Shopping for a car seat can be an overwhelming process. There are dozens of choices, but what exactly are the differences between them? Are the more expensive seats safer? What should you pay for, and what should you not worry about? The good news is that every car seat sold in the U.S. must be tested by the manufacturer to meet government standards. "They all provide good protection if they are used correctly," says Mike James, Alabama's Statewide Child Passenger Safety Coordinator. "What you need to think about is which seat will best fit the build and behavior of your child, the design of your car, and your lifestyle," he adds. Here are some outstanding car seats for every age and stage.
Rear-facing infant-only seats with a five-point harness are not a mandatory purchase, but they generally provide the best fit for very young babies. If you have more than one car, consider buying extra bases so you don't have to reinstall the seat every time you switch to a different car.
What's so special: Not only does the Companion have an inflatable headpiece to provide extra side-impact protection for baby's head, but a special rebound bar helps reduce movement of the car seat during a crash. Whether or not these features are truly advantageous, the Companion is both easy to install and easy to use. Like the Chicco KeyFit, the Companion has an extra-low harness strap position and a minimum weight of 4 pounds, which makes it a good choice for lower birth weight or premature babies. The downside? Besides its steep cost, the Companion is heavy and long, which can make it incompatible with some smaller cars.
These seats are called convertibles because these seats face rear for infants and young toddlers, and then they convert to forward-facing seats to accommodate little ones as they grow. (As noted earlier, experts recommend that you buy an infant-only seat for newborns because the seat will fit them better.) You should keep convertible seats in their rear-facing position until your child reaches the maximum rear-facing weight and height allowed by the seat -- that's 30 or 35 pounds in most cases. Kids should then sit in the seat facing forward until they outgrow it by the specified height or weight.
What's so special: If you take long car trips or have a big-time napper, consider splurging on the Parkway. It provides good side-impact protection, and its side wings provide a comfortable resting place for sleepy heads and help keep kids safely in position. Try it out with your child in the store first, though; some find the side wings too confining.
What's so special: If you can find a little wiggle room in your budget, this Britax seat is the real deal, winning raves because it's so intelligently designed and easy to use. And as technicians know, the easier a car seat is to use, the more likely it is to be installed correctly. The Roundabout is a prime choice in the line, even though Britax has introduced pricier models with higher weight limits and extra safety features. "It's not overly large, so it fits in most vehicles easily and accommodates average-size kids very well until they are ready to go into a booster," says DiFilippo.
What's so special: Lots of supportive padding, an extra-low bottom harness slot, and a low minimum weight limit practically guarantee a good fit for your newborn, even if he's small in size or premature (as long as your doc doesn't recommend using a car bed.) These seats are also a cinch to install and tighten. They win extra points for their light weight and for the excellent Chicco strollers that you can purchase as a travel system with them. The larger and longer KeyFit 30 will accommodate babies up to 30 pounds. The great news: It weighs the same as the original KeyFit -- and it costs only about $20 more.
What's so special: "If you can't spend big bucks but want a solid seat, this is a great choice," says DiFilippo. Its basic models are not super plush, but they keep kids comfortable, and all versions are relatively easy to install. One downside: Its harness straps can be difficult to adjust when it's installed facing rear.
What's so special: The SnugRide is a long-time fave for a reason: It's a breeze for parents to use, and its sculpted base makes it easy to install correctly in 90 percent of the cars out there. Because the SnugRide is narrow, it's also a good choice for parents who must squeeze more than one car seat into the same row. Similar to the SnugRide is Graco's more recently introduced SafeSeat, which accommodates larger, slightly longer babies.
What's so special: This is a solid booster at a fair price with a wide choice of patterns. Bonus: It converts to a backless booster, which is more appealing to kids as they get older. The TurboBooster is narrow so it won't hog space, but it may be too narrow for heavier kids.
What's so special: Similar in price and features to the ComfortSport, the Titan offers one extra advantage: It has a particularly low bottom harness slot for rear-facing use, which makes it one of the few convertibles that can actually provide a proper fit for a full-term newborn. "That may make it a good option if you don't have the budget to buy both an infant seat and a convertible seat," says Patty DiFilippo, director of the Essex/Morris Car Seat Inspection Station, in Livingston, New Jersey.
What's so special: It might not be a household name yet, but Sunshine Kids has made a big impression in child-safety circles. This seat is not only a dream to install, but its narrow width also makes it easy to squeeze next to other car seats, and it can be folded when it's not in use. Most notably, it has a harness that can accommodate children from 33 to 65 pounds facing forward. Who needs that? "It's not a must, but any child can benefit, since five-point harnesses can provide additional protection," says Kristy B. Arbogast, PhD, associate director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "These higher-weight seats should be most seriously considered for young children who are on the husky side or for children over 40 pounds who are behaviorally unable to stay in position in a booster seat," she adds. Also available in the Radian 80, which holds children up to 80 pounds.
One important note: LATCH anchors in most vehicles are not intended to be used with children over a certain weight, usually 48 pounds. If you purchase a car seat like this with a high weight limit, you should stop using both the lower and top tether anchors when your child exceeds the weight limit stipulated in your vehicle manual; install the car seat using the vehicle seat belt only.
Combination seats are designed to hold children facing forward in a five-point harness. When the child reaches a specified weight, you remove the harness and convert the seat into a booster seat, which elevates a child so the car's seat belt can restrain her. Booster seats come in two versions -- a low back and a high back (the latter looks like a car seat) -- but neither style has a harness; they are used only with a seat belt.
What's so special: This easy-on-the-wallet and easy-to-install seat keeps children facing forward in a harness that holds up to 65 pounds; then it converts to a booster seat that will hold a child up to 100 pounds. Though its wide girth takes up precious real estate in the car, it accommodates huskier children well. This seat is also sold under the Cosco brand as the Alpha Elite Apex 65.
The safest spot for a car seat is in the middle of the second-row seat. Unfortunately, most cars have LATCH anchors -- which allow you to install a car seat without using a seat belt -- only in the two outside positions of the car's second row. What should you do?
DO try to install your car seat with a seat belt in the rear middle position first. "LATCH is not a safety device -- it's a convenience. If you can get a tight fit in the center using a seat belt, that's your best option," says Mike James, Alabama Statewide Child Passenger Safety Coordinator.
DON'T fret if you can't get a tight fit in the center rear-seating position. Your child will be better off in a properly installed seat in an outboard position than she will be in a seat that's improperly installed in the center.
DON'T use the two inside LATCH anchors of the outer LATCH positions to install a car seat in the center unless your vehicle manual and car-seat manual both specifically tell you that this is allowable.
Peg Rosen is a writer in Montclair, New Jersey. She is a certified child passenger safety technician.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, August 2007.