8 Tips for Choosing a Child's Car Seat

A car seat is one of the most important purchases you'll make for your child -- consult these tips from the experts at the American Automobile Association (AAA) when making your choice.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), during 2005, motor vehicle crashes killed nearly 2,000 children under 14 and injured over 230,000. Having a car seat that's appropriate for your child's size and age -- and that has been installed properly -- is essential. Here are 8 tips that will help you get the right one.

How To Install A Car Seat
How To Install A Car Seat

1. Read your vehicle owner's manual carefully before going shopping -- to see exactly where the car seat should go and how it should be installed.

Having scanned the manual will ensure a better buying experience. Car eats can be attached using either the seat belt or the LATCH system (which stands for the Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children system, and which all new vehicles have). You can decide before buying which one you want to use and then look for a seat based on how you want to install it -- belt or LATCH.

If you decide to use LATCH, make sure you know where the LATCH attachments are in your vehicle -- there may not be any in the middle, rear-seating position, which is the safest spot for a child.

Even Child Passenger Safety (CPS) technicians read the vehicle owner's manual for installation instructions, notes Greg Billings, a CPS technician in Chico, California. Technicians like Billings are certified by the government to make sure child safety seats are properly installed -- they can help you once you've purchased your car seat.

CPS technicians can be found at police stations, fire stations, hospitals, your local AAA, and more. The NHTSA has a searchable database to help locate one in your area (www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/childps/contacts/).

2. Make sure you choose the correct seat for your child's age, weight, and height.

Each car seat owner's manual details the weight and height specifications for that seat. Here are some general guidelines.

  • Rear-Facing Seats: For newborns and infants. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children ride in rear-facing seats as long as possible. You'll know your child has outgrown the rear-facing seat when his head is within 1 inch of the top of the seat, explains Billings. The old thinking that a child is ready for a forward-facing seat when he's 12 months old and reaches 20 pounds is outdated -- height is the most important concern.
  • Forward-Facing Seats: Children must be at least 2-years-old or have reached the maximum height or weight capacity of the car seat. Billings explains, "The child has outgrown the seat when the middle of his head (or top of his ears) is above the top of the seat, or when their shoulder level is above the top harness slot."
  • Booster Seats: Children should be over 40 pounds. Around 8 years of age, they may be ready to graduate to the adult seat belt used without a booster in the back seat of the car -- never the front seat. Check to see that both the lap and shoulder belts fit snugly.

3. Know how much room you have in the back seat. A seat with a large base may not fit in a small car -- you may have to opt for one with a narrower base instead.

Also consider who'll be sitting in the back seat. How many children do you have? How many are in car seats? Take back seat measurements before you go shopping and bring the measuring tape with you to the store to measure the base of the seats.

4. Make installation easy. There should be clear instructions on the seat itself. Choose one that explains installation with a diagram as well as text.

Make use of all the instructions you can -- those in the instruction booklet (which should always be kept with the seat), and the diagrams on the seat itself -- to have the best possible chance of installing the seat correctly.

A tip to expectant parents? Get the seat installed before it's time to bring baby home from the hospital.

The easiest way to ensure correct installation? Have a CPS technician in your area do it for you.

5. Check the belt path -- make sure it's easily accessed, and that the seat belt is properly fastened and secure.

If you're going to install the safety seat with the car's seat belt, you'll do so using the safety seat's belt path -- it's what will keep the seat secure. Once the seat belt is in place on the safety seat and properly fastened, there should be no more than 1 inch of side-to-side motion at the belt path -- meaning, if you grab the seat at the point where the belt enters the belt path, and push the seat side-to-side, you shouldn't be able to move the seat more than 1 inch.

6. Choose a seat with two-piece retainer clips. These clips are more difficult for a child to unfasten.

The two-piece clips take some dexterity and ingenuity to unfasten. Without these, toddlers may be able to unbuckle and climb out of their seat by themselves.

7. Look for accessible harness adjusters.

All safety seat harnesses adjust, but you want to make sure the adjustments are easy to reach and simple to use. An improper harness adjustment makes the seat less effective in the event of a crash.

8. Choose something easy to clean. Seats made with a smooth fabric will wipe clean more easily than a textured fabric such as corduroy.

This one's more about cleanliness than safety -- but easy-to-clean is a virtue, too.

For more information on car safety, check out the AAA Web site. To find more guidelines for every age and type of seat, click on For Kids' Sake; then scroll down to the Safety Seat Guide.

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