Buying A Child Safety Seat: The Complete Guide

Modern vehicles are designed to provide protection for adult-sized people, but it’s the parents’ responsibility to provide the necessary special protection for those smaller folks. But with many different models and types of seats out there, choosing and using a seat can be confusing to parents. For starters, there are three main types of seats, and using the right type for the size and age of the child is critical:

Infant car seats. These are rear-facing seats designed for infants under a year old and weighing less than twenty pounds.

Convertible seats. These seats can be used as rear-facing infant seats for babies under 20 pounds, or in a forward-facing position for children up to 40 pounds. The seats come in a variety of configurations and designs, so make sure you do your research that the child is properly protected.

Booster seats. To be used as an intermediate between a smaller/convertible child seat and using a normal seat belt, these seats are made for children who weigh between 40 and 65 pounds. There are both low-back and high-back booster seats. Don’t use the low-back type if your child’s head is above the top of the rear seatback.

Car seats - proper installation-toddler, NHTSA

What to shop for:

An easy-to-fasten design. Look at the instructions and determine if the design is easy enough to fasten and unfasten properly for many short trips.

One that’s designed for your vehicle. Some child seats are designed for particular vehicle types, because the contouring and size of back seats varies greatly, along with the location of seat belts. If you have a new vehicle, metal-loop mounting anchors that make attaching the seats faster and more secure with simple click-clips are now required, so buy a seat that takes advantage of this. Contact your dealership, or the manufacturer, for more advice.

Test it in your vehicle. Check that your child fits snugly in the seat, and check that the seat itself is held firmly in place in your vehicle. If there are any doubts about either, bring the seat back and go with another model.

Don’t buy used! Never buy a child seat that has been used already by someone else. Some of the hardware might be missing; the seat could possibly be deformed or damaged from misuse; or the seat could have been in an accident. If you’re in even the most minor accident, throw the seat away and purchase a new one. The seat might have sustained subtle damage that would affect its future protection.

Car seats - misuse harness straps too loose, NHTSA

How to use your new child car seat

Eight out of ten child safety seats are not used installed or used correctly , according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Here are some important reminders:

Follow the directions. Don’t just assume that you know how to install the seat. Depending on the design, the belt must be threaded through the seat in a particular way. Sometimes there will be diagrams on the seat to aid installation, but make sure you read all the documentation.

Do not install any child seat in a position with a passenger airbag. Always install child seats in the back. If you have a two-seat vehicle, a small pickup, or a vehicle with side-facing ‘jump seats’ in the back, use the airbag disable switch.

Secure all straps as tightly as possible. The child seat will not do its job unless it is tightly fastened to the vehicle, allowing the child to use the vehicle’s crash protection. A loosely attached child seat means that the child will be “snapped” forward in the milliseconds of the crash. Within the seat, there should be no more than a finger width between the straps and the child. Also, make sure that the retainer clip is used, and that none of the straps are twisted along the way.

Use a tether if possible. If your child seat has a top strap (tether), make sure you always use it, rather than only strapping the lower belt in place. Most vehicles made in the past two or three years have upper anchor points for the tethers, and many older vehicles can be retrofitted quite easily. Using the tether helps reduce the chances of injury in forward-facing child seats due to excess motion of the seat. If you can’t use the tether because of your vehicle, remove the tether and any hardware that goes with it, so it doesn’t become a dangerous projectile in a crash.

Remember, you want your child’s body to be as snugly strapped to the vehicle itself as possible so that it can take full advantage of the vehicle’s crash protection. Then, your car’s crumple zones will absorb the blow, not your child.

For more information: Locate the nearest place where you can get a free safety seat inspection at (866-SEAT-CHECK). For more tips, recall information, and helpful information on choosing the right child seat, see Consumer Reports also periodically tests and evaluates child seats.

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