The Ultimate Car Seat Guide for New Parents

Congrats, you’re going to be a new parent!  Things are constantly changing in the world of newborns, so even if this isn’t your first, there’s still a lot to learn.  To help you mark at least one thing off your list, we’re going to help with narrowing down that dreaded car seat decision with our ultimate car seat guide for new parents.

We all know that walking down the car seat aisle in any store can make your head spin, so here are a few things to think about before making that big decision.

1) Choosing a rear facing only or convertible seat

convertible collageinfant seat collageA rear facing only seat is the most common choice for a new parent. A rear facing only seat is just what it sounds like: a seat that only functions rear facing, and usually has a stay in car base that the carrier can be snapped in and out of for convenience. Rear facing only seats often have a matching stroller.
A convertible is a car seat that stays installed in the vehicle and can be used rear facing and forward facing.  Some people believe that all newborns need to be in a rear facing only seat, but that isn’t the case. If you’re looking to get the most bang for your buck and purchase a seat that will be used for 4-6 years instead of just a few months,  and you won’t miss the convenience of snapping the seat in and out of the base, you may want to consider a convertible seat.

Not all convertibles are created equal though; check out our article on options for newborns in convertible seats.  If you choose the convertible route just make sure you have a plan for how you’d like to keep your child with you on outings and social occasions since you’ll lack that convenience of having a seat that can be taken in and out of the car easily.  Most parents who start with a convertible can choose from baby wearing, using a stroller, carrying an infant seat in the trunk for use outside of the car, or just carrying the baby.

2) Deciding on important features
First and foremost, when it comes to car seats there is no one safest seat.  All car seats must pass the same standards, but company testing results are proprietary so we can’t compare them against each other.  The safest seat is the one that fits your vehicle, your child, your budget, and you can use correctly 100% of the time.  Let’s break those down a bit:
Fits your vehicle – Not all car seats fit the same in all cars.  Obviously the same seats that fit into a big van may not fit into an itty bitty sports car.  The best bet for finding a seat that fits your vehicle is to go to a store that sells a wide variety in car seats.  Big box stores such as Babies R Us and Buy Buy Baby as well as some smaller baby boutique stores allow you to take seats to your vehicle to try out.  Make sure there is plenty of room between the seat and the passenger or driver seat; most seats allow gentle contact with the vehicle seat in front, but a few allow no contact.
Front-to-back space – Many modern vehicles restrict contact with one or both front seats due to airbag sensors, so be sure to read both your child restraint and vehicle manual carefully.   Check out our comparisons of rear facing only seats that fit in small spaces.


Recline angle – You’ll also want to make sure you can get the correct recline.  Newborns need to be at a sufficient recline to keep their head from falling to their chest, blocking their airway.  All car seats have either a line or level that will help you judge if the seat is at the correct angle.

Installation: lower anchors – Make sure you can get a tight installation with 1″ or less of movement at the belt path. Vehicles made after September, 2002 have the LATCH (Lower Anchors And Tethers for CHildren) system. If your vehicle has LATCH you may install using LATCH or seat belt, but never both. LATCH is not any safer than the seat  belt, it’s just a little more convenient in some cases.  If installing in the middle of the back seat (the preferred place for installation, as long as you can get a good install), make sure to read your vehicle owners manual to find out if you can use LATCH in that position or not.  Some vehicles don’t allow it, so the seat would need to be installed with seat belt.

Installation: seat beltSAM_3975When securing the seat with a vehicle seat belt, the belt must be locked in some way.  Some seats have internal lock-offs, pictured here.   All cars made from 1997 on have an internal mechanism to lock the belt, either by pulling the belt from the retractor and ratcheting it back in, or using the locking latch plate at the buckle (sometimes these latch plates must be switched to the child seat position).

Installation: using a locking clip – In older cars, you may need to use a locking clip on a lap-shoulder belt to lock it.  Never use a locking clip on a lap belt only.

Fits your child – Obviously since your child isn’t born yet, this is a hard category to figure out.  Fortunately there are some tried and true seats on the market that will fit most average newborns.  The Convertible Seats for Newborns article listed earlier gives some good options that fit newborns, and you can find good recommendations on our Recommended Seats page for all stages of seats.

Length of Use – Additionally, consider how long you would like to use your seat; rear facing only seats tend to fit anywhere from 6 months to 2 years, depending on the child and the seat.  If you only plan to use it until the child is 6 months or sitting alone, some of the shorter lived seats may be fine.  If you’d prefer to have your child in a rear facing only seat as long as possible, the higher shelled higher weight limit seats will need to be considered.

As for convertibles, we recommend keeping kids rear facing until 3-4 years of age, so choose a seat that gives your child plenty of room to grow. It’s important that your newborn fits properly in their car seat right out of the box. That means the harness straps need to be positioned at or below their shoulders, the straps need to be tight enough to pass the pinch test, and you should not add anything between baby and the seat or between baby and the harness that did not come with it. The car seat aisle is full of additional inserts, strap covers, etc that can be purchased separately. We refer to these as non regulated products, and do not recommend they be used with your seat, unless specifically permitted by the car seat manufacturer. These  products were not crash tested with your seat, and can interfere with the child fitting properly in the seat and the seat’s performance in a crash.

Your budget – Even though you may not have the biggest budget, it doesn’t mean your child will be any less safe.  As mentioned before, all car seats are tested to the same standards so we have no way of knowing if one seat is safer than another.  Car seats range in price from $40-$500+, but you don’t need to break the bank to transport your child safely.  40 dollar seats save children’s lives every day. Define your family’s budget, and that will help narrow down your choices.

You can use the seat correctly 100% of the time – This is another that can be difficult without an actual baby in the seat.  One recommendation is to take a doll or stuffed animal that’s shaped and sized similarly to a newborn to try the seat out.  There are a few convenience things that most parents will need to consider.  Remember you will be putting this child in the car many times, so you want to feel comfortable with it.  Let’s break this category down a bit more:

harness adjust
Rear adjust or front adjust
The first thing to look for in a rear facing only seat is that it’s a front adjust model.  This means that there is a strap at the front of the seat that adjusts the harness straps to the correct tightness. Rear adjust models have two straps on the back of the seat that must be tightened individually. They are a bit cumbersome and can make it difficult to properly tighten the harness.
rethread vs no rethread collage
Harness adjuster
Another convenience feature is a no rethread harness.  This means that in order to move the harness straps up or down you don’t have to take the harness off the splitter plate and reroute it through the slots.
PicMonkey Collage
Size and shape of the car seat
When considering a convertible seat, take note of the shape of the seat in relation to the size and shape of your back seat. A seat with higher or lower sides may be a better fit depending on your vehicle. There is no standard for side impact protection in the US, so while it may seem as though a seat with deeper sides gives more protection, there is no crash test data to support this.
Infant seat handle positions
Handle position
Finally, rear facing only seats have a particular place where the handle needs to go when in the car. Most seats allow the handle in any locked position, but a few require it down and some even require it up.  Here is a nice list of handle rules for a few rear facing only seats.  Needing a handle down while in the car can mean that it will take up more room.

The main thing to remember with being able to use a seat correctly 100% of the time is to make sure you spend a lot of time playing with it.  Know if there are any quirks to the seat and make sure you’re comfortable with them.

3)  What do I do once I’ve narrowed down my choices?
Once you’ve narrowed down your choices and you’ve found a couple that fit all your categories, do some research to see what other parents and techs are saying.  CSFTL also has a Facebook group where members are encouraged to ask car seat questions.  If you’re still having troubles deciding and all your choices have good back up, that’s when you can choose on looks alone.  You may like the pattern of one over the other and that’s a fine way to choose at this stage.

4) Can I buy a used car seat from Craigslist, a garage sale, or a consignment store?
In a word: NO.
If you don’t know the full history of the car seat, you don’t want to use it. A car seat that has been in a crash often does not look any worse for the wear, but it may have damage that would keep it from protecting your child in a subsequent crash. Car seat manuals also state that the harness straps should not be machine washed or submerged in water to clean because it can weaken the straps, and this is commonly overlooked by parents. If seats have been checked as baggage on plane, they may have suffered damage in the cargo hold.

Many caregivers overlook some of these important rules when caring for their seats, and when purchasing a seat from someone you don’t know, you have no way of knowing if it was handled in a way that may not allow it to properly protect your child in a crash.  If you have a friend or relative that would like to donate a seat to you, make sure you know the full history of it and would trust the life of your child with that person.  Car seats can be passed down from older children as well as long as they aren’t expired.  Most seats have expiration dates ranging from 4-10 years.  These expiration dates are listed on the seat and in the manual.
5) I found the seat I want, where do I buy it?
Big box stores and online are both good choices.  Make sure to check the return policy wherever you do decide to buy in case the seat doesn’t work in your vehicle.  Baby registries are always a good way to let family know what exactly you want so you don’t have to worry about returning a seat that a well intentioned family member or friend bought because they liked it. Amazon has some great incentives with their baby registry including a 10% completion discount (15% for Amazon Mom Members), the ability to add products from any website, free returns for 90 days, and they even have a weekly chance of winning a $500 Amazon Gift card.

newborn safeseat
Now that you’ve made your decision and your seat is on its way, what do you do next?  Read your manual (both vehicle and car seat) and find a local CPST (child passenger safety technician) that can educate you on how to correctly install the seat.  To find a local seat check event near you, check out SafeKids website or for a list of local techs search the National CPS certification website. In general, you’ll want the base or seat installed at the 36 week mark for a typical pregnancy.

Good luck with the baby and enjoy moving on to the next thing on your list!

Originally written by Angela Tastad. Edits maintained by CSFTL.