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How To Buy A Convertible Car Seat

The lowdown on convertible car seats

You have a choice of two types of car seats for your baby: an infant car seat or a convertible car seat.

An infant car seat typically carries children up to 35 or 40 pounds and is rear-facing only. A convertible seat converts from rear-facing to forward-facing. It carries children from birth to between 40 and 80 pounds and 40 and 57 inches tall. Another type of convertible seat known as a 3-in-1 or all-in-one car seat can change from rear-facing to forward-facing, then into a booster seat for children up to 120 pounds. (Note: Some 3-in-1 car seats are not for babies since they’re forward-facing only.)

Although it’s cheaper to buy a convertible car seat instead of starting with an infant car seat and then transitioning to a convertible, some experts say young babies are safer in an infant car seat. Many parents say their newborn seems overwhelmed in a convertible seat. If you go for a convertible, make sure it has padding or a newborn insert that helps your baby fit comfortably.

Convertible seats are heavier than infant car seats and usually have to be installed in the car rather than clicked into a base that stays in the car. This means you can’t easily take them in and out of the car, carry your baby in them, or snap them into a stroller.

See which convertible car seats parents like best in BabyCenter’s Moms Picks awards, or browse hundreds of car seats.

How to choose a car seat

What to look for when buying

Ease of use: Check the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) 5-star rating system; the more stars a car seat has, the simpler it is to use. These ratings take into account how easy it is to install the seat in your car and secure your child in it, as well as the content and clarity of the instruction manual. And look at BabyCenter’s annual Moms’ Picks awards, to see which seats other parents liked best.

A 5-point harness: These straps – one for each shoulder, one for each hip, and one that goes between your baby’s legs – are crucial for safety, and they’re found on all new car seats.

Side-impact protection: Some car seats have special energy-absorbing foam and other features designed to better protect your baby’s head and chest in a side-impact accident.

Easy adjustments: You’ll need to adjust the harness as your child grows; better car seats allow you to adjust the straps and harness height easily from the front. A few models even have single-handed belt adjustments with quick-release buckles.

LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children): Since 2002, all car seats and vehicles have been compatible with the LATCH system. It allows car seats to be attached directly to a vehicle’s frame instead of using the seat belts to secure them. All convertible car seats are equipped with a top tether strap and lower anchor connectors, but the manufacturer may recommend not using the top tether strap in the rear-facing position, so check the manual. Also note the LATCH weight limit in the manual or label affixed to the seat, at which point you’ll need to install the seat with the seat belt.

Comfort: A well-padded seat with plenty of head support gives your baby a better ride.

Easy cleaning: Kids and mess go hand in hand, but a surprising number of car seats come with covers you can’t take off. An easily detachable, machine-washable cover makes cleanup much easier.

Important safety notes

Installing the seat

  • A car seat must be installed in the back seat. For babies and toddlers under age 3, it usually faces the rear of the car. Experts say it’s safest to keep a child rear-facing as long as possible, until he is 3 years old or reaches the maximum rear-facing height and weight limit for your car seat. (Most newer convertible seats can handle kids up to about 40 pounds in a rear-facing position, and some even go to 50 pounds.)
How to install a convertible car seat: Rear-facing
  • Have your car seat and its installation checked by a professional – putting it correctly in place is not so easy as some think (per the NHTSA, many car seats are improperly installed). Find one in your area using the NHTSA’s car-seat-inspection-station locator.
  • For advice on avoiding the most common car-seat-installation mistakes, see installing a car seat. You can also talk to parents in our Car Seat Questions group.

Thinking of using a secondhand seat?

Experts don’t recommend buying used car seats. Secondhand seats could be missing important parts, have been involved in an accident (even unseen damage can affect the way a seat functions), fall short of current safety standards, or have been recalled due to faulty design. Plus plastic gets brittle as it gets older, so a seat that’s too old might break in a crash.

If you do use a secondhand seat, make sure it has never been in an accident, is less than 5 years old, and comes with all parts and instructions.

What it’s going to cost you

Convertible car seats, as well as 3-in-1 and all-in-one seats, cost between $50 and $400 and up. The top-of-the-line models often have higher weight limits, so you can use them longer.…

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