If you're shopping for a car seat, those calming Lamaze breaths you may have practiced in childbirth class can also come in handy. Consider yourself warned: The sheer selection of seats that are available can be overwhelming.
"One of the biggest trends in car seats is that there are a lot more infant seats on the market than ever," says Bob Wall, a car seat safety technician instructor in Middletown, Virginia. On the car-seat section of its Web site, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) lists dozens of choices in both the infant car seat and convertible car seat categories.
Infant car seats are rear-facing only and are typically usable only until your child reaches 22 pounds. As their name implies, convertible car seats can be installed front-facing or rear-facing. They are generally usable from about 5 pounds (depending on the length and maturity of your baby) all the way up to 65-70 pounds (or more for seats that convert to a booster), though most children reach the height maximum on convertible seats before they hit the weight maximum. When that happens, it's time to switch your child to a booster seat.
All child car seats sold in the U.S. must meet motor vehicle seat safety Standard No. 213, which is designed to protect a child in the event of a head-on collision, the most common type of crash. A government safety standard for side impact protection is still in the works. Meanwhile, manufacturers are trying to get ahead of the curve by introducing their own side impact protection and adding other features to set their seats apart.
To help you size up the selection, here's a rundown of the latest trends in car seat innovations that can make your baby's ride safer, more economical and easier to use.
Infant Car Seats With a Stability Leg
Cybex was the first infant seat manufacturer to introduce an infant car seat with a stability leg to the U.S. market with its Aton 2 several years ago. Now, the leg is available on two additional Cybex models, the Aton Q and Cloud Q. (More on the Cloud Q in a minute.) Nuna has also introduced a steel-enforced stability leg on its Pipa infant car seat, which weighs just 7.7 pounds. "The stability leg is one of the biggest changes you'll see in infant car seats," says Wall, who is also a spokesperson for Nuna. More manufacturers are expected to follow suit.
Most parents of young children will be familiar with the basic design of infant car seats, which consist of two basic components: a rigid plastic base that's installed in your vehicle via LATCH connectors or the seatbelt, and the car seat itself, which snaps onto the base and can then be removed and snapped onto a compatible stroller frame once you reach your destination. Popular in Europe, a stability leg extends from the infant car seat base to the floor of the car. It affixes the car seat base for added stability in a frontal crash.
"A car seat is allowed to rotate downward up to about 70 degrees in a crash," Wall says. But to protect your baby from injury, "we want an infant car seat to stay as stationary as possible," he says.
Infant car seats sold in the U.S. with a stability leg are required to be safety tested with and without the load leg. The leg helps distribute crash forces through the car seat, to the floor of the car. According to Nuna's safety tests, the stability leg reduces the rotation of the car seat during a crash by as much as 90 percent.
Staying Rear-Facing Until Preschool
When your baby outgrows his infant car seat, he's ready for a convertible car seat, initially installed rear-facing, and then later switched to forward-facing. According to NHTSA, your child should remain in a rear-facing car seat until she reaches the top height or weight limit allowed by the manufacturer, ideally up to age 2 or 3.
To extend the time a child can comfortably sit in an infant car seat, manufacturers are upping their seat's weight limits. Graco, for example, offers the Click Connect 40 infant car seat, which can be used for children rear-facing up to 40 pounds. Similarly, Safety 1st offers the Advance EX 65 Air + Convertible car seat that can be safely used rear-facing for children up to 50 pounds, then forward-facing to 65 pounds.
Keep in mind that most children will hit the maximum height limit for a rear-facing car seat installation before they reach the upper weight limit. If your child is tall for her age, you'll want to look for a car seat with a high seatback (Diono is known for its tall-kid-friendly seats) so you can keep her rear-facing longer. "That's the goal," Wall says. By riding backward until age 2 or 3, your child's legs will touch the back of your vehicle's seat, but that doesn't pose a safety hazard and kids get used to it.
Skipping the Infant Car Seat Stage
It was once the norm to buy new car seats as a baby grew, starting with a rear-facing-only infant car seat, followed by a convertible car seat (rear-facing, then forward-facing) and then a belt-positioning booster seat. But who wants to buy two or three car seats? Enter the Graco Milestone All-in-1 and 4Ever All-in-1 car seats, which grow with your baby and are essentially a convertible seat and a booster rolled into one. You can use both seats from Day One until your child is 100-120 pounds — as much as 10 years of use from one seat.
Both Graco seats offer the Simply Safe Adjust Harness System, so you can easily adjust the harness and headrest together as your baby grows, with no shoulder harness rethreading, which is a common convenience on moderate- and higher-priced convertible car seats. (Infant seats nearly always require you to rethread the shoulder harness manually as your baby grows taller.)
"Starting with an infant car seat is still the gold standard because it fits an infant better than an all-in-one," Wall says. An infant car seat is also a convenient way to carry your baby around without having to worry about waking him when you get in and out of your car. Still, if you'd prefer to skip the infant car seat stage and just buy one or two seats, seat makers have your back. Graco's All-in-One seats feature plush infant body support to help babies as small as 4 or 5 pounds fit as snugly as possible.
Changing From Car Seat to Carry Cot
When you're out and about all day, it's tempting to have your baby nap in her infant car seat. But being scrunched up at a 45-degree angle isn't the safest sleep position. A crib or bassinet is best. A mobile option is now available with the Cybex Cloud Q.
"It's the first infant car seat that fully reclines," says Elisabeth Bergoo, a child passenger safety technician and PR and marketing coordinator for Regal Lager, the exclusive distributor for Cybex in the United States.
When you take your sleeping baby out of your car in the Cloud Q, you can recline the seat by sliding the shell flat and placing the seat in a stroller frame. It's both a car seat and a pram, a type of stroller that allows babies to lie flat. Like all of Cybex's car seats, the Cloud Q offers telescoping linear side impact protection, which helps absorb the forces of a crash when babies are seated next to the backseat door (also known as the outboard position).
Sitting in one position for the long haul can be painful for anybody, including babies. But many car seats now take comfort to the next level. The Evenflo ProComfort Symphony DLX All-in-One car seat, for example, features gel matrix seat technology in car seat cushions that helps prevent pressure buildup and maintains proper ergonomics. A similar feature is the memory foam padding in Britax's UltimateComfort Series car seats (sold exclusively by Babies R Us).
Car seat fabrics are cleaning up their act. All Clek car seats, for example, are free of bromine and chlorine-based flame retardants. They're also GreenGuard Select Certified and 100 percent recyclable. Other companies, such as Nuna, offer car seats with baby-friendly Oeko-Tex fabrics.
Finally, many car seats are easier to install than ever, which is important considering that three out of four car seats are still installed incorrectly. Britax, for example, has added its ClickTight feature to its Marathon, Boulevard and Advocate convertible car seats, which makes car seat installation as simple as buckling a seatbelt.
With a quick push and twist of a button, you simply open the front of the car seat, buckle the vehicle's seatbelt across the labeled belt path and then click it shut for a proper installation every time. Note that the ClickTight feature is meant for parents who intend to do a seatbelt installation rather than use LATCH to install their car seat. As such, ClickTight is valuable to have if you drive an older vehicle (most pre-2002 vehicles don't have LATCH) or you frequently use taxi cabs. Also, keep in mind that eventually most parents will need to switch to a seatbelt installation anyway given the 65-pound combined weight limit (child + car seat) for LATCH.
To find car seats that are easy to install and use, be sure to consult NHTSA's Child Safety Seat Ease of Use Ratings before seat shopping.
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