Unless you birth at home, or plan to walk home from the hospital with your newborn, you'll need a car seat properly installed in your car even before your baby arrives. You will want to research and choose your car seat long before your contractions start. It is a good idea to start your search by the time you are 6 months pregnant to ensure you have enough time to find the right car seat.
By law, babies up to 18 months of age must be buckled into a car seat whenever you're driving. Most areas require babies up to the age of 3 to be buckled into a car seat. Many areas require all children to be seated in booster seats until they are 60 pounds.
Car seats need to be age- and weight-appropriate for your baby and installed correctly. A new car seat is best, but if you have a used one, make sure it was made after January 1995. Car seats can only be used for a maximum of 10 years. A used car seat should have no visible damage or worn areas and come with all attachments and an instruction booklet. If any parts or instructions are missing, you can contact the manufacturer for replacements. Try not to use a hand-me-down car seat unless you know and trust the person that gave it to you. You can never tell if a car seat has been in an accident unless the signs of distress or damage are obvious.
All new seats must meet current crash and fire-safety standards, making any new car seat you buy safe. If your car seat isn't installed or used correctly, it won't be safe no matter how new it is. The safest car seat is the one that is appropriate for your baby's age, is installed properly in your car, and is easiest for you to use.
There are three basic types of car seats: infant car seats, convertible car seats, and booster seats. Infant car seats face the rear of your car and have a 20-lb. weight limit. Convertible car seats can be used as both rear-facing infant seats and forward-facing toddler seats. Most new convertible car seats can hold a 30-35 pound baby facing the rear of the car. Most infant and convertible car seats use the Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) attachment system to install the seat in your car safely and easily. If your car is equipped with the anchor system, the LATCH system does not require the regular shoulder or seat belts to install the car seat into your car.
Belt-positioning booster seats are for toddlers who are at least 3 years old and weigh at least 40 pounds. These booster seats use the regular shoulder and seat belts to secure your toddler. Backless booster seats can be used with a seat that provides head support.
It is common for parents to automatically move their baby into a forward-facing convertible car seat around 12 months. Most 12 month old babies weigh 20 pounds, the maximum weight limit for most infant car seats, but 12 months and 20 pounds is the minimum age and weight requirement for facing forward. It is safest to leave your baby in a rear-facing seat for as long as possible. If your car seat is designed for your baby's weight, and your baby is still comfortable in the rear-facing seat, it is best to leave it in that position.
To keep your baby safe, you should become an expert at installing a car seat correctly. Installing a car seat is not as easy as it seems. It is estimated that over 50 percent of all car seats are installed or used incorrectly.
The most common mistakes parents make when installing car seats include threading seat belts through the wrong slots, leaving the straps too loose, and not using a locking clip for lap-and-shoulder belts that don't lock in place unless the car comes to a sudden stop. Car seats that are not installed properly can move around, putting your baby in danger. A properly installed car seat should not be able to move more than an inch forward or to either side.
The LATCH system makes installing a car seat very easy. The LATCH system stabilizes the seat and reduces the potential for head injury. All new cars made on or after September 1, 2002, are required to have two lower anchors in the back seat where the base of the seat back and the seat cushion meet. All new car seats with a five-point safety harness made on or after September 2002 are required to have tethers and hooks to connect to those anchors and a top anchor behind the back seat.
Read your instruction booklet carefully. Practice positioning and installing the seat so it is secure and stable. The safest location for a car seat is in the center of the back seat. The back seat is the safest place to be in an accident. If you drive a van or station wagon with multiple rows of seating, place your car seat in the center seat. Never install your car seat in the front seat equipped with a passenger-side air bag: the force of an air bag can break your car seat and kill your baby or toddler.
Don't forget to send in the car seat's registration card. The manufacturer uses this information to notify you of any product recalls related to your car seat and to order the proper replacement parts should you need them.