Is your child ready for a forward facing car seat? How do you know what kind of seat to purchase? Where do you start? A certified child passenger safety technician can help you find the right car seat, but ultimately the decision is up to you.
STEP 1: To start, ask yourself these questions…
What is the child’s age? This will determine if you need a seat that rear faces, forward faces, or a booster. The recommended ages and stages are:
- Rear Facing: From birth until a MINIMUM of age 2, preferably until age 4+ or when they outgrow the limits of their rear facing convertible seat.
- Forward Facing with a harness: From a MINIMUM of age 2 until a MINIMUM of age 5, usually age 6+, when the child is mature enough to sit with the seatbelt correctly 100% of the time, and/or they have maxed out the limits of the forward facing harnessed seat.
- Booster: From a MINIMUM of age 5 until the child fits properly in an adult seat belt, usually around 11 or 12 years old.
What is the child’s weight and height? The child’s weight and height will determine if you need seats with a large weight or height limit (for tall and/or heavy children), or if an average sized seat will do.
What is my budget? It is important to know that all seats pass the same safety test and save children’s lives, whether it is a $45 seat, or a $450 seat. More expensive seats may have higher limits and more features, but they all offer safety.
What kind of car will this go in? Does it need to fit next to other passengers or car seats? The size of the seat is important when it is going in a small car or next to other passengers or car seats. Do you have head restraints in all positions, and are they moveable? Some car seats require head restraints behind them, and some do not sit well with a head restraint that does not move. Do you have inflatable seat belts (Ford)? If so, you will be limited to a very small number of car seat options that are compatible or you will need to find a seat with higher LATCH limits.
As CPSTs, we take all of this into account when giving seat recommendations to a parent or caregiver.
STEP 2: If you have determined that you need a FORWARD FACING car seat, you’ll need to determine what type you would like to purchase…
Convertible Car Seat: This seat rear faces and forward faces, and potentially lasts from birth until school age, depending on the seat’s limits and the size of the child. For a child who is already forward facing, this seat would not be necessary unless you plan to pass it down to a younger child who will use it rear facing.
Harnessed Booster /Combination Car Seat or 3-in-1: This seat is forward facing only, and converts from a harnessed, forward facing seat, to a high back booster (and no back booster for the 3-in-1). It is the best value for a child who is already forward facing but still needs to be harnessed. Note that some 3-in-1’s are rear facing, which would be an unnecessary purchase for a child already forward facing.
3-in-1 (rear facing to high back booster) or All-in-One: These seats are a convertible car seat plus booster. As stated above, this would be unnecessary unless it will be passed down to a child who will use it rear facing.
STEP 3: Once you have decided what type of seat will work for your lifestyle, you can start looking at limits and sizes…
Height/Weight limits: This is the best place to start! Look at the child’s growth percentiles on the CDC growth curve, and decide what age you want to harness to in order to determining what limits will be necessary. A tall or heavy child who you would like to harness until 7 years old will need a larger seat than a petite child who will be booster ready at 6 years old.
Top harness/booster height: Although listed height and weight limits may be the same, harness height usually differs, and this will impact the longevity of a seat for most children. Also look at booster height. Children have an average of 1” of torso growth a year, so a booster with a 20” top belt guide will last about 2 years longer than one with an 18” belt guide. You can measure your child’s torso by having them sit, and then measure from ground to shoulder.
Overall size side to side: Take car size and other car seats into account. If you need to fit other passengers or car seats, pay attention to the width.
Expiration date: If you want to invest in a seat that will be passed down to a younger sibling, look at seats with an extended life (8-10 years) as opposed to seats with 6 years until expriation.
STEP 4: Now you can focus on the ease of use and bonus safety features. These do not necessarily affect fit, but are personal preference and good to take into consideration when comparing seats…
Harness strap covers: Do you want/need them? Non-regulated strap covers are not allowed, so if the seat does not come with them, you cannot safely add them.
Lower anchors: Are they standard or premium push on anchors? Can you use the anchors in booster mode? What is the lower anchor weight limit and will you even be able to use them?
Harness threading: Will you need to rethread when you need to raise the harness height? Or does the seat have a no rethread harness that raises automatically?
Lock offs: Is there a built in lock off system for seat belt installation?
Safety features: Are there extra safety features such as energy absorbing foam, extra side impact or rollover protection, a steel frame, crumple zones, rigid LATCH, impact absorbing harness, etc? All seats pass the same safety testing, but extra features are worth taking into account when comparing seats.
After narrowing down your choices, head over to your local baby store and check out the car seats in person. Try out the buckles, tighten and loosen the harness, and if the store allows, take the demo seat to your car and try installing it. Once you are comfortable with your final decision, buy the seat and search for a CPST at cert.safekids.org for a seat check!
Want to know what seats to avoid? Take a look at our NOT recommended list.