Only what you need for your baby. Really. (OK – and some fantastic things you don’t that are pretty cool.)
You probably know this, but you need a car seat. It’s how your baby will travel in the car at all times. Ignore your Aunt Martha who said she drove around with her kids in cardboard boxes. That’s illegal and there are hefty fines for not having your babe properly strapped in ($600+ in California).
While I knew I needed to get a seat for Astrid, my friends with older babies were comparing “convertible” seats and discussing turning their kids around, which seemed like something I might want to consider when making our selection. Here’s the lowdown for those of you also in the dark:
– Infant car seats are two pieces: the base, which is installed and left in your car, and the carrier, which is the actual seat that clips into and lifts out of the base and has a handle so you can carry the baby in it when you’re going to and from the car. It’s easy and convenient. All infant car seats come with a base – no need to buy separately. If you want to drive with your baby in a car that doesn’t have a base installed, you can thread a normal seatbelt through the seat itself, which is less convenient but just as safe, as long as you do it right. (Hello, Zipcar!)
Their capacity can run up to 35 lbs, but your baby will be too tall for it before s/he hits 35 lbs so don’t worry about the weight limit thing too much. (Most one year olds are too long for an infant seat and only weigh in the range of 20-25 lbs.) These are always installed rear-facing, which is the safest position for a baby.
– Convertible car seats. When your little one outgrows his infant car seat, gone will be the days of carrying Junior into the house fast asleep: convertible car seats are a single piece, all of it installed in your back seat. They’re called “convertible” because they can be installed either rear-facing – as required by law until your baby is a year old or 20 lbs – and then “converted” to a front-facing position.
Convertible seats now have capacities up to 70 lbs, so this will be your car seat for a while. It can also be your infant seat if you like. Some people skip the cost and trouble of buying two seats in the first year and go straight to the convertible seat, many of which are fine for infants. You can definitely do this, but keep two things in mind: you will have to buy infant padding to fill in the extra space around a tiny infant in a large seat and, very inconvenient, you will have to take your infant in and out of the seat to go in and out of your house, the grocery store, etc. rather than leaving him dozing in his comfy detachable infant seat while you have coffee with a friend. I would not wish this on anyone. A sleeping baby is a godsend and I think the extra outlay to get two seats is more than worth it. But if you’re on a super-tight budget, you can always give it a shot.
Most likely, your baby will outgrow her infant seat before she reaches the mandatory 20 lbs/1 year old when she’ll be allowed to face front in the car (still in the back seat), so you’ll install the convertible seat rear-facing first. When the time comes, your child will be thrilled to be turned around to face front because she can see you, you can chat in the rearview mirror, the sun coming in the back window won’t be in her eyes, and she can finally see what’s up ahead. However, in the spring of 2011, the government issued a strong recommendation that kids be kept rear-facing until they’re two because, in a major crash, safety outcomes are 75% better if the child is facing back. That’s a lot better, but good luck convincing your toddler that having her legs up the back seat for another year is a good idea.
– Toddler booster seats are a very small market that bridge the transition from a front-facing seat to booster seat (below). Their capacity starts at 40 pounds and they can only be installed facing forward, so you’d still have to get an infant seat or convertible seat ahead of this, but you’d be off the hook for buying a booster seat (below) because this converts to a booster. I’m honestly not sure why you’d go this route (since there’s very little choice in the market) unless a.) your child’s height and weight made him/her a great candidate, or b.) you’re inheriting some gear that’s not a good fit for where your kiddo is and you need to invest in a new seat at this particular transition point. As with booster seats, you won’t have to worry about this decision for some time though. Just putting it out there.
– Booster seats are the final step before adult seatbelts are appropriate, and these won’t be on your radar for a while. If you’re interested in more detailed info now, Babycenter.com has a good overview of the whys and wherefores. The gist? “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration now recommends that all children who’ve outgrown their car seat continue to ride in a booster seat until they’re at least 8 years old and 4 feet 9 inches tall.” It’s about where the seat belt hits your kiddo – they just need to be taller and heavier to have it help rather than hurt in an accident.
My recommendation: Get an infant car seat and upgrade to a convertible seat when your baby outgrows it.
Next: Car Seats: Buying