How To Pick The Best Car Seat For Your Toddler

Trying to pick the best car seat for your little guy-on-the-go out of the rows of seats available in your local big box store can send you screaming for the exit. Is it better to buy a seat that will convert into a booster and serve your kiddo’s needs almost through high school? Is it really shallow to choose a car seat based on how cute the fabric is — and should you care if it is?

Car Seats

The good news is that car seats come in all sorts of cute patterns, so you can satisfy your safety and your fashion concerns at the same time. Remember: While all American car seats meet certain safety standards, it’s important to fit a seat that is the right fit for your child’s build and that has a five-point harness for better protection in an accident.

Types of Straps

The best car seats for toddlers and preschoolers feature 5-point restraints. A 5- point restraint comes over each shoulder, snaps together at the chest level and then buckles into a crotch strap. The advantage of 5-point restraints is that they fit more snugly across the chest than tray-shields or T-shields, so they allow less movement, spread the force of impact more evenly and provide better protection in a crash. A crotch strap also prevents your little Houdini from sliding out from under the seat in a crash or while you are cruising down the street.

Easy LATCH Systems

All car seats made after September 2002 in the United States have connectors that attach to bars found between the top and bottom portions of the back seat. Most cars made after this time have LATCH bars — LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. It’s easier to install a car seat tightly and securely with a LATCH system than it is to properly attach it using the car’s seat belt, although both provide equal protection when done correctly.

System Connectors

Some LATCH system connectors are easier to use than others; look for connectors that look somewhat like staplers, called push-button connectors, on your child restraint seat. They’re easier to use than connectors called A-loc hooks.

Convertible Seats

The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends keeping your kiddo rear-facing in his car seat until at least the age of 2, or until he exceeds the seat’s weight limits for rear facing. This is a change from previous recommendations that kids could be turned around at age 1 and 20 pounds. Rear facing is much safer for kids — and adults, too, but cars aren’t designed for that. Sitting rear facing reduces the risk of death or serious injury in kids under age 2 by 75 percent, according to a 2007 article in “Injury Prevention.”

height and weight limits

Once your toddler outgrows his infant seat, at around 20 pounds, convertible seats are often the best choice. These seats can be used rear facing until your child reaches the rear-facing height and weight limits on the seat, then turned around and used front facing until he outgrows the seat altogether.

New vs. Used Seats

As tempting as it is to pick up a used car seat and save some of the cost of a new seat, it’s safer to buy new. Unless you know for a fact that the car seat hasn’t been recalled, was never in an accident — which can weaken it and make it less safe — and isn’t expired, invest in a new seat. Car seats expire after 6 years, because the materials used to make the seats can begin to deteriorate. The date of manufacture is on the seat, usually on a sticker or stamped on the side or bottom.

Moving to a Booster

Once your preschooler outgrows his car seat, you can start the shopping process all over again for a booster, unless his car seat also converts to a booster. Some boosters, like car seats, come with LATCH systems, which help keep them in place during a crash. Boosters that utilize a 5-point restraint harness are safer than using the car seat belt with a standard booster, because they hold kids in place better than regular car seat belts. Some harnessed boosters fit kids up to 50 inches tall and 90 pounds, according to Consumer Reports

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