One of the top requests I get as a Child Passenger Safety Technician is for help deciding on or purchasing a car seat. Parents are looking for a simple answer because there are so many options on the market that it seems impossible to make the decision on your own. While there are quite a few “best buys,” or car seats that will work well for a large percentage of parents, it’s impossible to automatically know what the best choice will be for your child, your car, and your situation. There are many factors to consider. Because of this, I find a checklist of things to look for is more helpful. These are areas that need to be at the forefront of your mind as you evaluate products and help you to focus on what is really important.
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Does the car seat fit my budget?
Start with how much money you can realistically spend on a new car seat. There’s no sense in getting mentally attached to something you just can’t afford–kind of like the advice they give brides on Say Yes To The Dress. There is a little wiggle room with prices, depending on which retailer you are planning to buy from. Plan to shop sales to get the most bang for your buck. Some of my favorite sites to check for deals on car seats include Amazon, Target (watch for Cartwheel deals!), and AlbeeBaby. Also, keep in the back of your mind what you’d like to spend in the long run. Sometimes spending a little more upfront can greatly increase your longevity, making the average cost per year lower. Check out more information about website deals here.
Tip: Don’t be picky with features like colors or patterns. You can often find deep discounts on certain styles that are overstocked or have less popular colors.
Will the car seat fit my child (now and for the foreseeable future)?
Next you’ll need to get a better idea of what type and size of car seat your child will need. If you are planning for a new baby, you can look at infant car seats or convertible seats that are suitable for newborns. It is really important to keep children rear facing until at least two years old. You can continue to keep a child rear facing until they outgrow the rear facing height and weight limits of their car seat. If extended rear facing is your goal, you’ll want to look for higher height and weight limits. If you have a taller child and are worried about height, measure their torso length to determine whether seats you are looking at will leave room to grow. Similarly, if weight is your concern, you can search that have higher weight limits. But if your kiddo on on the smaller side, you might be able to get away with lower weight limits and focus on other features you’d rather have.
Tip: Get a custom recommendation for the correct type of car seat on SaferCar.gov. Compare stats of popular car seats on Car Seats For The Littles. It makes a fabulous custom table with your results! FYI: Car seats with higher height and weight limits include the Graco Extend2Fit, Graco 4Ever, and the Britax Frontier.
Will the car seat fit properly in my vehicle?
This is an important factor that is often overlooked. Car seats can take up a lot of room. It is difficult to assess exactly how much room each one takes up without seeing them in person. This is why I like to go to stores like Babies-R-Us and see if the seat will fit in my vehicle. And “fitting” can also mean more than just the basic measurements. You need to ask these questions:
- Can you get the correct recline angle?
- Where will other passengers sit?
- What other car seats or booster seats do you own, and will they have enough room between them?
- Can I put the car seat in the position I want it in?
That last question is especially important with center seat installations, which may not have standard lower anchors (LATCH) for that position. Each car seat also has different rules on whether or not you can use LATCH in the center, depending on the spacing of those lower anchors. Basically, buying a new car seat when you have several passengers with you every day is kind of like putting together a puzzle. Things have to fit just right or it throws things off.
Tip: Measure the places in your vehicle you are concerned about and use size comparison resources to guide your search. Here are some great comparisons of front-to-back space for rear-facing car seats, fitting three car seats in a row, and seats in trucks.
Is the car seat easy enough for me to use?
Every parent and caregiver has different preferences for car seats. Many parents prefer car seats with premium features like push-on lower anchors and seat belt lockoffs that assist in obtaining a very tight installation with minimal effort. For others, sometimes the simpler the car seat is, the better (such as the Cosco Scenera NEXT, one of my favorites). There’s less to remember with some of the car seats with fewer bells and whistles.
Each car seat comes with instructions that guide you through installation. Taking a peek at those instructions (which are almost always attached to display seats and should always come with new seats) can give you a feel for how complicated the installation will be. If you can’t understand the instructions, that could be a valid reason to avoid that car seat. Car seats don’t do you much good if you don’t know how to use them. Most importantly, try before you buy. Look at a seat in person and test it out. You can even attempt to install it in your own vehicle at places like Babies-R-Us or a local boutique. You’ll get a much better picture of what you can expect with that car seat.
Tip: Check out the “Ease of Use” ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Will this car seat accommodate any special situations that we have?
Special situations can range from things like disabilities that need accommodation or occasions where a babysitter or grandparent will be using the seat often. Keeping your unique situations at the forefront of your mind will help guide you to what will work best for your family. Here are a few things to consider with some situations in particular:
- Health conditions or disabilities in children: Focus on seats that will allow you to keep your child in the “stage” of car seat they are in for as long as possible, that also accommodates the special needs of your child. Sometimes this means finding a way to provide extra head and neck support, such as convertible car seat that can keep children rear-facing longer, or finding a forward facing seat that can keep older children with behavioral challenges harnessed for longer.
- Health conditions or disabilities in parents/caregivers: Focus on finding a seat that can accommodate your condition or disability in the best way possible–such as features for easy installation and harnessing.
- Moving your car seat between cars: What are the needs of the other driver? You might want a seat that is lightweight for switching between cars.
- Additional safety features: Things like an anti-rebound bar will move you into more specialized car seats that will narrow your selection significantly.
- Expiration dates: How long do you plan on using this seat? Do you have multiple children you want to share it with?
- Care and Maintenance: How easy is it to clean? Do you have a baby with reflux etc. that requires frequent cleaning?
Do the reviews confirm my checklist items?
It is always helpful to check the reviews of a car seat, as with any product you purchase. Purchase reviews on retail websites can give you a better feel for what you’ll experience with that particular car seat. Keep in mind (again, as with any product) that these reviews may not be 100% accurate. Focus on common themes you see in the reviews instead of one or two isolated incidents.
Many organizations do independent reviews of car seats. All car seats pass the same federal standards and tests, so just because one organization has a negative opinion doesn’t mean it’s a “bad” car seat. All car seats, when used correctly, are safe. These reviews can still be very useful in determining whether a particular car seat is a good fit for your family:
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS): Booster Seat Evaluations
- Consumer Reports: Car Seat Ratings
- Consumer Reports: Top 5 Convertible Car Seats
- Car Seat Blog: Individual Car Seat Reviews
Purchasing a car seat doesn’t have to be overwhelming when you approach it strategically. Prioritize the features you need or want the most, and that will help you narrow down your choices. From there you can take a more in-depth look at your short list of car seats and compare and contrast them, testing them out in your car if possible. Waiting and watching for the best sales can help you get the best price.
Once you finally make your purchase, don’t forget to ask a Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) to install it. Search here to find one near you. A CPST can help you navigate all of the new instructions and how to ensure that you’re using and installing it correctly. Because no matter which car seat you choose, using it correctly is what’s going to determine whether or not the car seat is going to do it’s job…which is the whole reason you’re buying it, isn’t it?
What other tips have you found that come in handy when buying a car seat? Let us know in the comments! Check out my list of The Best Websites to Find Car Seat Deals!