The Ultimate Car Seat Guide for New Parents

(Last Updated On: April 27, 2017)

Adding a newborn to your family is an exciting time that requires a lot of choices. To help you mark at least one thing off your to-do list, we’ve gathered some key things to consider when selecting a critical safety item — your child’s first car seat.

1) Choose a Rear facing Only or Convertible Car Seat

3 primary types of car seats fit newborns: rear facing only, convertible, and multimode car seats. Each type has some distinct advantages and disadvantages; here’s a look at some critical deciding factors.

Rear Facing Only

Rear facing only car seats

Rear facing only car seats

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:

  1. A base that remains installed in the car.
  2. A carrier that clicks into and out of that base.

Rear facing only cars seats are often sold as part of a travel system that includes a stroller.

View our list of recommended rear facing only seats.

Convertible or Multimode Car Seats

Convertible car seats

Convertible car seats

A convertible or multimode car seat remains installed in the vehicle and can be used rear facing when the child is 4 years old or younger, then converts to forward facing for older toddlers.  Multimode seats then convert to a booster seat.

Reasons to choose a convertible or multimode car seat for a newborn:

  • Value – A convertible or multimode car seat can last 6-10 years. Most infants outgrow their rear facing only car seats when they’re roughly 9-12 months of age.
  • Convenience – This type of car seat remains installed in the vehicle. Families who can carry the baby using other options can benefit from a convertible or multimode car seat for their newborn.

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.

View our list of recommended convertible and multimode car seats.

2) Important Features

When it comes to car seats, there is no one safest model or brand.  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 to 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.   Our comparison of rear facing only seats that fit in small spaces has some additional suggestions.

Recline angle indicator

Recline angle indicator

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.

Vehicle seat belt lockoff secures the seat belt

Vehicle seat belt lockoff secures the seat belt

Installation: Vehicle Seat Belt – When securing the seat with a vehicle seat belt, the belt must be locked in some way.  Some seats have internal lockoff devices that secure the vehicle seat belt.
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: 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.

Fit to Child – If your child isn’t born yet, this can be tough to figure out!  It’s important that your newborn fits properly in their car seat from that first ride home.

    • The harness straps are positioned at or below the child’s shoulders
    • The harness straps are tight enough to pass the pinch test
    • Do not add anything between baby and the car seat
    • Do not place anything between baby and the harness that did not come with the car seat.
      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.

Length of Use – 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 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 car seat with higher height and weight limits.

Room to GrowWe recommend keeping kids rear facing until 3-4 years of age, so choose a seat that gives your child plenty of room to grow.

Budget – Regardless of a car seat’s price point, all car seats are safe when installed and used properly every time.

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

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

Proper Installation – Take some time to read the manual and install the base (rear facing only car seats) or the car seat (convertible or multimode car seats) before your child joins the family. Reach out to a Child Passenger Safety Technician near you for a seat check!

Correct Use 100% of the Time – Learn to strap 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.

Harness Adjustment

Front adjust and rear adjust harnesses

Front adjust and rear adjust harnesses

Rear Adjust or Front Adjust
These days, most rear facing only car seat harnesses adjust at the front of the carrier. This is a good news — this type of adjuster is fairly simple to use.
Rear Adjust harnesses 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 harness and no rethread harness

Rethread harness and no rethread harness

Harness Adjuster
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 method uses some type of button or tab on the headrest to raise the harness to the corret postion at or above the child’s shoulders.
  • Splitter Plate – this method requires removing the harness loops from the splitter plate on the back of the carrier portion of the seat, manually threading them through the cover and the next set of harness slots, then reattaching the straps to the splitter plate.

3) Selecting a Seat

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) What About Used Car Seats?

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.

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 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.
      • Harness straps – Car seat manuals require that harness straps should not be machine washed or submerged in water to clean them. This can weaken the straps, making them unreliable in a crash.
      • Gate checked on airplanes – If a car seats was checked as baggage on an airplane, it may have been dropped on the tarmac at an angle that the seat wasn’t designed to support.

Safer Scenarios

      • A trusted friend or relative passes on a car seat that isn’t expired, hasn’t been in a crash, and hasn’t been checked on an airplane.
      • Older children outgrow a car seat that isn’t expired and pass it down to their younger sibling.

5) Where to Buy

Once you’ve decided on the perfect car seat, 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 and often has great deals on some very popular car seats!

6) Installation

gb Asana 35 DLX: 4 days old

gb Asana 35 DLX: 4 days old

Now that you’ve made your decision and your seat is on its way, what do you do next?  The 36 week mark for a typical pregnancy is a good time to start installing your child’s car seat.

Before heading to the hospital, read your vehicle and car seat’s manual, then find a local CPST (Child Passenger Safety Technician) who can educate you on how to correctly install the seat.   Some CPSTs schedule individual appointments while others work larger events, found on the SafeKids website. Another resource or for a list of local techs is the National CPS certification website.

Originally written by Angela Tastad. Edits maintained by CSFTL.