A year ago, Consumer Reports inaugurated a new crash-test protocol to evaluate child safety seats—a test we believe gauges the relative safety potential of child seats in conditions that more closely represent an actual vehicle interior. The current batch of infant seats was included in the first round of evaluations using our new test, and convertibles are currently undergoing the test. We'll be expanding its use to other seat types over the next few years.
We took the lead here because the federal standard for child seats is more than 30 years old. It specifies a 30-mph frontal crash test using instrumented dummies simulating a baby or child. But because it's a pass/fail test, it's not that useful to consumers looking to make comparisons among a range of brands.
Consumer Reports started conducting our own child-seat crash tests in the 1970s and has used the government standard as a basis since the 1980s. But cars and child seats have evolved faster than the standard, so we made some modifications. We wanted to determine which seats give an extra margin of safety by testing closer to real-world conditions.
In some respects, our new test procedure is not that different from our traditional tests. The child seat is still mounted to a sled on rails, which simulates a vehicle seat. A ram slams into the bottom of the sled, initiating the "crash" event. But our new test improves on the old protocol in a few ways:
Our overall scores are still based on three main factors: ease-of-use, fit-to-vehicle, and crash-test performance. The first two factors carry the most weight because they are crucial day-to-day considerations for the consumer. If a caregiver can't connect and tighten a child restraint correctly, the child seat can't provide optimal protection—regardless of its crash-test performance.
Crash protection for our new test is rated on a three-point scale: Basic, Better, and Best. Ratings are based on injury criteria for child-sized dummies, whether there was direct contact of the dummy's head with the simulated front seatback, and whether the car seat remained intact during the course of testing.
A Basic rating was given to seats where injury numbers were meaningfully higher than those measured on other tested models or that had some structural compromise. Seats rated Basic offer far better protection than no seat, but a seat rated Better or Best offers a greater margin of safety.
Waiting until Mom gets labor pains is too late to decide on a car seat. Not only will you need one for your newborn's ride home from the hospital, but over your child's early life you'll also need a range of seats designed for different ages and sizes. Even seasoned parents may be fuzzy on which seat type is correct and when to make a move to the next one. Below you'll find a guide to various seat types, a handy timeline for when to transition your child to the next seat, and key Ratings for each. And because child-seat installation can be a challenge, we've added handy car seat safety tips so that you get it right.
These estimations, based on best practices and child-seat height/weight limits, are our recommendations for the minimum number of seats you'll need until your child is ready to use just the vehicle's seat belts.
To maximize car seat safety it's important to use the right type of seat, to ensure it remains a safe, comfortable, and convenient fit for your child. Spending more doesn't necessarily get you the best performing seat, but it may buy you more features. Many midpriced models perform as well as or better than pricier ones. Seats can be reused, but they have expiration dates. And retire the seat after a crash or if it sustains any damage.
For children 4 to 40 pounds
$55 to $300
Infant seats have a detachable carrier, a great convenience because it allows parents to carry the child or snap the seat into a compatible stroller. Our tests show that they also provide the best fit for the smallest babies. Though these seats are designed to accommodate babies that weigh up to 40 pounds, most kids will outgrow them height-wise first. That means you will need a convertible seat in order to keep your child rear-facing through his second birthday.
For children 5 to 45 pounds rear-facing, 20 to 70 pounds forward-facing
$40 to $450
Convertibles can be used two ways: rear- or forward-facing. It's recommended for kids to remain facing rearward until they reach their second birthday. Though you may be tempted to use convertibles for newborns, most don't provide the best fit for tiny babies, and you lose the convenience of the detachable carrier found on infant seats. Once a child has reached age 2 or the rear-facing height or weight limits of the seat, the seat can be positioned facing forward. Many have limits of 65 pounds or more.
For children 30 to 120 pounds
$14 to $300
Once your child outgrows the forward-facing harnessed seat, he will still need a booster to allow the seat belts to sit correctly on his frame. Boosters are designed to raise the child high enough to position the vehicle's seat belt correctly. They are needed until a child is tall enough to use the belts alone—usually when he reaches 57 inches tall and is 8 to 12 years old. High-backed boosters are a better choice because they include some side bolstering, as well as a guide that can better position the shoulder belt.
Your child seat must fit not only your child but also your car. If you can't test-fit the seat before purchasing it, make sure you can return or exchange it. See SafeKids USA for dates and locations where you can get your installation checked. Here are some tips to help you get the right fit:
• Carefully read the manuals for both the car and the seat.
• Check the recline of rear-facing seats. That is critical, especially for infants. An overly upright seat may allow an infant's head to fall forward, obstructing his breathing. Most seats have a built-in level indicator.
• Child seats can be installed using your vehicle's seat belts, but it's often easier to get a secure fit using LATCH.
• Attach and tighten the top tether for all forward-facing seats installed with either LATCH or the seat belt.
• You may have to remove the rear seat's head restraint to allow a forward-facing seat to fit properly against the seatback.
• To assure that the harness is tight enough, you shouldn't be able to pinch more than 1 inch of fabric at the child's shoulder.
This article also appeared in the September 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.