The New Parent's Guide to Infant and Child Car Seats

Using the right seat and installing it properly is key to keeping your kid safe in the car.

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Preparing to welcome a child into the world? If you plan to take your kid anywhere via car, a properly sized, properly installed child safety seat is a must-have.

Here’s what to consider when shopping for a child safety seat (and, potentially, your next family-friendly vehicle). Whatever models you may be considering, we encourage you to consult the owner’s manuals of both the vehicle and child seat to verify compatibility.

Types of Car Seats

  • Rear-facing car seats are designed expressly for infants, usually under 35 pounds or 35 inches tall. These seats often come in two pieces: a base, which you attach to a full-size seat in the car (installation methods detailed below), and a removable basket-like seat, which you can quickly click into and out of the base. Some infant seats can also connect to a stroller—a nice convenience when you don’t want to lift your kid out of one seat and into the next. If you start with a rear-facing infant seat, you’ll need to buy a new seat as soon as your child exceeds the weight or height limit, which could be as soon as nine months. It's also important to note that a car seat isn’t a replacement for a bassinet; your child should spend no more than a few hours in a seat at a time and needs continuous adult supervision while there, as your infant’s head might droop forward due to the seatback’s incline.
  • Convertible car seats can accommodate children beyond infancy, transforming from a rear-facing design to a front-facing one when your kid meets the appropriate size and weight requirements. Compared with dedicated infant seats, convertible ones often offer higher weight limits (e.g., up to 50 pounds) and allow you to keep your child in the safer rear-facing position for longer. On the downside, they can be bulky, and since they don’t usually utilize a separate base, they are harder to move between vehicles than an infant seat.

  • All-in-one seats go a step further than convertible designs by adapting into high-back and even backless booster seats to support kids up to 12 years old. That said, most car seats expire within six to 10 years, so an all-in-one model likely won’t last through every phase of your child’s development.

  • Booster seats are for school-aged kids who have outgrown the forward-facing car seat. They typically consist of a seat bottom (possibly with attached armrests) and elevate your child so that they may safely use one of the car’s seatbelts. According to NHTSA, a seatbelt needs to lie snugly across a person’s upper thighs, not stomach, and the shoulder strap should fall across the shoulder and chest and not cross the neck or face.

Whichever design you choose, know that child seats only last so long. Be sure to consider expiration dates when shopping. It’s also best not to accept hand-me-down seats, as you often can’t know if a used seat is structurally sound just by looking at it.

How to Install a Car Seat

  • Seatbelts: The most universal installation method uses one of the car’s seatbelts to hold the safety seat in place. Route the belt through the designated path on the child seat and fasten the buckle. After doing so, engage the car’s seatbelt lock by pulling the remainder of the belt until you feel a click. Then, while keeping tension on the belt around the seat or base, release the excess so it retracts, securing the seat in place.

  • LATCH systems: LATCH stands for lower anchors and tethers for children, and this system provides a quicker means of securing a seat than the seatbelt method. You simply attach tethered hooks from the safety seat to built-in metal anchors in the car. You can find these anchors located at or near the bottom of a seatback as well as behind the seat (for up-and-over attachment). Consult your car seat’s owner’s manual for specific details on which anchors to use and how much weight the system can support.

A properly installed seat will be unable to move in any direction by more than one inch.

Can Lower Anchors Be Combined With a Seatbelt?

Not usually. Most car-seat manufacturers insist you use one or the other, as using both may put stress on the wrong part of the seat and cause it to fail.

Where Can You Install a Child Seat?

The best place to attach a seat is in the second row. While some studies suggest the center seat is safest, you may have to use an outboard seat, either because you have captain’s chairs in the second row or perhaps the middle seat doesn’t have anchors and you wish to use the LATCH system. You should never use the LATCH anchors of the two outboard seats to secure a child seat in center position.

How to Buckle a Child in a Safety Seat

  1. Loosen the harness belts, ensuring they’re not twisted and that they’re routed through the appropriate slots for your child’s height.
  2. Buckle the harness and chest clip.
  3. Pull up on the belts to remove any slack before tightening the rest of the harness.
  4. Tighten the belts so they rest snugly and securely against your child’s chest. If you are able to pinch the belt together at any point, it is too loose.
  5. Ensure the chest clip is aligned with your child’s breastbone or the top of their armpits.

What Makes a Vehicle Ideal for a Child Seat?

  • Interior space: In smaller cars, bulky child seats may rob a front-seat passenger of legroom or seat recline. Vehicles with ample interior space can avoid that, especially if you can slide the second row fore and aft. Some three-row SUVs and minivans even offer a second-row seat that can slide forward or inboard with a child seat installed, granting easier access to the third-row.

  • Center-seat anchors: Not every vehicle with a three-seat back row offers lower anchors for the middle position. If you’d like your child to ride there—or if you have the need to install seats for multiple children—look for a vehicle that accommodates the LATCH system in all three positions, such as the Honda Odyssey or Volkswagen Atlas.

  • Anchor access: Depending on the seat design, accessing lower anchors can be as easy as popping off plastic anchor covers or as difficult as blindly grasping for anchors within a very tight space. If your vehicle is more like the latter, don’t fret: Clip-on LATCH guides are available to make locating the anchors easy.

  • Big doors: There’s a reason minivans have large sliding doors. They give parents a lot of room to work to install a child seat. Not a van fan? Look instead for vehicles like the Honda CR-V compact crossover, with rear doors that open wide—possibly a full 90 degrees—to maximize your maneuvering space.
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Evan McCausland
Car, truck, train, or bus—if a vehicle has wheels, chances are Evan McCausland is interested in it. More importantly, he’s interested in helping others learn more about cars and trucks, especially when it comes time to make a decision on their next vehicle purchase. For nearly two decades, he’s been fortunate to have the opportunity to do just that, writing for major automotive publications, automotive clubs, and automakers alike.