How to transport your child safely over the years

Real-world guidelines for finding the right car seat for your growing kid

Published: June 28, 2014 09:00 AM

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From birth until your child reaches a height of around 4 feet, 9 inches, he or she will potentially go through several car seats before being ready for the vehicle belts alone. Choosing the right seat for the child and knowing when to upgrade may seem confusing, but our test-based guidance can help keep your little one safe and secure.

Kids all grow differently and have different body types, so no seat type will suit all kids in every scenario. But based on the growth pattern for most kids, this guide can be used to gauge what seats you’ll likely need and when it’s time to sit tight or move up to the next level.

Step 1: Infant (rear-facing only) car seat

These seats are distinguished by a carrier that can be separated from a base that’s installed in the car. Because of the convenience that the carrier offers in transporting a smaller baby, they are the first choice for most new parents. We also recommend these as a first seat because they typically provide a better fit for newborns and the installation of the separate base can prove easier for parents.

Pros: Keeping an infant rear-facing as long as possible offers the best protection. With its removable carrier, an infant seat lets you move baby out of the car without disturbing him. But it should be used for travel and short naps only.

Cons: Despite many more of these seats having weight limits of 30 lbs. or more many don’t have height capacities to match.  Based on growth charts, it’s likely that your baby will be too tall for the seat long before they are too heavy and well before their second birthday.  So in order to keep them rear-facing (the safest position) you’ll need to move to a convertible seat (see Step #2) used in a rear-facing orientation.  Though it might be tempting to just buy a convertible seat to use from birth, our experience and evaluations have found that infant seats provide newborns with a more secure fit than most convertibles.

Step 2: Convertible seat

A convertible seat can be positioned either rear or forward-facing in a vehicle. It’s likely a child will outgrow their infant (rear-facing only) seat with the carrier before they reach the recommended rear-facing age of 2, so a convertible seat in a rear-facing orientation will likely be a child’s second seat. Although they offer slightly higher weight limits than the infant seats (between 35 and 45 lbs.), their longer shell lengths allow even taller toddlers to stay rear-facing longer until they reach those weights or their second birthday. Once they’re ready these seats can be moved forward-facing.  If you choose one with a higher forward-facing weight limit (65 lbs. for many), it’s likely that they will be able to use it until they are ready to transition directly to a booster.

Pros:  With their longer shells and slightly higher rear-facing weight capacities of these seats allow you to keep babies in the safer rear-facing orientation until age 2.

Cons:  These are typically larger and bulkier seats which can make them more challenging to fit in the car and they don't offer the convenience of a separate carrier, so you'll have to carry them or transfer your baby to a stroller when you get out of your car

Step 3: Booster seat

When your child reaches the weight and height limits of the harness system it’s likely time for a belt-positioning booster seat. Boosters raise the child up in the vehicle seat to allow the seatbelt to pass correctly across their collarbone (not their necks) and low across the child’s upper thigh area (not their abdomen). Highback boosters also better position the shoulder belt with use of an internal guide and also provide some level of side impact protection, which is why we recommend them over the backless style.

Pros: Many are relatively inexpensive, lightweight and allow children to buckle themselves.

Cons: Boosters can tempt parents to stop using a seat with a harness prematurely because they're often easier to use. Kids also like them as the vehicle belt allows them some freedom to move, but the latest safety research shows that it's best to keep children in a harness as long as possible before switching them to a booster.

Toddler-booster seat

If by chance you have a shorter or smaller child that actually makes it to age 2 within the allowable height and weight recommendations of their rear-facing infant seat, you may opt for a toddler booster in lieu of a convertible as your second seat. These forward-facing only seats offer the protection of the internal harness up to a certain weight and height limits (most up to 65 lbs.). Once they outgrow the built-in harness, the harness can be removed and the seat transitions to a booster seat.

Toddler-booster seats may also be a good option if you have a second child that needs to use a convertible seat rear-facing but your first child isn’t yet old enough for a booster.

Pros: These allow you to keep your child secured with a built-in harness longer, a safer alternative to an unharnessed booster. They are also typically less bulky and less expensive than convertible models.

Cons:  These tend to be more upright than convertibles which can make it harder for a sleeping toddler to recline comfortably. Some high-back models may also interfere with the headrests in certain cars, making it hard to get the seat to fit properly.

All-in-one seats

As the name implies, all-in-one models are designed to take a child from birth to booster use. Though they seem like a good value, our evaluations of these seats show that though they do a lot, they actually don’t do any of their tasks especially well. And they don’t offer the convenience of the infant carrier.  All-in-ones may prove to be a good option for a caregiver that transports a child less frequently or as a backup seat for another vehicle.

Pros: These seats offer a potential value, as they may be the only seat your child may ever need. Higher rear- and forward-facing harnessed weight capacities and longer shells allow children to stay in a safer mode (rear facing rather than forward-facing, and in a 5-point harness vs. a 3-point vehicle belt) longer, rather than moving to the next step too soon.

Cons: Like convertibles, they don't offer the convenience of a separate infant carrier for smaller babies. Since all-in-ones are typically larger and longer seats, they may not fit in a small car when installed rear-facing.

—Jennifer Stockburger

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