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Types of Car Seats and Safety Information

By Nathan Asher, M.D.

You're getting ready to welcome the newest member of the family home. Everything is ready in the house, from the crib to the high chair. It's important to be knowledgeable before you get to the house as well, especially when it comes to your little one's car seat safety. The two main types of car seats are infant-only car seats and convertible car seats.

Infant-Only Car Seats

Infant-only seats are unique in that they:

  • Are rear-facing only.
  • Come with either a 3-point or 5-point harness. A 5-point harness is the most common and has two shoulder straps, two hip straps and one strap between the legs. A 3-point harness only has two shoulder straps and one between the legs.
  • Have a portable handle; they can be removed and used as an infant carrier. The handle should be down when buckled into the vehicle.
  • Are attached to a detachable base that can be installed and remain in the vehicle; you can buy more bases for different vehicles if needed.
  • Can also be secured in the vehicle with just a seat belt.

Infant-only seats are used for infants up to 22-35 pounds (check your seat's instruction manual for its specific range). Babies who have outgrown an infant-only seat will need a larger seat that can continue to be used rear-facing until your child is 2 years old. Your baby is considered too large for a rear-facing seat when his or her head nears the top of the seat; there should be at least one inch between the top of the head and top of the seat.

Convertible Car Seats

Convertible car seats are another option for your newborn and can be used as your child grows beyond infancy. They typically fit newborns up to 40 to 80 pounds and 40 to 57 inches tall, are generally cheaper than infant-only seats and can be rear-facing for as long as necessary. Once your child is old enough to be front-facing, the convertible car seat can be turned around.

If you choose a convertible seat for your newborn, make sure you add a newborn insert or padding to the seat so your baby fits snugly within and doesn't slide around. It's also important to note that a convertible seat is heavy and without a handle, so it cannot be removed easily or used as a carrier.

Some convertible seats are 3-in-1 and can eventually be modified into booster seats for older children. Your child should remain in a car seat or booster until an adult seat belt fits comfortably, which is usually when he or she is around 4'9" and around 8 to 12 years old. Most children don't fit into an adult seat belt until 10 or 11 years old.

Car Seat Safety Rules

Regardless of which type you choose, there are some general rules that apply to both types.

  • Your baby should remain rear-facing in either style until he or she is two years old or reaches the highest height or weight limit allowed by the car seat manufacturer.
  • Always put the car seat in the back seat of the vehicle, and the middle of the back if possible. Never put it in the front passenger seat, as this area is most often damaged in an accident.
  • Shoulder straps must be at your baby's shoulders and fit snugly – the straps are too loose if you can pinch a fold in the harness material after your child is buckled in.
  • Make sure the straps lie flat in a straight line, with no sagging or twisting.
  • The chest clip should be positioned at arm pit level.
  • Never buckle your baby while he or she is wearing a bulky jacket, as this can interfere with harness tightness. Instead, buckle him or her in and then cover up with a warm blanket over the harness.