Every expectant parent asks the same question when shopping for infant car seats: Which seat is safest? Every car seat sold in the US needs to meet the same strict safety standards, but the key question is whether the seat’s design makes it easy to use. Misuse is a rampant problem with car seats — by some estimates, up to 90% of seats are being used improperly. There’s a huge range of factors that affect ease of use, from the simplicity of the installation process to the layout of the instruction manual to the clarity of the labels on the seat itself.
When you’re shopping, get your hands on a few different seats. Buckle and unbuckle the harness. Tighten the harness and loosen it up again. Try adjusting the harness height. Release the seat from the base and snap it back in. This will help you get to know how the seats work, and identify which seats seem intuitive and offer nice, smooth mechanics.
2. Does it fit in your car?
Believe it or not, compatibility problems between car seats and cars are not uncommon. Infant car seats in particular can be very deep, and in smaller cars sometimes there’s just not enough space in the back seat for the car seat to fit unless one of the passengers up front is riding with his knees up to his chest. Each seat has different dimensions, so the best thing is to try before you buy. Ask the store if you can bring the floor model seat out to your car to make sure it fits. There should be enough space between the car seat and the front seat that the car seat can rock up and down unimpeded.
Bonus points: While you’re out there, try to install the base and see if you find the instructions and labeling to be straightforward (see #1).
3. Will it fit your baby?
This is the hardest one to answer since (at least most of the time) parents are buying their seat before the baby is born. There’s a pretty wide range when it comes to weight limits for infant car seats. Some seats go up to 22 pounds, while others go up to 35. There’s less of a range for height limits – roughly between 29-32″. If you have a preemie, the starting weight of a seat can be really important — some seats start at 4 pounds while others start at 5. If bigger babies run in your family, leave yourself some extra room. If you’re expecting twins, who are more likely to be born before they reach full term, make sure to get a seat with a lower starting weight.
One thing to keep in mind: While parents really enjoy the convenience of toting their infant car seat around, once a baby get to be much more than 20-25 pounds the seat plus the baby will be extremely heavy. Also, many babies outgrow their infant seats by height long before they reach the weight limit.
4. How comfortable is it?
You want a seat that will be comfortable for both you and your baby. You’re going to be schlepping this seat. A lot. Some seats are heavier than others, and some handles are more comfortable than others. Put some weight in the seat and carry it around the store for a few minutes. Try holding the seat in your hand, then slide it up to the crook of your arm. Which way feels best? Does the seat feel like a manageable load for you?
For the baby’s comfort, try to avoid fabrics that aren’t breathable. Also, the angle of the car seat is going to be set within a certain range when the seat installed in the car, but what about when you’re using it in your stroller? It’s a good idea to see how upright the seat is when it’s in the car seat adapter for your stroller. It should still be fairly reclined to promote good airflow and keep the baby’s head from rolling down.
5. Can you use it with your stroller?
Personally, with the exception of the Orbit Baby, I do not like travel systems. Of all the reasons to choose a stroller or a car seat, coordinating fabrics should be at the bottom of the list. I made this mistake myself when I was pregnant the first time. These days, most of the great stroller companies offer car seat adapters for the most popular car seat models, so parents have a lot of good options.
A lot of expectant parents choose their car seat first, and then they choose a stroller that’s compatible with that car seat. If your options are limited for any reason (car compatibility, size of the baby, personal preference), or if you aren’t going to invest in a good stroller until after the baby arrives and settles in, this is a reasonable approach. But if you are considering a few different seats, and you have a sense of which stroller (or type of stroller) you want to get, it’s more sensible to choose the stroller first. You will (hopefully) use that stroller for 3-4 years, and you’ll only use your infant car seat for a year (or two at most).