The Definitive Guide to Buying a Car Seat

A car seat is one of the most important purchases you’ll make for your baby. WFA Mom’s car seat guide tells you what you need to know and how to choose the right seat for your family.

When it comes to essential baby gear, a car seat is at the top of the list. In fact, you can’t even leave the hospital unless your new little one is safely buckled into a seat. And believe it or not, your child needs to be secured into some sort of car seat or booster until she is taller than four feet, nine inches, according to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

This purchase is even more important in light of a January 2007 Consumer Reports finding. The magazine says that most of the infant car seats it tested “failed disastrously” in crashes at speeds as low as 35 mph. So, when making this very important purchase for you and your family, be sure to first consult the Consumer Product Safety Commission product recall lists and do your homework. This purchase is something you will use almost daily—every time you and your baby get in and out of your car. So, you’ll want to make your choice carefully and thoughtfully.

Car Seat Basics

There are three types of car seats—infant seats, convertible seats, and booster seats. This guide focuses predominantly on infant and convertible seats.

Infant Seats: Also called baby or infant carriers, infant seats are positioned facing backwards (rear-facing) in your car and are designed for infants weighing up to 20 to 22 pounds. Many infant seats come with a base that remains in the car while the seat is removable, allowing parents to take baby in and out of the car without removing her from the seat—a great feature for babies who fall asleep in the car!

Remember, babies, must remain rear-facing until they are at least 20 pounds AND at least a year old.

Convertible Seats: As the name implies, these seats should be positioned rear-facing until the baby reaches the maximum weight or height allowed by the maker of the car safety seat. The seat should then be rotated forward and used until your child weighs 40 pounds. Your child will get more use out of this seat versus an infant seat, but keep in mind the seat cannot be removed to transport a sleeping infant.

Booster Seats: While you don’t have to worry about these until your child is older, booster seats are a vital part of travel safety. They are for children who weigh 30 to 80 pounds but are not tall enough to use only an adult seatbelt.

What to Look for in a Car Seat

Five-Point Harness

A five-point harness secures your child in the seat with straps that buckle across the chest and at the hips. A three-point harness only offers protection across the chest.

Infant Car Seat Base

As mentioned above, many infant car seats include a base and a seat. The base is attached to the car with a seatbelt, and the seat snaps into the base. The base makes taking Baby in and out of the car very convenient, but according to a July 2001 article in Consumer Reports, car seats without a base performed slightly better in crash safety tests.

Travel Systems

If you were hoping to purchase a travel system stroller, you will want to look into which car seat comes with the stroller and whether or not it fits your needs. Conversely, you might want to research whether an individual seat is compatible with various strollers.

Comfort and Design

While all car seats are designed with the same intention, your individual needs will impact which seat is right for you. If you’re looking for a portable option (infant car seat with a base), pick up the seat to make sure it isn’t too heavy and experiment with taking the seat in and out of its base. If you’re looking at a convertible seat, make sure you’re comfortable with the buckles, clips, and other features that will need to be adjusted.

Aesthetics and Features

Once you’ve decided on the type of seat you need, you can start looking into the fun stuff, like fabrics and colors!

Some features in infant car seats include:

  • Adjustable canopy
  • Removable head pillow
  • Built-in toys
  • Pockets for storage
  • Level indicator for proper installation

Some features in convertible car seats include:

  • Padded, moveable arm rests
  • Padded head rests
  • Pockets
  • Cup holders
  • Level indicator for proper installation

While these added features can seem wonderful in the store showroom, they might not fit in your car; additional features can increase the width of the seat, so choose carefully.


If you’re in a vehicle, a car seat is the safest place for Baby. But even the best seat loses its ability to protect your child if it is not installed correctly.

The NHTSA estimates that over 85 percent of car seats are not properly installed. To alleviate this problem, several government organizations and car seat manufacturers are working to make car seats as safe and as easy to install as possible.

NHTSA Ease of Use Rating System

The NHTSA offers ratings of car seats based on “ease of use.” Seats are given ratings of “A,” “B,” or “C” according to NHTSA standards. Seats are judged on whether they require assembly after purchase, the clarity of the labels, the clarity of the instructions, the ease of securing baby into the seat, and finally the ease of installation. The NHTSA offers detailed reviews of each seat, too. None of the current models tested received an overall “C,” but some did receive a “C” in one or more categories. The ratings are available at

The LATCH System

Another innovation in car seat safety is the LATCH, or Lower Attachments and Tethers for Children. This system involves not only changes to the construction of car seats, but also to vehicles. Cars with the LATCH system have a metal bar mounted between the vehicle’s rear seatback and cushion, and parents attach the seat to this bar using special buckles. Because no seatbelt is needed, it easier to install car seats properly and securely.

As of September 1999, many cars included the LATCH system, and all forward-facing child seats were required to include a top-tether system. By September 2002, all cars were required to have the LATCH system, and all child seats were required to include both a top tether and a lower anchor.

However, the 2007 Consumer Reports’ findings state that some car seats performed better when attached by car safety belts than when attached with the LATCH system. Additionally, in late 2006, the NHTSA conducted a survey which found that 40 percent of parents continue to use their car’s seat belt when installing car seats. The survey also found that many parents are unaware of the importance that their LATCH system tethers when installing car seats (only 55 percent of parents used the top tether). “LATCH was supposed to simplify child safety seat installation for parents and this study shows that isn’t happening.” says NHTSA Administrator Nicole R. Nason. She adds, “We need to find a way to make the devices better known and easier to use.” Look for more information coming soon from the NHTSA.

Overhead Car Seat Shields

Overhead shields are available in some convertible car seat models, but they may pose dangers in a collision because a toddler’s head can hit the shield. According to Consumer Reports, these seats should be avoided.


It often seems like a great idea to entertain your child with toys while she is strapped into her seat, but loose toys can be hazardous in a car accident. Make sure travel toys are soft with no sharp corners. A block or book flying through the air at high speeds can be very dangerous. In fact, any loose objects (umbrellas, handbags, water bottles) should be tucked away safely while you are driving.

Installation in Your Car

Between the LATCH and car seat ratings, you’d think installing your baby’s car seat would be a breeze. Not quite.

When installing your child’s car seat with a seatbelt, pull out the seatbelt as far as it goes and wait for it to lock. Then slowly, let the seat belt return into the slot until there is no slack. Use your knee or sit in the seat to tighten as much as possible. Try to move the seat back and forth after you’ve installed it. If you can move the seat more than an inch either way you’ve got too much slack and you need to tighten even more.

Despite leveling indicators and clear labeling, car seats are still often installed improperly because each car seat fits differently in each car, and each person’s definition of tight and secure is different.

The best way to check if your car seat is installed correctly is to ask a certified child passenger safety technician. Call your local police to find out about their car seat check programs. Baby superstores often have safety days with professionals on hand to check seat installation.

To locate a Fitting and Inspection station near you, call 1-888-DASH-2-DOT or 1-800-SEATCHECK. You can also use the inspection station locator online or visit

Securing Your Child

Harness strap placement will change depending on your baby’s size and whether the seat is rear- or forward-facing. When rear-facing, straps must be through bottom or middle slots AT or BELOW shoulders. When forward-facing, straps must be through MIDDLE or TOP slots AT or ABOVE shoulders. Chest buckles should be across baby’s nipples, not at her neck and not across her stomach.

Take your car seat in for inspection and have a professional tell you whether you are placing your baby into the seat correctly and whether the straps are in the correct slots.

Periodically check the seatbelt to make sure that it has not become loose or that a curious toddler has not unbuckled it.

Buying the Seat


Several big name manufacturers make car seats, including Graco, Cosco, Safety First, Baby Trend, Combi, and Evenflo. More expensive brands include Eddie Bauer, Britax, and Peg Perego. Average-priced brands rate as well as the more expensive ones in safety tests.

Suggest a Baby Shower Gift

Car seats make a great baby shower gift. If friends or baby’s grandparents ask for gift ideas, you might mention your favorite car seat.

Shop Sales and Use Coupons

Many baby superstores periodically offer discount coupons of up to 20 percent off a single item. Watch for these coupons in the months before baby is due.


Many parents find that their babies sleep best when tucked securely into their car seats. Consider this purchase not only an investment in your baby’s safety, but also in your sanity!

Remember that the best seat for you is the one that fits best in your car and that is easiest for you to maneuver.

Want to Do More Research?

Check out these helpful sites for more information on car seat safety:

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