A Growing Family’s Guide to Car Seats

(Last Updated On: August 4, 2018)
Graco Sequel newborn fit
Graco Sequel newborn fit

When a newborn joins your family, it’s an exciting and overwhelming time! In anticipation of the newest little’s arrival, there are so many items to research and purchase. But only one of those new items is a critical purchase that’s designed to keep your baby safe in the event of a crash — baby’s first car seat.  We’ll look at some important factors to consider in choosing baby’s first ride.

Car Seats for Newborns

Three types of car seats are designed to fit a newborn:

  • Rear facing only car seats
  • Convertible car seats
  • Multimode car seats

There are advantages and disadvantages to using each type from birth.  We’ll walk through the different types and share some pros and cons for each variety.  But first, here are the factors which may contribute to your decision:

Length of Use

Consider how long you would like to use your seat. Rear facing only seats may not be a long lasting option, depending on the child and the seat.  If you only plan to use it until the child is 6 months old or sitting up unassisted, 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, consider a rear facing only seat with higher height and weight limits.

Budget

Regardless of a car seat’s price point, all car seats are safe when installed and used properly every time. Some higher priced seats have additional ease-of-use features or more padding, but sometimes, they don’t! Never feel that you need to go beyond your budget to keep your child safe.

We can’t stress this enough: All car seats are tested to the same federal safety standards.

Car seats range in price from $40 to $500+, but you don’t need to break the bank to transport your child safely.  Low budget car seats also save children’s lives.

Pros and Cons of different seat types for Newborns

A rear facing only car seat is just what it sounds like: a car seat that only has one mode, rear facing. This type of seat generally has two parts — a base that remains installed in the car, and a carrier that clicks into and out of the base. Rear facing only car seats are sometimes sold as part of a travel system that includes a stroller.

Though many families enjoy the convenience of leaving a base installed in the vehicle and moving the carrier portion in and out, most rear facing only car seats can also be safely installed without the base. This is convenient for airplane travel, taxi rides, Uber/Lyft, or other travel situations.

Safety tip: Rear facing only car seats are only designed to click into their compatible car seat base.  They’re not designed to click securely into shopping carts even though they make a clicking noise when placed in a shopping cart.

Pros of rear facing only car seats:

  • Attach to some strollers
  • Convenient for families on the go
  • Multiple bases can be purchased for grandparents or other caregivers
  • Most models can be installed without the base

Cons of rear facing only car seats:

  • Usually the shortest lived type of car seat, depending on the seat’s limits and the child’s growth
  • Can be heavy when carrying the car seat and baby
  • Some models may not properly fit a newborn

To help families narrow down the options, we maintain a list of our favorite rear facing only car seats.

A convertible car seat has two modes, rear facing and forward facing. This type of car seat typically remains installed in the vehicle. Convertible car seats have higher rear facing height and weight limits than most rear facing only car seats.

Pros of Convertible Car Seats

  • Higher height and weight limits mean that most families will use a convertible car seat for far longer than a rear facing only car seat
  • Can have a range of acceptable reclines to allow an older child to sit more upright
  • Stay installed in the vehicle
  • Can be installed forward facing once a child is at least age 2, though CSFTL advocates that children ride rear facing until they’ve outgrown their car seat in rear facing mode by height or weight.

Cons of Convertible Car Seats

  • Remain installed in the vehicle
  • Can take up a lot of front to back space when reclined correctly for a newborn
  • Not all available options fit a newborn properly
  • Not available as part of a travel system

A multimode car seat has three or more modes: rear facing, forward facing, high back booster, and sometimes a backless booster. Like convertible car seats, multimode car seats also have higher rear facing limits than a rear facing only car seat and stay installed in the car. This type of car seat can be installed forward facing once a child is at least age 2, though CSFTL advocates that children ride rear facing until they’ve outgrown their car seat in rear facing mode by height or weight.

This type of car seat can be used in booster mode once the child is at least age 5 and meets the minimum height, weight, and maturity requirements to ride in a booster seat.

Pros of Multimode Car Seats:

  • Long lasting, can be used for several years of a child’s life
  • Can have a range of acceptable reclines to allow an older child to sit more upright
  • Stay installed in the vehicle

Cons of Multimode Car Seats:

  • Can take up a lot of front to back space when installed for a newborn
  • Not all available options fit a newborn properly
  • Multimode car seats may expire before a child is safe to ride in only a seat belt

When it comes to newborns, not all convertible or multimode car seats are created equal –- explore some options and see what’s right for your family. Our list of recommended convertible and multimode car seats includes all of our favorite options.  It’s a great place to start your search!

Car seat features to consider when making your choice

Recline Adjuster

If your vehicle seat has any kind of slope to it, you’ll need to recline the car seat to account for that angle.  Some rear facing only bases have a built-in foot that extends or retracts, while some include a plastic piece that can be removed or added back on. Some convertible and multimode car seats have a foot that extends or retracts to adjust the rear facing angle, while some have a more complex but easy to use recline mechanism.  While all varieties are safe, we find that some are easier to use than others because either the mechanism works well or there aren’t any removable parts.

Recline Indicator 

Here’s another area where there’s a vast range of options — a single line on the outside of the seat’s shell, a bubble indicator, a wheel — all of these exist!  Since all car seats used for newborns need to be installed at a fairly reclined angle, an easy to read recline angle indicator can help with installation.

Convertible and multimode car seats have front adjust harnesses.  Rear facing only car seats have two different types of harness adjusters — rear adjust or front adjust.  This feature can be crucial because one is much easier to use than the other!

The harness on a front adjust car seat is simple and straightforward to use — just pull the strap at the front of the seat to tighten the harness. Push the button between the child’s legs and pull at the shoulders to loosen the harness on most seats.

Rear adjust harnesses are increasingly hard to find, and we’re pretty happy about that! They 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.

As the child grows, the harness needs to move up the car seat’s shell. There are two types of harness adjusters.

No Rethread Harness

This type of harness adjuster uses some type of button or tab on the headrest to raise the harness to the correct position in relation to a child’s shoulders and the direction they are riding in the vehicle.

Rethread Harness

This type of seat has two ore more slots for the harness straps. Making an adjustment requires removing the harness loops from the splitter plate on the back of the of the car seat, manually threading them through the cover and the next set of harness slots, then reattaching the straps to the splitter plate.

Cover

Removing the cover to wash

At some point in time, your baby is likely to leave some type of present in their car seat that requires a washing of the cover.  Some covers are easier than others to remove, some cannot be thrown in the wash, and most cannot be put in the dryer.  If washability is a concern, browse through the online manual of the car seats you’re considering before purchasing to determine which one best suits your needs.

Harness Covers

Rear facing only car seat harness cover

Rear facing only car seat harness cover

Not every car seat includes harness covers.  Some parents and caregivers feel that children are uncomfortable without harness covers, but keep in mind that it’s often better to remove these for newborns, as it improves the harness fit. Covers purchased separately cannot be used as they have not been crash tested with the seat.

Canopy Size

Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 Nido Review

Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 Nido Canopy

Rear facing only car seats include some type of canopy that goes over the front of the seat.  Some canopies are lovely and large while others are tiny and not that helpful.  Some are considered optional and can be removed, though do check your car seat’s manual to confirm this.

Selecting the Right Car Seat for your Vehicle

One great way to find a car seat that fits your vehicle is to go to a store that sells a wide variety of car seats.  Many stores allow you to take the display models out to your car to try; call ahead to confirm.

Another option is to test install a friend’s car seat in your vehicle or purchase a car seat from a retailer with a return policy in the event that the car seat doesn’t fit properly. Be sure to consider front to back space of the car seat and the height of the driver and front seat passenger. Make sure there is plenty of room between the seat and the passenger or driver seat; many seats allow gentle contact with the vehicle seat in front, but a few allow no contact or specify a clearance rule.

Pro Tip: Check the vehicle owner’s manual as well as the car seat manual. Many newer vehicles prohibit contact with the vehicle seat due to the advanced airbag system.

Some vehicles have flat bench seats which make installing a car seat less difficult, while others have sloped seating areas and fixed buckle stalks that make selecting and installing a car seat a real challenge!  Take some time to look at the shape of your vehicle’s seat to help narrow your car seat options. For example, a car seat with a wide bottom won’t work well in a recessed seating area while a car seat with a narrow base would work better in that position.

Once you’ve narrowed down your choices and found some options that meet your needs, do some research to see what other parents and Child Passenger Safety Technicians are saying.  Car Seats for the Littles has a Facebook groupFacebook page, and email where members are encouraged to ask car seat questions.  

You've made the choice! Now, Installation and Use

Once you’ve selected your child’s car seat, it’s time to install and use it properly on every ride.

Harnessing

Learn to harness your child into the car seat prior to the child’s arrival. Use a doll or stuffed animal that’s shaped and sized similarly to a newborn to try the seat out.

  • For rear facing, harness straps are positioned at or below the child’s shoulders
  • Harness straps are tight enough to pass the pinch test

Installation Methods

There are two methods of installing car seats: with lower anchors or the vehicle seat belt.  Either method is safe if it allows for a secure installation with less than 1 inch of movement at the belt path.  Virtually all car seats do not allow the lower anchors and seatbelt to be used together. It’s one method or the other.

Center Seating Position

Statistically, the center seating position is safer than the outboard positions.  However, there are some logistical challenges around installing a car seat there. In most cases, a center seating position installation cannot use the lower anchors because each outboard seating position has a dedicated set that’s designed only for the outboard seating position.  The vehicle’s owner’s manual and the car seat manual will state whether or not borrowing a lower anchor from each of the outboard seating positions is allowed. When both the vehicle manual and the car seat manual agree, then and only then can lower anchors be borrowed.

lower anchor installation

Lower anchors

Vehicles made after September 2002 have the LATCH (Lower Anchors And Tethers for CHildren) system. The lower anchors are small metal bars, either in the seat crack, or in small plastic encasements, sometimes with small “doors” in front.  The car seat will have a latch strap (or two straps) with hooks at either end that hook onto these bars. Then the strap must be tightened.

Britax Endeavours Review

Britax Endeavours Seat belt installation

When securing the seat with a vehicle seat belt, the seat belt must be locked in some way.  Some car seats have lockoff devices built onto the car seat or the car seat base that secures the vehicle seat belt instead of needing to lock the belt manually.

All cars made from 1997 on have an internal mechanism to lock the vehicle seat belt.  These seat belts lock either by pulling the seat belt all the way out from the retractor until it clicks, then feeding the locked belt back into the retractor, or using the locking latch plate at the buckle (sometimes these latch plates must be switched to the child seat position).

What's Not Recommended?

Joovy toy car seats

Joovy toy car seats

The car seat aisle is full of additional inserts, strap covers, and other items that can be purchased separately from a car seat. These are non-regulated aftermarket products. The vast majority of these products should not be used with or attached to your child’s car seat unless they are specifically permitted by the car seat manufacturer.

These products were not crash tested with your child’s car seat and can interfere with the child fitting properly in the seat and the seat’s performance in a crash.  The toy car seats you see here are also not crash tested.

If you don’t know the full history of the car seat, there’s no way to determine if that seat is safe to use.  The only scenario where we’d suggest taking a used car seat is when it comes from a trusted friend and the seat isn’t expired, hasn’t been in a crash, has been cleaned properly, and has been maintained properly.

Risks of Used Car Seats

Crashed: 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. We’ve watched crash tests where the seat twisted in half during the test, but appeared intact afterward.

Cleaned incorrectly: Car seat manuals provide very specific cleaning instructions for the seat. Cleaning in any other way than the manual outlines can put the seat at risk of being unreliable in a crash. In general, harnesses cannot be washed in a machine or submerged in water and you can’t use anything harsh to clean the seat, which means no disinfectant wipes or bleach.

Overall condition: Was the seat mistreated? Check with the previous owner about how it was treated. Inspect the seat for any damage. Keep in mind there can be unseen damage to the seat and consider the risks associated with a mistreated seat. 

Overall Thoughts

Before your child arrives, read your vehicle and car seat’s manual, then find a local Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) who can check your install and educate you about your seat.  Some CPSTs schedule individual appointments while others work larger events that you can find on the SafeKids website. Other resources include the CSFTL CPST listing and the National CPS certification website.

Pro Tip: When using the National CPS certification search engine, input city and state only or county and state only for best results.

This article may be a little long but we hope it’s covered the basics and helped you choose the right car seat for your Little!  Once you’ve chosen that car seat, make sure to install, then use it correctly on every ride. Remember the right seat is the one that fits your child, fits your car and fits your budget – and that you can use correctly every time.