Car Seats 101

If you are a first-time parent, the whole car seat purchase process can seem overwhelming. If this is your second (or third) rodeo, you may find things have changed in the car seat market. This page provides a basic introduction to buying an infant car seat, whether you are a first timer or a veteran parent who needs a refresher.

Infant Car Seats 101

Car seats come in three basic categories: infant, convertible and booster.

As the name implies, infant seats are just that—these rear facing seats are designed for infants up to 35 lbs. or so and 33” in height (weight/height limits will vary; some models only works up to 22 lbs. and 29”).

On average, parents get about six months of use out of an infant seat (of course, that varies with the size/height of the child). Infant car seats have an internal harness (usually five-point) that holds the infant to the carrier, which is then snapped into a base. The base is secured to the car. Why the snap-in base? That way you can release the seat and use the carrier to tote your baby around.

The latest safety advice is to keep your baby rear-facing as long as possible—up to 2 years, suggests the American Academy of Pediatrics. That doesn’t mean your baby stays in an infant seat to age 2; convertible seats (the next stage) can be used rear-facing for up to 40-50 lbs.

Most infant car seats on the market are divided into two categories: those that work to 22 lbs. and those that have a greater than 22 lb. capcity (typically 30, 35 or even 40 lbs.).

All our recommended seats are in the latter category. Why? Bigger babies can outgrow a seat that stop at 22 lbs. as soon as four or five months. A seat with a bigger capacity can be used longer. That’s nice because babies under a year spend a good part of their day napping. And it is easier to move a napping infant in an infant car seat (without waking her) than it is in a convertible seat, which means waking baby up.

That said, don’t expect to use that 40 lb. infant car seat with your baby up to, say 40 lbs. That’s because kids can outgrow a seat by HEIGHT long before they outgrow it by weight. As you’d expect, seats that have 22 lb. limits have lower height limits than those with 30-40 lb. limits.

Another does of reality: carrying around a 30 or 40 lb. infant in an infant car seat is quite an upper body work out. (Remember the carrier typically weighs around 10 lbs. empty—that means hauling a total of nearly 50 lbs. on your arm!). So even if your seat is rated to 30 lbs., you may give up before that and move to a convertible. That’s fine—the goal is to keep your baby safe and rear-facing until age two.

What is the safest seat?

A car seat has one basic function—to keep your baby safe in a crash.  All 50 states require you to use a car seat and the federal government requires all car seats sold to meet minimum safety standards.

So what does that mean in the real world? That means EVERY infant car seat—from the $60 Cosco special at Walmart to the $300 import from Europe is safe to use.

Are all car seats equally safe? No—some offer enhanced protection. And remember this truism: the SAFEST car seat is the one that fits your child, your vehicle and is used correctly. Hence, a $300 infant seat that isn’t installed correctly or adjusted to fit your child is unsafe, despite the whiz-bang features.

And that’s the rub: surveys reveal that as many as 80% of car seats are not used correctly. Either they are mis-installed or mis-adjusted. So a car seat that is EASY TO USE is safer than one that isn’t, in our opinion.

Example: how easy is it to adjust the harness straps? This is crticial to making sure your baby is safely secured in the seat. It doesn’t matter whether your seat is $60 or $300, if the harness isn’t tight and adjusted to your infant, the seat is unsafe.

So here’s the rub: seats that have FRONT harness adjusters or no-rethread harnesses are easier to use than those that must be adjusted in the back or need to be rethreaded as your baby grows. And yes, the more expensive seats (like the Graco SnugRide we recommend on this page) have the front adjuster harness. The cheapest seats often do not.

So as we pick the best infant car seats, you’ll note that ease of use is a key factor.

Key Factors to Consider with Infant Seats

We focus on five key factors for infant car seats:

• Crash test ratings. Consumer Reports rates car seats as Basic, Better and Best based on a test they describe this way:

“Evaluation of a seat’s potential for providing an additional margin of safety in simulated 35mph frontal crashes when compared to the performance of similar models. Evaluation is based on injury criteria measured on standardized child-size dummies, head contact with the back of a simulated front seat, and the car seat’s ability to remain intact during the course of testing.”

On this site, we recommend seats as “Good, Better and Best.” However, ALLof our picks have the “best” crash test rating from Consumer Reports.

 • Ease of use: Harness adjustment. As we metioned above, how easy is it to adjust the harness? The best seats have FRONT adjusters, allowing you to loosen the harness as your baby grows. Some seats even have no rethread harnesses, that enable you to change the HEIGHT of the harness without rethreading the belts. Another issue: how easy is it to release the buckle? Cheaper seats tend to have stiffer buckles. We also look at the carrier release: the best seats have an easy to use release.

• Carrier weight. This can be a deal killer for infant seats. Infant seat carriers range from seven pounds to 11 lbs. That may not seem like a big difference, but when you add in an infant, every additional pound your infant carriers weighs will be noticeable.

• How well does the seat fit preemies? Some seats start as little as four pounds and feature newborn inserts to better fit preemies. If you’re know your baby will be on the small side (multiples, for example), consider this feature.

• Adjustable base. Some car seats have adjustable bases that install easier. Our top picks have this feature.

Nice, but not necessary

Here are two features that we’d include in the “nice but not necessary” category when comparing infant seats.

• Premium LATCH connectors: LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. LATCH is built into all vehicles manufacturere since September 2002 and is a universal way to attach a car seat to a vehicle without using the vehicle belt. Infant car seats come with two LATCH connectors, which attach to an anchor in the seat back. The least expensive infant car seats have basic LATCH connectors that are hooks. The more expensive options have “premium” LATCH connectors, which some folks think are easier to attach to the anchor. Are they nice to have? Yes, in most vehicles. Necessary? No.

 • Anti-rebound bars. Some of the more expensive infant car seats feature anti-rebound bars. As the name implies, this keeps the seat from rebounding and hitting the back of the vehicle seat in an accident. Anti-rebound bars aren’t required in the US and seats that don’t have them still must meet minimum crash test standards. We’ll probably see more of these bars in the future, but for now they are only seen in the priciest seats.

Is an anti-rebound bar a must? No—seats without them are still safe. The anti-rebound bar just adds an ADDITIONAL layer of safety. If you can afford a seat with an anti-rebound bar like the two we mention below, then good. If not, don’t sweat it.

Here is what the anti-rebound bar looks like on the Cybex infant seat (they call it a load leg):

cybex-aton2-loadleg-large

And here’s what the anti rebound bar looks like on the Britax Chaperone:

antireboundbarbritax

The Big Issue: Side Impact Protection

Nearly one in four (24%) car crashes are side impact—and these can be deadly for children in the back seat. Of all child fatalites in car crashes, side impact crashes account for 32% of deaths. Protecting a child’s head is crucial to surviving a side impact crash, as that is the most vulnerable area to injury.

Among the biggest issues that separate infant car seats today is side impact protection, or lack thereof.

First, understand that there is no federal safety standard for side impact protection. Seats are tested for FRONT crashes only.  Some manufacturers test for side impact protection, but there is no way to verify claims that one seat outdoes another on side impact protection. The government has proposed a side impact test standard, but as of this writing, there is no date yet for the start of such testing:

Most car seat makers focus side impact protection in the head area—foam wings are used to prevent injury in a crash. Some makers (Cybex) use a telescoping arm on the side of the car seat to add further protection.

Side impact protection is more often seen in convertible seats, but a few infant car seat makers are now touting this feature as well. Safety 1’st “Air Protect” and Cybex’s “Linear side impact” protection are two examples. Other seat makers (like Graco) claim they test for side impact protection, even though the seats may not have specific side impact protection wings.

Again, there is no current standard to judge these claims. FYI: The safest place for your child’s car seat is in the middle of the back seat. Picking a vehicle with rear-curtain air bags is also helpful. The middle of the back seat is farther away from a side impact collision than an outboard position and therefore safer.

Curve ball: Stroller compatibility

Here’s another factor to consider when it comes to infant car seats: which strollers is it compatible with?

Most folks want to pair an infant car seat with a stroller, so they can snap in the infant seat to create a travel system.

So some of the calculus with the infant car seat purchase involves which stroller you have or want to purchase. And here’s a confounding variable: some brands are more universal when it comes to car seat compability than others. Example: the best-selling Graco SnugRide has inspired most stroller makers to offer an adapter for it. (BUT—not all SnugRides are the same, as you’ll read in the reviews).

Other infant car seats have much more limited compatibility. Example: the Uppa Baby Mesa infant seat works with the Uppa Baby Cruz and Vista strollers . . . and that’s about it.

The most popular adapters work for the Graco, Chicco Peg Perego and Maxi Cosi seats.

What’s not important?

Many car seat makers sell deluxe or upgraded versions of their infant seats with extra fabric padding, quilted fabrics, etc.

Here’s a little secret: infants don’t really care how plush the padding is. Padding and comfort are much more important for CONVERTIBLE seats (the next stage up), as longer car rides and older babies/toddlers make this feature more relevant. Infants and newborns spend most of their time sleeping while in a car seat—extra padding isn’t necessary.

Quilted fabrics and upgraded finishes on infant car seats are sold more to newbie parents who may not realize their infant will be just as comfortable in a basic padded seat as one with “deluxe padding”!