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Conquer Car Seat Basics

How to choose the best gear for baby’s ride

newborn baby girl in a car seat

Nothing says “I’m a new mom” like struggling to install a car seat in the space that was once reserved for yoga gear and the latest goodies from the winery up the road. While car seats are necessary, we know that choosing the right car seat after sifting through countless features and styles is head-spinning, and making sure the gear’s correctly installed is pure frustration.

For first-time mamas facing a surplus of car seat choices, the AAP offers plenty of guidance for safety basics.

What’s the number one recommendation about using car seats? The AAP says that this guideline is crucial: Infants and toddlers must be placed in rear-facing seats for the first two years, or (even better) until they’ve reached the highest weight or height allowed by the car seat manufacturer. Mamas live for those quick glimpses of their baby in the rear-view mirror, but this recommendation has nothing to do with face-time and everything to do with safety. Riding rear-facing during the first two years of life, when their heads and necks are still fragile, better supports a child’s head, neck, and spine in a collision.

What is LATCH? LATCH is a system that allows parents to firmly and safely attach a car seat to the seat of a vehicle. A car’s seat belt can also be used to strap the car seat in, but LATCH features easy-to-use lower anchors and top tethers, and many prefer the system’s straightforward installation.

For car seat installs, practice makes perfect. Parents should learn how to install the seat, whether it’s a base or a convertible, in every car they drive, and know the process cold. A certified child passenger safety technician (CPST) can also help with questions, and they will even help install gear. A comprehensive list of CPSTs is available, and tapping their expertise should be a part of any pre-baby checklist. And don’t worry: By the time baby’s made an entrance, most mamas are expert-level.

What is the safest car seat?
The seat that’s best for baby depends on his or her age, weight, and height, plus the parents’ vehicles and lifestyle. Infants use rear-facing seats or rear-facing convertible seats, and the two-year-old recommendation applies here. Toddlers and preschoolers use forward-facing convertible seats or forward-facing seats with harnesses. A good tip from the AAP is: As long as a child is using a properly installed seat that fits well in a vehicle and meets child size guidelines, the car seat is a good seat.

So what’s the best gear choice for a newborn?
It’s actually what’s best for mama. Rear-facing-only infant seats are small, come with an easy-carry handle, and lift right in and out of a car by attaching to a base. When it’s time to leave the car, the infant seat can be transported right to a stroller – and baby stays asleep. For many mamas, this little detail puts them in the “infant sleep” camp.

Convertible and all–in-one car seats, on the other hand, are designed to grow with a child. This gear starts as rear-facing, and then once baby’s reached the height and weight limit, can be turned around. These seats work for mamas who are looking for an option that can be used at every stage of growth.

With so many choices available, it’s hard to know if a car seat is the “right” one. Parents want safety and convenience, but some seats fit families better than others, depending on various factors. For some help, this car seat guide and this at-a-glance chart are great resources.