Photo Credit: Igor Demchenkov/E+/Getty Images
Buying a stroller is stressful. Like, really, really stressful. After all, it's one of the priciest baby items you'll own. Plus, you'll be with it daily for years: Your precious infant will snooze in it, your rowdy toddler will spill in it and your growing preschooler will whine to get back in it. You'll fold it and open it a trillion times, you'll bump it up and down thousands of steps, you'll shove it in the trunk, stow it in a plane, plow it through snow and rain and mud. It's your baby's first vehicle and you're going to want to make the right decision. Here, how you can.
Be safe. Yes, cool features and lovely colors factor in, but the number one concern when buying a stroller should always be safety. Look for a stroller that has been certified by the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA), a national trade organization that advocates for children's product safety. Carrying the JPMA stamp of approval means that your wheels meet all current safety standards.
"Just because a stroller is sold in a reputable store does not mean all of their products meet the up-to-date safety recommendations," says Joyce Davis, president of Keeping Babies Safe, a non-for-profit child safety organization, which lists stroller recalls. You can also download the mobile app from the government website Recalls.gov, so if you're at a yard sale or a consignment shop with a tempting stroller for sale, you can immediately learn if it's been recalled.
Think about location. What's good for your bestie who lives in a city may not be the right choice for a suburban mama-to-be. "If you live in an urban area where you walk everywhere, your stroller is, essentially, a car for your baby," says Ali Wing, the founder and CEO of the baby store Giggle. "Plus, you'll likely need to be able to maneuver your stroller along crowded sidewalks and down narrow store aisles." You probably also need to be able to collapse your stroller quickly to board a bus or ride the subway. Suburban parents, on the other hand, will likely need to find a stroller that can easily fit into the trunk of their car.
Know the options. Just as there are full-size cars, compact cars and SUVs, there's a wide range of stroller types as well. Here are the basics:
--Full-size strollers: These are larger, sturdier and usually more expensive than most other strollers. "Most have a bassinet stage, allowing the baby to lie flat, as well as a reclining seat for when the child is old enough to sit," says Wing, which means you can use them from birth. "These strollers are all about adaptability and the child's comfort."
--Umbrella strollers With their umbrella-like curved handles, these are easy-to-fold and lightweight. "They're ideal for hopping in and out of cars, traveling or navigating small spaces," says Wing. Babies generally need to be able to sit up to ride in an umbrella stroller (usually at about 6 months of age) unless it has a recline feature.
--Travel systems These have a universal frame that can hold a car seat, but also come with a simple toddler seat that works as a lightweight stroller. It allows you to transfer your baby from the car to the stroller without having to take her out of the infant car seat.
--All-terrain strollers Typically, these have all the features of a full-size stroller, but they also offer easier maneuvering, durability and full-suspension wheels. Many may be compatible with your infant car seat. "It's a great alternative to buying both a full-size stroller and a separate jogging stroller," says Wing.
--Joggers These three-wheeled strollers are designed for the serious runner, complete with hand brake and a safety strap for the parent's wrist. They tend to be less maneuverable in small spaces.
--Double (or triple) strollers There are side-by-side strollers, which are good for togetherness but can be bad for fitting through the checkout line at the store. The other option: In-line strollers that place one child in front of the other. Both are available in a lightweight umbrella or a sturdier full-size styles.
Don't rush! Here's a newsflash: You don't need a stroller when your baby is first born. Shocking, right? You can easily transport your babe in a sling or other carrier. And you can buy -- or better yet, borrow -- a universal infant car seat carrier stroller that can double as a newborn stroller. "It's a collapsible, four-wheeled frame that you simply click your infant car seat into," says Wing. Waiting to buy a stroller is also an easy way to save money. Since newborns can't sit upright, the stroller needs to have a full recline, which can make it more expensive. Strollers with a partial recline for older babies are usually less pricey.
Do the math. Strollers range from $20 jobs to super-pricey $1,000-plus rides. (We're looking at you, Reese Witherspoon.) A bigger price tag, however, doesn't mean you're automatically purchasing the best stroller for you. "As a general rule, higher price strollers are built to handle different terrains and weather, and are made to grow from infancy to toddlerhood," says Wing. If you decide to shell out the big bucks, your premium stroller will likely also be pretty durable, offer adjustable components (handlebar, seat position) and have ample cargo space.
Ask around. As with just about any parenting topic, you'll get a wide range of opinions if you ask seasoned moms and dads about their stroller. Can they get the stroller up and down stairs? What's the fold like? Is it easy to unclip the buckle? Get the scoop from parents who have lived with the stroller. (Check out our parent-tested reviews here.)
Do a test drive. Even after reading reviews, asking around and safety-checking, you should still go to the store and test your baby's ride before buying it. Fold and unfold the stroller, push it, play with all of the features to see if you really like it. And because most strollers push just fine while empty, load up the floor model. "Bring a bag of books or groceries and throw it in at the store,'" says Jamie Grayson, owner of BabyGuyGearGuide.com. "Strollers feel very different when weighted."
Do a weigh in. The overall weight of a stroller and the number of features it has often go hand-in-hand: The more bells and whistles you want, the heavier the stroller will be. (There are exceptions, of course, but you'll see it reflected in a heavier price tag.) The typical travel system weighs about 40 pounds, the weight of an average 5-year-old. A lightweight stroller may tip the scales at 15 pounds and an umbrella stroller at less than 10. While heft may be a non-issue for some, other moms will be lifting that stroller up stairs or into a trunk solo, making weight a real issue to consider.
Check the features. Once you've narrowed down your ideal stroller type and price point, it's time to dive into the features.
--Handlebars Make sure you and yours are comfortable with the handlebar height (hunching is no fun). If there's a big height gap in your family, look for adjustability. Most full-size strollers have one straight handlebar (good for simultaneous strolling and coffee-drinking); most umbrella strollers have two curved handles.
--Sunshade You don't want your little one getting hit in the face with cancer-causing rays all afternoon, do you? Test the hood out and see how much protection it offers. But if your very favorite stroller has a dinky sunshade, take heed: You can buy a separate one to attach on. It'll run about $12.
--Storage You might think, "I'll have a diaper bag! I don't need extra storage!" To that, all veteran moms will heartily laugh. Check the under-stroller and behind-the-seat storage and weigh that against your own pack-rat or minimalist qualities.
Check the seat. If your kiddo is going to be spending a decent amount of time in that stroller seat, you want to make sure it's pretty comfy. How much padding is there? Does it recline -- and how easy is it for you to get that stinker to recline? While many parents (and their babies) like a stroller seat to go completely flat, it's not a necessity. Most babies are just as comfortable in a stroller with a slight incline as they are lying perfectly flat. And remember: Kids get filthy. Check to see if the seat fabric is stain-resistant and washable.
Kick the tires. Some strollers look all rugged and outdoorsy, but upon further inspection you'll see a set of plastic tires are holding the ride together. If you're tooling around malls and nicely-paved sidewalks, plastic can be totally fine. If you want to off-road or bounce up and down stairs, sturdy tires are the way to go. "Air-filled will always give you a better ride," says Grayson. That said, they can pop and do require more maintenance. "If you want to avoid that, consider tires that are tubes filled with foam, such as Baby Jogger City Mini GT, or rubber and foam, like the UPPAbaby Vista stroller," says Grayson. "Look at the rear wheels of the stroller you consider: Those are what you're really pushing through terrain and if you have larger back wheels you're going to get a better ride and it's easier to bump up and down steps or curbs."
Don't let accessories rule the buy. Some strollers come with parent organization trays, drink holder (for mom), toy bars, snack and drink holders (for babe), rain hoods and more. Don't let these little extras drive your decision. If the stroller you love doesn't have these things, don't worry. Most accessories are available separately.
Focus on the now. If you are thinking you probably, sort of, most definitely could have more than one baby, it may be playing a large role in your stroller-buying process -- and maybe it shouldn't. (Some of todays strollers can be bought as a single ride but later converted to accommodate more kiddos.) "You never really know if/when the second -- or third or fourth -- child is coming, so if you're looking at a stroller that converts, chances are you're giving up features you might really want out of a stroller -- and you never know what strollers will be out at the time you need a double," says Grayson. But if you really want one that converts into a double, look at where the second seat is added. "If it's in the front, it's usually going to be hard or impossible to bump up/down stairs or a curb. If it's in back it's going to be much easier, but your child has a more limited range of vision," says Grayson.
Answer the storage question. So where are you going to park your baby's sweet new ride? Do you have a big ole garage? Or will you be squeezing into a tiny spot in the apartment entryway? Will it fit in the trunk of your car? The coat closet? Factor it all in before buying. After all, you don't want a hard-to-fold monstrosity sitting in the middle of your living room. And if you're stowing it in a tight spot, the stroller needs to be easily folded. Many strollers claim to have an easy-peasey one-handed fold and unfolding mechanism, but don't count on it -- test it!
Accept that one isn't always the answer. No matter how perfect your stroller is, you may need another. "Almost all parents who have a full-size or all-terrain stroller also end up buying a lightweight umbrella stroller," says Wing. You wanna jog, but you don't want to take that hulk-bulky stroller to the mall. You have the sweet ride for everyday, but you need a dinky umbrella stroller when you're traveling. It happens to all of us.
Register for it. If you're the type who simply cannot wait and needs to have every little baby item before the bundle arrives, than go ahead and register for the stroller you really, truly want. Worried it's too pricey? Just do it! Gift-givers can go in on it. And if no one buys it, use the gift certificates you'll surely get to buy yourself your ideal ride.
Thinking about baby gear? Find the picks that are right for you.
We Love, You Need: The Best Baby Strollers of 2012
We Love, You Need: The Best Baby Slings, Carriers and Backpacks of 2012
We Love, You Need: The Best Umbrella Strollers
We Love, You Need: The Best Jogging Strollers of 2012