Car Seats 101

Before your newborn even leaves the hospital, baby needs a car seat!

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Overwhelmed by the number of choices in products? Get answers to all of your important questions with our guide to Car Seats 101.

The Importance of Car Seats

A car seat is one of the most important gear purchases you're going to make as a new parent. It is one of the only products you will ever buy for your child that has the potential to actually save their life.

Before your baby arrives, you will need to purchase a car seat and have it properly installed. You can't bring baby home from the hospital without it!

Many states require hospital staff to verify that the new parents have a car seat upon discharge, however, due to fear of lawsuits, most hospitals won't allow their employees to actually install the seat or show parents how to use it.

So, make sure you have your seat properly installed ahead of time!

If you want to double check your car seat handiwork, drop by the nearest inspection station. A certified technician will show you how to correctly install and use your car seat.

RELATED: Find an inspection station near you

Which Car Seat Should I Buy?

This is probably one of the most common questions regarding baby gear.

There are so many factors that go into picking the best car seat, and you want to make sure that you pick the right one to protect your precious little cargo.

While there is really no easy answer to this question, we have rounded up a list of a few things to consider when making your decision.

Keep Reading: The Options

The Options

There are three basic types of car seats for infants and toddlers: rear-facing, forward-facing and convertible, which convert from rear to forward-facing. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, infants should ride in a rear-facing seat (or a convertible seat that is installed to face the rear) until they are at least 2 years old or until they meet the car seat's maximum height or weight specifications.

Once these requirements have been met, the child should use a forward-facing car seat with a harness until they outgrow it (usually around 4 years old) before moving up to a booster seat.

RELATED: Check out the car seats in our Buyer's Guide

Rear-Facing Seats

The safest place for your child to ride is in a rear-facing seat! Rear-facing car seats are available as either infant-only carriers or convertible seats.

Infant-only seats are generally lighter in weight and designed to be portable.

Many parents prefer the convenience of an infant carrier because the seat can be removed from the car without having to unstrap and possibly wake a sleeping baby. The car seat base remains strapped into the vehicle; the carrier simply snaps in and out of the base.

Infant-only seats are also convenient because they can click onto a stroller base. So when shopping for an infant carrier, make sure to look for one that is also compatible with your stroller.

Convertible Seats

Convertible seats are a great option if you want a product that will last throughout the years since they can be installed as either a rear or forward-facing seat.

They generally have higher height and weight limits for the rear-facing position, which will allow you to keep your child rear-facing for a longer period of time.

However, convertible seats are not designed to be portable, instead they remain fixed in the car.

Forward-Facing Seats

There are three different types of forward-facing seats: forward-facing only seats, convertible seats and combination seats, which can be used forward-facing OR as booster seats.

When your child outgrows their rear-facing car seat, they should continue to ride in a forward-facing seat with a harness until they reach the car seat maximum height and weight specifications.

Make sure to refer to your actual car seat manual for maximum height and weight specifications! These recommendations are not universal for all car seats.

Once your child outgrows their forward-facing car seat, they should remain riding in a booster seat until they are big enough to fit in a seat belt properly.

Keep Reading: Positioning Baby in the Seat

Positioning Baby in the Seat

We hate to break it to you, but shopping for the right car seat is only half the battle!

Once you have your car seat picked out, it's just as important to make sure that you are strapping your baby in correctly.

Before you even place baby in the car seat, double-check that you have the harness straps in the correct slot for baby's height.

Rear-facing seats should have harness straps that come out of the seat at the height of baby's shoulders or slightly below.

Forward facing seats should have harness straps that come out at the height of your child's shoulders or just above them.

After baby is buckled in, make sure to properly tighten the harness straps. They should be tight enough that you cannot pinch any extra material on the baby's shoulders.

Remember: It is dangerous to have anything under the harness straps between the baby's body. This means there should be NO blankets or bulky clothing. The extra layers don't allow baby to be fastened in as securely as possible.

Also, make sure to raise the chest clip all the way up to the baby's armpit level.

Finally, a rear-facing car seat should be installed at an angle that keeps your baby in a semi-reclined position; their head should not be able to flop forward. Place a rolled-up towel under the base of the seat to get the right angle, if needed.

Now, we've probably all seen it done (and perhaps even been tempted to do it), but those tantalizing toys hanging from your baby's infant seat carrier handle might not be such a safe idea.

Some experts say that when the car seat handle is left in the upright carrying position during travel, they can break during a crash and possibly injure your baby.

As with all aspects of car seat installation, it is best to check the manual for your child's specific safety seat.

RELATED: Check out our guide to car seat installation

Is it Safe to Use a Secondhand Car Seat?

Many used car seats are still safe, but there are a few things to consider before you accept those hand-me-downs:

Make sure the car seat was NEVER in a crash. Even if the child was not in the seat at the time of the crash, the forces experienced during a crash could damage the seat.

Also, has the car seat been recalled? It is not uncommon for a car seat to be recalled. Most recalls can be addressed and you can typically continue to safely use the seat.

RELATED: Find out if your car seat has been recalled

Finally, make sure the seat is not expired. Yup—you read that right! Car seats have expiration dates. The plastic becomes brittle and weak as it ages.

Most car seats expire after 6 years from the date of manufacture. If you can't find an expiration date printed on the seat, check the owner's manual.

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