Choosing and installing a car seat for your first child can be overwhelming. You’ll definitely want to do your research in advance. After the joy and excitement of welcoming a new baby to your family, reality sets in as the hospital shrinks away in your rear view mirror on that first trip home. Fear not, parent to be! I’ve got you covered with everything you need to know about car seats.
There are many options available at many different price points. It is common to put a big ticket item like this on your baby registry. Whether you make the purchase yourself or receive it as a gift, you’ll want to be sure you get a product you’re comfortable with. My favorite sources for researching baby gear are Mom’s Picks and Consumer Reports. There are two broad categories to choose from when bringing your newborn home: infant carriers and convertible car seats.
Infant carriers have a handle to carry the seat. You click the carrier into a base secured in the car. My husband and I started with an infant carrier and a base in each of our cars. One benefit is that you can get travel sets that allow you to click the carrier into a stroller. In our case, we wanted the BOB jogging stroller. The compatible infant carrier is made by Britax, which has a great reputation. Generous family members bought the car seat and jogging stroller for us as shower gifts. All we had to purchase was the spare base and the adapter to click it into the stroller. Another benefit is the ability to let the baby sleep if you can remove the carrier from the car without disturbing the child.
There are also cons to infant carriers. For one thing, they get heavy quickly as the baby grows. They don’t last as long, so if you only plan to have one child, it may not be worth the investment. You will have to get a convertible seat later anyway. And finally, leaving a baby strapped into gear all the time can contribute to positional plagiocephaly (flat head syndrome). This issue has become more common since the “Back to Sleep” campaign. It may not be a major health risk, but it can be a little alarming to notice your cherub’s head looks a bit flat on the back. Taking the baby out of the seat to change their position can help prevent this issue.
Convertible Car Seats
Convertible car seats remain secured in the vehicle and are larger. They have more adjustments to grow with your child from newborn to toddler stage. We also received a convertible car seat from our registry as a gift after our daughter was born. At 17 months old, this is the seat she currently uses. We bought another inexpensive convertible seat for the other car. In fact, we have both upgraded to larger vehicles to accommodate the convertible car seats. Although they take up more space, some of these seats can accommodate a child up to 65 pounds! (Be sure to check the specs on the model you buy.) It is no joke when I say they can grow with your child.
When to Install the Car Seat
It is important to have the car seat installed in advance of your due date. I was convinced I would carry past my due date with my first child. In reality, I ended up delivering 5 days before I was due! Fortunately, we were proactive and installed the car seat about a month in advance. It was a huge relief not to have to worry about that as we rushed to the hospital. Don’t wait: get this done ahead of time!
Car Seat Placement
I’ve heard some conflicting advice on where to place the car seat within your vehicle. Friends of ours were told at the hospital to install it on the driver’s side in the back seat. The logic for this was that their instinct in an accident would be to protect themselves (the driver) and swerve to take the damage on the other side. Personally, I find this line of thinking incredibly flawed. It is called an accident for a reason. You can’t predict if you will be t-boned on one side versus the other.
We installed ours in the middle of the back seat. Regardless of where the impact is, this creates the most space around the baby. It worked well for us with the infant carrier. As we upgraded to larger vehicles and convertible car seats, we do now have them installed on the rear driver side. The reason we moved is because the middle seat in our SUVs is smaller. We couldn’t get the seat secured as snugly there as we could on the side. When making your decision, consider how securely the seat is installed. If you’re worried about side impact, invest in a sturdy, high quality car seat.
How to Install
Front Facing or Rear Facing
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children remain in rear facing car seats until at least age two. This recommendation is based on a study that showed children under 2 were 75% less likely to die or be severely injured if they were rear-facing as opposed to front-facing. That is significant! It was definitely enough to convince me. My daughter will remain rear-facing until she exceeds the car seat’s weight and height limitations for rear-facing installation. And in case you were wondering, it actually doesn’t matter if the child’s feet touch the vehicle seat back.
Another aspect of installation to consider is the angle of recline, which is adjustable on many seats. For our Britax Marathon, the angle needs to be adjusted before the seat is secured in the car. It does have an indicator for the acceptable range for babies versus toddlers. I recommend doing a quick search for instructional videos online. Some manufacturers have videos on their websites. If yours does not, a YouTube search will usually prove fruitful.
Latch versus Seat Belt
Once you have the angle of recline squared away, you’ll want to decide whether to install with the latch system or the seat belt. Not all vehicles have the latch system. If yours does, you’ll see a small round plastic piece on the the seat near the seat belts. It will have a car seat icon and indicates where the latch can be found. You may need to reach into the crack between the seat and the seat back in your car to find it.
At this point, you should be ready to install the car seat. I recommend keeping your cell phone with you and watching the video as you work. Some seats are easier to install than others. Having the visual should help. Once you are finished, you’ll need to verify the seat is snugly in place. Give it a good shake to ensure it does not slide more than an inch side to side. You can also get it checked for free at some fire departments or police stations. They may even help you install it if you’re having trouble. Look for an inspection station near you here.
Some Final Tasks & Considerations
If you live in a place with cold winters, be aware of the dangers of over-dressed kids in car seats. Putting your child in a bulky coat or snowsuit can prevent you from sufficiently tightening the harness. You may need to warm up the car before you head out. Dress your child in a light jacket and put a blanket on them if needed. Be sure the plastic clip on the harness is at armpit level on your baby.
Don’t forget to register your new car seat for recall notifications. All new seats come with a card you can fill out and mail in. I registered all our baby gear online. We did get one recall notification and quickly remedied it. The company sent a “fix kit” and instructions.
Finally, if you choose an infant carrier you may want to buy spare bases. Even if you only have one car, it can be handy to give the other base to a friend or relative. This makes it easy if you have an emergency and need someone else to pick up your child at daycare.
Please share this article with an expecting mom or dad you know!