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A car seat ranks pretty low on the fun-to-buy-for-baby meter, but it can't be any more important. Motor vehicle injuries are the top cause of death among children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But using a child safety seat can reduce that risk by a whopping 71 percent. Here's how to buy the best one for your precious cargo.
Know the law. Don't have a car? It doesn't matter! When your child is born, most hospitals require you to place your brand-new bundle of love in car seat before exiting -- even if you are walking home. There are lots of variations between states in terms of child safety seat laws. Make sure you know what the rules are where you live. (Find out here.)
Consider your car. "No one seat is the best or safest," says Joyce Davis, president of Keeping Babies Safe, a not-for-profit child safety organization. "The best for you, however, needs to be one that fits well in your vehicle." When it's installed, you shouldn't be able to move a car seat more than an inch from front-to-back or side-to-side. Before you go shopping, read your ride's owner's manual and check their Web site. Some car manufacturers, such as Nissan and Infiniti, provide consumers with a list of car seats that fit their vehicles. A little investigating will also let you know if your car has the LATCH system (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children), which quickly and safely secures the car seat to the vehicle. (As of 2002, all new cars come equipped.) If your car has LATCH, be sure to buy a car seat to use with it.
Know your options. Search "car seat" on Amazon.com you'll get over 26,000 results. That's a lot, even for the most seasoned shopper. To narrow your field, you first need to get your head around the four basic car seat types.
--Infant seat: "This seat is designed for about the first 6 to 9 months and they are rear-facing only," says Ali Wing, the founder and CEO of the baby store Giggle. "They're portable thanks to their detachable base, which means you can get sleeping babies in and out of the car without waking them."
--Toddler seat: You'll use this one from around 6 months of age until your child outgrows it -- which is when they reach between 40 and 80 pounds, depending on the car seat you've purchased. (These can be used rear-facing or forward-facing.)
--Booster seat: These are for kids who are too big for a toddler seat but too small to be just in a seatbelt. "Here, kids use the car's seat belt system just like grown-ups," says Wing. A booster seat, which comes with a back or without, provides a little extra protection and a height boost. These seats accommodate kids up to 100 pounds.
--Convertible seat: A convertible car seat either combines the infant seat and toddler seat or combines the toddler seat and booster seat.
Check the label. All car seats in the United States must meet the same Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). These are specific federal guidelines for how a car seat is designed and how it must hold-up during a crash test.
Understand the ratings. All car seats rated by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have met Federal Safety Standards -- so that's a relief. However, there are many factors that go into overall car seat safety, like how crazy-hard it is to install. (Check out the most common mistakes that parents make when installing a car seat.) NHTSA goes a step further in their rankings and ranks how easy top car seats are to use. Review their top picks before shopping.
Factor in your budget. While infant seats fit small babies best, it's more expensive to buy an infant seat that your baby will outgrow in less than a year. If money is an issue, consider buying a convertible car seat that you can use from birth. "The combo seats will cost more up front, but will save you money in the long run," says Wing.
Weigh in on weight. "A big mistake parents make with car seats is graduating their children to the next seat before they need to," says Mark R. Zonfrillo, M.D., principal investigator at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's Center for Injury Research and Prevention. To help keep your kids put longer, look at the max weight requirement of your car seat -- and aim high. For example, "there are plenty of seats that have a rear-facing limit of 40 pounds, which is good," says Dr. Zonfrillo. The reason: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping children in a rear-facing car seat until 2 years old or until your child exceeds the height and weight requirements of the car seat. "There's good evidence to show that a rear-facing car seat does a better job of supporting the head, neck and spine of infants and toddlers in a crash," says Dr. Zonfrillo. "Riding rear-facing can reduce their risk of death or serious injury in a crash by as much as five times." When getting a big-kid car seat (either a toddler seat or a convertible), look for ones that max out at 65 to 80 pounds. "While many parents move their preschoolers into booster seats at this weight, it's safest to keep them in the car seat as long as possible," says Dr. Zonfrillo. (Most 4-year-olds, for instance, weigh between 27 and 50 pounds and can easily remain in a car seat.)
Deciding on a booster. It's time to get a booster seat only once your child has fully outgrown the forward-facing seat. "If your forward-facing seat is only up to 40 pounds, get one that has a higher limit and hold off on the booster," says Dr. Zonfrillo. If that's not possible, opt for a high-back, belt-positioning booster. (Boosters don't attach to the car, so they can move during an accident.) The AAP notes that kids should generally remain in a booster seat until they're between 8 and 12 years old and have reached 4 feet 9 inches.
Be second-hand smart. Everyone hearts a bargain, but not if it puts your baby at risk. "You should only buy and use a second-hand car seat if you're absolutely certain of its age, that it has never been in a car crash and that it has not been recalled," says Dr. Zonfrillo. To learn how old a seat is, check the car seat's label, which states the date of manufacture and model number. And use the model number info when checking recalls with The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. You can also download a mobile app from the government website Recalls.gov which allows you to quickly check the recall status of a seat you may find at a yard sale.
Get a five-point harness. Do you know what kind of seat belts NASCAR drivers use? Five-point harnesses. They are the safest and they are what your car seat should have. These restraints have a strap that goes over each shoulder and each hip. The straps connect to another strap between the legs. This gives a super-snug, safe fit and keeps baby in the right place much better than a three-point harness.
Be well adjusted. According to a 2012 survey from Safe Kids, using the wrong harness slot is one of the biggest car seat mistakes parents make. Look for a child safety seat with more than one harness slot. The straps need to come out of one of those slots at or below the baby's shoulders in the rear-facing position and at or above the baby's shoulders in the forward-facing position. And though your child may protest, you need to tighten the harness so that there isn't any slack.
Get base knowledge. "A car-seat base is one of the key features of an infant car seat that makes it so portible," says Wing. "You install the base, have an expert review your work and then never have to worry about it again. From there, you just click the seat in and out of the base." (To make sure your child safety seat is properly installed, visit SeatCheck.org or call 866/732-8243 to schedule an appointment with a Child Passenger Safety Technician.) If you have more than one vehicle that your little one will be in and out of, it's smart to buy an extra infant car seat base. Separately, they range from about $50 to $100, depending on the brand.
Test the seat out. Many baby shops will let you take the car seat out of the store so you can try it out in your vehicle before you buy it. Not every car seat fits in every car. There are humps, slopes and cooky buckle placements that can sometimes mean that it's hard to get a really secure fit with a car seat.
Do a different kind of registering. To ensure you're notified in the event of a car seat recall, write your name and address on the postage-paid card stuffed in the box that car seat came in -- and toss it in the mailbox. This will register your buy. You can also do it online here.
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