
Two shoulder straps, two hip straps, one crotch strap

Compared to convertible seats

Advantages: a carrying handle, can be used to rock the baby, attach to strollers and may lift off a base that remains in the car.

Disadvantages: you must purchase a convertible car seat when the baby reaches the upper weight limit of the car seat or when the baby's head is within one inch of the top of the seat.

Convertible Car Seat

Generally, these seats accommodate children between 5-40 pounds and up to approximately 40 inches. Some models now accommodate a child weighing 50, 65 or even 80 pounds. Convertible seats will have one of these types of harness systems:

  • 5-point (two shoulder straps, two hip straps, one crotch strap)
  • Tray-shield (which takes the place of the hip straps)
Convertible Forward Facing

Convertible seats are used rear-facing in a reclined angle for children up to about age two and then convert to an upright forward-facing seat for older children. Many convertible car seats allow for rear-facing use (the safest way to ride) until 30-35 pounds. Weight and height limits can be found on a label on the side of the seat.

Compared to infant seats

Advantages: Requires purchasing only one seat for a child from birth to approximately 40 pounds/40 inches.

Disadvantages: It is not easy to install a rear-facing convertible seat in many vehicles. It is not easy to remove the seat from the car and use it to carry a sleeping baby. It does not have a sun shade or attach to a stroller, and some may not fit a newborn infant as well as an infant seat would.

A 5-point harness is the best choice for a newborn.

Seats with a tray-shield or T-shield don't fit a small baby's body as well. The shield may end up in front of the baby's face or across the neck. A shield may also hold the harness straps too far away from a small newborn's body.

Forward-facing Car Seats

Forward-Facing Car Seat

Forward-facing (FF) “toddler” or “combination” seats are used only in the forward-facing direction and never for a child who weighs less than 20 pounds or is less than one year of age. FF car seats generally fit a child who weighs 20-40 pounds or more and up to 40 inches tall. Most FF car seats become a belt-positioning booster seat when the child has reached the manufacturer’s weight or height limit. FF car seats can not be used with infants in the rear-facing position.

Booster Seats

Booster Seat

Booster seats properly position the adult lap and shoulder belt on a child who has outgrown their forward-facing child car seat by height or weight, but who do not yet fit properly into the adult seat belt. In order to use a booster seat, your vehicle must have a lap and should belt.

Use a forward-facing seat with a harness for as long as possible, they offer more support and protection than a booster.

There are two types of booster seats

High-back booster seat: should be used according to manufacturer instructions, usually if the vehicle seat the child will be riding on has a low back without head and neck protection.

No-back booster seat: If your child sits on a vehicle seat with a head rest then a no-back/backless booster seat can be used. Some no-back booster seats have a strap or clip that adjusts the shoulder part of the belt properly on the child's shoulder.

2. Does the child restraint fit your child?

  • Check the car seat owner’s manual for height and weight limits and make sure the seat will accommodate your child’s future growth.
  • If your child is likely to be tall or heavy for their age, be sure to choose a seat that will accommodate their comfort (width) and safety (adequate harness slots and seat height).

3. Does the car seat fit your vehicle(s)?

  • Adjust the driver and front passenger seats for the safety of those passengers. Can the child restraint be properly installed without compromising the front seat passengers?
  • Does the child restraint fit the seating position?
  • When using a seat belt to install the child restraint, it must be long enough to be threaded properly through the car seat and be buckled.
  • If the webbing of the buckle end of the seat belt is too long it may prevent a tight installation and may cause discomfort to the child if it rests behind their back.

4. Is the seat easy to use correctly every time?

  • Choose a car seat with features such as the harness tightener and buckle mechanism that are easy for you to use, so you’ll be more likely to use it correctly every time.
  • Choose a car seat that is easy for you to install and has directions that you understand.

5. Does the child restraint fit your budget and lifestyle?

  • If you are going to move the car seat between vehicles often, choose one that fits both vehicles and is easy for everyone involved to install.
  • You don’t have to spend several hundred dollars on a child restraint to achieve optimum safety. A properly installed restraint is more important that the cost of the restraint.
  • If you fly often you may want to consider a smaller, light-weight seat.