Buying a Car Seat? Read This First

Feeling overwhelmed about which brand of car seat is best for your baby? Experts say that keeping baby safe in a car is actually much less about choosing a brand and more about selecting a car seat that can be properly installed in your vehicle— ideally, in the center of the back seat.

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That’s because all new car seats sold in the United States must meet strict safety standards. “While the marketing departments and consumer groups may lead you to believe that one seat is safer than another, all seats must pass the same crash tests — and from real-world crashes we know that, when properly used, all seats offer great protection,” says second-generation “car seat lady” Alisa Baer, M.D. Dr. Baer is a pediatrician who has spent more than 15 years helping parents choose the right car seat for their baby, vehicle, and travel needs.

Here are the key criteria that will help you choose the ideal car seat for you and your baby. The first recommendation: Choose a rear-facing-only seat. The American Academy of Pediatrics advices that all babies be secured in rear-facing car seats until they reach age 2 — or until they reach the highest height or weight allowed by the manufacturer. These car seats are five times safer than front-facing car seats. Many of the rear-facing-only seats are very user-friendly, and therefore are more likely to be used properly than other seats.

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How to Choose a Car Seat

The best seats:

  • • Have built-in locking devices for the vehicle’s shoulder/lap belt.
  • • Have small footprints. Therefore, they give the front-seat passengers and back-seat passengers as much room as possible
  • • Have nice contours: Due to the contours of their bases, these car seats can be installed securely in a wide variety of vehicles. (Unfortunately, we can’t say that about some other car seats.)
  • • Have user-friendly harness straps: Straps that are too loose, twisted, and/or uneven will not provide the necessary protection for your child.
  • • Look for harness straps that adjust from the front of the seat, not the back, and resist twisting. The best straps cannot become even — the left and right straps are separate. If the left and right side of the straps are all part of one long, continuous strap, the straps will frequently become uneven. (This can happen with many brands of seats and it drives parents crazy —their kids end up riding around unsafely because their straps are too loose.)
  • • Are travel-friendly: If you’ll be using the carrier without its base—in friends’ cars, taxis, and rental cars — the Cybex Aton and Graco SnugRide 35 will work best since they have a European-style routing path for the vehicle’s shoulder belt. This gives a more secure installation of the carrier than does the American-style routing path, which is used by the Chicco and most other seats sold in the United States.
  • • Work for many birth weights: The best seats all start at 4 pounds, so whether you have a 4-pound preemie or a 10-pound newborn, you’ll have a safe seat to take your baby home. (Note: Older versions of the Graco SnugRide 35 started at 5 pounds, so check the label on your seat to see whether it starts at 4 or 5 pounds). To learn more, see this video:  Why You Should Buy a Car Seat That Starts at 4 Pounds.

Are stroller compatible: The best seats fit properly onto many strollers. For a guide, check out the Car Seat Lady’s Stroller Compatability chart.

Check Your Car’s System 

Before you purchase a seat, you’ll want to think about how you will secure it to your car. It is critically important to understand the systems within your vehicle that can be used to secure your child’s car seat. All new vehicles come equipped with LATCH, a system of metal anchors in the vehicle that typically make it a lot easier to install the seat.

If your vehicle does not have LATCH, or you have LATCH but just not in the position where your child will ride, you will need to secure the seat to the vehicle using the seat belt. If you’ll be using a shoulder/lap belt to install your child’s car seat, we recommend purchasing a car seat with a built-in lock-off, as this will facilitate an easier, more secure installation.

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Maureen Connolly is the Executive Editor of, and the author and producer of ReadySetBaby, an interactive baby care book, from which this article is adapted.