You'll start with your newborn in an infant car seat. As your child grows, you'll need to buy a succession of car seats to maintain a consistently safe and comfortable fit. But which seat should you use when? Use this car seat guide to gauge when it's time to sit tight or move up to the next level.
Infant car seat
Use an infant car seat (always rear-facing) from birth until your baby reaches 23 months or the seat's height and weight limits. Weight limits are typically 22 pounds, but sometimes higher depending on the model. Weight limits are listed on the seat and in the instruction manual. When your baby reaches the seat's limits, which may be as soon as 6 to 9 months old, you'll need to switch to a convertible car seat in order to keep her rear-facing at least until her first birthday.
Use a convertible car seat rear-facing until your baby is 1 year old and weighs 22 pounds at least, but they are safer staying rear facing until 23 months. Some convertible seats can be used in the rear-facing position for children who weigh up to 30 to 35 pounds. And research shows that babies are safest in a rear-facing orientation so it's best to keep them that way for as long as you can. Once your baby reaches a convertible seat's height and weight limits in the rear-facing mode, switch the seat around, and use it facing forward until your toddler reaches the height and weight limits for the forward-facing seat. Weight limits for most are generally from 40 to 65 pounds, though more and more convertible models have even higher weight limits.
Toddler booster / combination seat
As an alternative to a convertible seat that can face forward, some seats are forward-facing only. This forward-facing-only seat is used with an internal harness for toddlers, who typically weigh from 20 to 65 pounds. The internal harness can then be removed and the forward-facing seat can be used as a belt-positioning booster for children who weigh from 60 to around 100 pounds, depending on the model. (Learn more about toddler booster-combination car seats.)
Belt-positioning booster seat or standard booster seat
When your child reaches the weight and height limits of the harness system of the convertible or toddler-booster seat, it's time for a belt-positioning booster seat for your child. (See our booster car seat Ratings.) Boosters raise the child up in the vehicle seat to allow the safety belt to pass correctly across their collarbone and sternum (not their neck) and low across the child's upper thigh and hips (not their abdomen). Both use the vehicle's safety belt to restrain the child. Some models also have some sort of belt guide to better position the safety belts over a child's shoulders.
Your car's safety belts
When your child is tall enough to use the car's safety belts, typically at least 57 inches and from 8 to 12 years old, and can ride comfortably seated in the vehicle's seat, she can ride with just a car's safety belts. Even with a safety belt, all children under age 13 should ride in the back seat.
Types of child car seats
The types of car seats available include infant car seats, travel systems, convertible seats, toddler booster seats, belt-positioning booster seats, built-in seats, and special seats. From birth until your child reaches a height of 4 feet 9 inches, he will potentially go through several car seats before being ready for the vehicle belts alone.
Where to buy?
Discount stores such as Kmart, Target, and Wal-Mart, and baby superstores such as Babies-R-Us and Baby Depot offer the largest selection of car seats. Department stores are also a good source for child seats. You'll generally have to go to a specialty boutique to find higher-end models such as Britax and Orbit. Wherever you shop, ask to take the child seat outside to make sure it's compatible with your car. If the store won't let you, at least make sure you can return the seat if it doesn't work out--or go to another store.
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