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From Newborn to Toddler: How to Choose a Car Seat for Your Kid

Rear-facing, convertible, booster—which car seat do you need for your child? And how many will you need in the months and years to come?

Don't worry; we've got your answers. All you need to know about how to choose a car seat, you'll find it in the guide below.

You'll learn the different stages of car seats when your child needs them, the various features of each, and how many seats you'll need altogether. It's all right here!

Follow this guide to know how to pick a car seat.

Know the Types

The 4 main types of car seats are as follows. 

Rear-Facing (Infants)

Infants must ride in a rear-facing car seat until they're at least 1 year of age. Rear-facing is the safest way to ride as it offers the most protection against neck and spinal injury.

It cradles the child tightly and keeps their neck and spine in the same position at all times. It prevents the head from violently whipping forward or side-to-side in an accident.

Even after 1 year of age, a child should be kept rear-facing as long as possible. Rear-facing car seats are available for children up to 3 years of age.

Infant car seats that do not convert to a forward-facing position will usually detach from the car for easy transport. This way, you can carry the infant out of the car and into your destination without unbuckling the harness and disturbing them. These seats can often be clicked into specially-designed strollers.

Forward-Facing Car Seat (Toddler)

When the child outgrows rear-facing car seats, but cannot sit safely or comfortably with a seatbelt, the child requires a forward-facing car seat. This usually happens when the child is around 3 years of age. However, in most states, you can forward-face your child as early as age 1.

Unlike booster seats, forward-facing car seats use a harness instead of your car's seatbelt. This harness provides a gentler and more secure hold of your child's fragile body than a seatbelt will anyway. It's also designed to release the child quickly if an emergency requires a fast exit from the vehicle.

For these reasons, the child should remain in a forward-facing car seat with a harness as long as they still fit in it safely.

Forward-Facing Booster (Young Child)

A booster has no attached harness. It is simply a seat that elevates your child enough to safely position them in your car's seatbelt. 

Transitional boosters (for children just emerging from their forward-facing car seat) include a backrest/headrest. This additional piece also helps position the seatbelt according to the child's height.

This piece usually detaches when the child outgrows it. What's left is a backless booster. This is the final stage until the child no longer requires a car seat of any kind.

Convertible/All-In-One Car Seat (Infant-Toddler)

Many multi-stage seats are available to transition your child through 2 or more of these stages. These are called convertible car seats because they convert into more than one type of car seat. All-in-one car seats include all stages from the rear-facing infant seat to the forward-facing booster.

The Best Car Seat Lineup For Your Child

As you can see, you have a lot of options as to which, and how many, car seats you can choose for your child. The best/cheapest plan for your child depends on many factors.

First, the specific laws of your state determine how long a child is required to spend in each stage. You'll have to work around this before anything else.

Next, there's the convenience to consider. Convertible/all-in-one car seats are convenient because you won't have to switch seats as often.

However, most won't easily detach from the car like the infant seat. Even if they do, they're usually to heavy to carry practically.

Next, think of safety. A convertible car seat may allow your child to rear-face longer than an all-in-one.

Lastly, which is cheaper? Is the all-in-one car seat $100 dollars more than the rear-to-front-facing convertible? Because you can always buy a $25 booster after the convertible and save $75.

Our Recommendation:

Get an infant seat for convenience early on, a long-lasting convertible for long-lasting safety, and a cheap booster for the final stage. This is almost always the safest, most convenient, and most cost-efficient strategy you could do.

Know the Laws

The laws that determine which car seat is required for your child vary from state to state. Each state decides theses safety guidelines based on the child's age, weight, and dimensions.

Before you buy, know which car seat you'll need immediately. But also keep in mind how soon you'll need to change seats based on your state's specific laws. 

Another thing to keep in mind is whether or not you plan on crossing state lines with the child. If you live near to your state's border or have family in other states, you may cross state lines quite regularly.

If so, you definitely need to research the car seat laws in each state you'll be driving through. After all, your car seat that's legal in your home state may not be legal in the next state over.

This is especially true for older children in booster seats. Some states require booster seats for 2 years longer than other states. Your child may be done with car seats in Idaho, but may still require a booster in California.

How to Choose a Car Seat: Used

Though it's technically legal (sometimes), we don't recommend using used car seats. The safety of a used seat is simply not as reliable as a new seat. 

However, a trusted friend offering you a free used car seat is a tempting consideration. So if you are considering a used car seat for your child, follow these guidelines

Check For Recalls

Always check the NHTSA's official list of recalled car seats for the car seat in question.

Check Expiration

Check the expiration date. It is illegal and unsafe to use an expired seat.

Inspect for Damage

Bring someone who knows a lot about car seats. Have them inspect for damage. 

Look for visible cracks, functional issues (especially buckles), and anything that doesn't look right. Find out the usage history of the seat. If it was ever involved in an accident, do not accept it.

Throw It Out

If any of these issues aren't on the level, it is illegal for the owner to sell it or give it away. Insist to them that they dispose of it immediately. Report them at your own discretion.

How to Choose a Car Seat: New

When buying new, much of the process is the same. Though these issues are less likely when buying from a reputable retailer, they should still be checked.

Check for recalls, check expiration, and check for damage. Sometimes retail car seats fall from a high shelf and crack, for example. In addition, check the following.

Check User Reviews and Safety Ratings

If you like a car seat at the store, always check user reviews online. Otherwise, you might purchase a very convincing-looking dud. Or, to save time, check online first.

Also, certain car seat companies adhere to safety standards far above the legal requirement. Check if the prospective car seat has additional safety ratings beyond the bare, legal minimum.

Check Specs

Check the specks to make sure the seat is appropriate for your child. Also, make sure your $150 car seat is going to last the child for more than 2 months.

Choosing the Right Car Seat For Your Child

Remember these important tips on how to choose a car seat that's right for your child. Print this guide out and take it with you when shopping for your next car seat.

Learn more about child safety gear right here. Check out 7 Baby Essentials to Keep Your Newborn Safe.

November 05, 2019 — Niomi Thompson