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Buying Guide: Car Seats 101


Choosing a new car seat can be intimidating, to say the least.

There’s a lot of information to sift through and a lot at stake.

And you'll be using car seats for a long time: your child will/should be restrained in a car seat from the moment you take them home from the hospital until they grow into adult seat belts, around the age of 7 or 8.

You can relax though: we've done all the research, talked to the experts and even tested them ourselves so we can give you the straight, unbiased goods on what's out there, what to look for and our top picks.

That way you can feel comfortable knowing you’ve made an informed decision about your child’s safety.
 

TYPES OF CAR SEATS:

Infant

Infant car seats are designed to protect little ones during the first year or so, depending on the seat and size of your baby. They face the rear of the car and carry babies up to 22 or even 35 pounds and 29 to 32 inches tall. 

These seats usually have a handle for easy carrying and snap in and out of a base you install in the car, and in and out of your stroller. (They can also be installed just using a vehicle's seat belt, which is handy when you're travelling and need to take a cab.)

Most parents find them super convenient for transferring a sleeping baby, for example, from car to house or from stroller to car, etc.

For more information, see our complete gudie to Buying an Infant Car Seat.

 

Convertible

Convertible car seats are larger and heavier than infant-only car seats. They face the back of the car at first and later turn to face forward, carrying children from birth to somewhere between 40 and 80 pounds and up to 50 inches tall, depending on the seat.

Another new type of convertible seat known as "birth-to-booster" car seat can change from rear-facing to forward-facing, then into a booster seat for children up to 100 pounds. (Note: Some "3-in-1" car seats are not for babies. They're forward-facing only, and convert from car seat for older toddlers to high-back booster to backless booster.)

Read our complete article on Buying a Convertible Car Seat.


Booster

picture of britax frontier booster seat

Once your child outgrows the convertible car seat (based on the seat's height and weight limits), it's time to switch to a booster seat. Boosters use the car's seat belts and are designed for children NO LESS THAN four years old who weigh at least 40 pounds. 

There are two types of booster seats: "backless" and "high-back."buying-guide-infant-car-seatsif possible due to the way they help position the seat belt (especially for wiggly youngsters under 6) and the extra head protection they provide during side impact collisions.

In most provinces, children must ride be in a booster seat until they are nine years old or 145 cm (4 ft. 9 in.) tall.

Read our complete article on Buying a Booster Seat.

 

 

HOW TO CHOOSE THE "BEST" CAR SEAT

We are often asked which car seat is the “safest.”

This is a tricky question because:

  • all car seats in Canada are "safe" (ie meet stringent crash protection tests), and 
  • the safety of a child in a car seat is affected by a variety of factors. 

These factors include:

  1. FIT TO VEHICLE: how well it fits in your specific vehicle (both rear- and forward-facing). You may have problems if the vehicle seat has is angle, has deep contours, humps, or certain types of safety belts. Read the installation instructions for your vehicle (not just the car seat!) before you start to install a  seat. You may sometimes need a crash-tested accessory (like the Sit-Rite) to get the seat at the right angle for your car. 

    Tip: If you're only using one car seat, look for one that can be installed easily in the center of your backseat--since children sitting in the center are at least 43% safer children in the rear window seats ("Child safety seats should be centered in back seat"). This is actually the least used position since it usually doesn't have the anchors needed to use the car seat's convenient connecting hooks (called LATCH or LUAS connectors). This means you have to install the seat using the vehicle's seat belt, which can be a bit tricky to secure properly.

    Because of this, we recommend getting a seat with built-in locking clips ("lockoffs") for the seat belt, which make it easier to install in the center of the back seat. (For example, the latest Britax seats have lock-offs built-in.)

     
  2. FIT TO CHILD: how well it fits your child's unique body type, age, height, and weight. If you have a child who is above average in size, look for a seat with higher heigh/weight limits so you can use it longer. (For example, many seats have a rear-facing height limit of 36" but the Britax convertible seats, like the Boulevard, now last until 49" or 40 lbs and the Diono RXT has a limit of  44" or 45 lbs.)

    Tip: An especially important feature to look for is how long a seat will allow your child to remain rear-facing, the safest orientation. It's our opinion that there is no safety feature as important as this since it is now strongly recommended that children remain rear-facing,  as long as possible. It used to be that experts cited the minimum for forward facing as 20 lbs but now experts like the American Academy of Pediatrics are advising that children stay rear-facing until they reach the upper limit of their car seat, ideally two years or longer.

    It can be hard for parents to put off the desire to turn their child to face the front but since it has been found that "children under age two are 75 percent less likely to die or to be severely injured in a crash if they are rear-facing," this should be a no-brainer ("AAP: Toddlers in Rear-Facing Seats until Two").
     
  3. EASE OF INSTALLATION & USE: how easy it is to install (therefore increasing the likelihood it is installed correctly) and how well you can operate it each and every time you use it (e.g. can you tighten the straps easily, do they tangle, etc), 
     
  4. COST: how well it fits your budget! Car seats are expensive!  However, they are also the one baby item that could one day save your child's life.  They are well worth the money when considered in this light.  Because of this, if you have to pick one item to splurge on, we (obviously) think the car seat is the one. 


So now you see, looking at safety ratings is not enough--if the seat rated "safest" doesn't fit securely in your vehicle, or if you can't figure out how to operate it, it is NOT the best seat for YOU.  All car seats are technically "safe" (don't let a sales person ever tell you otherwise!) and will protect your child if properly used. 

 

TIPS:

  • The "best" car seat is the one that fits your car and your child well, and that you can install properly.
     
  • No matter your child's age, don't rush your child into the next stage/seat. For example, many parents think that their child should move to a booster seat when they become 40 lbs but this is the minimum limit. For car seats, every step forward is a step down in safety so instead of minimums allowed, think of  your seat's maximums (e.g. for height and weight). When thinking of moving your child to the next stage (before the maximum of their current seat), ask yourself the question: "Is today the day I want them to be less safe?" For most people, this is more important than the convenience of a booster or being able to see them (forward-facing).
     
  • Keep them rear-facing as long as you can possibly stand it and then do the same when thinking of switching from harness to booster.

 

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