mother and sleeping baby in infant rear-facing car seat in back of red car

As a parent, you want your child to be safe at all times. And in all 50 U.S. states, child safety seat laws require children to travel in a child restraint system or booster seat up to a certain age. As you look to buy a car seat to protect your precious cargo, prepare yourself with these tips.

When buying a car seat…

Track your child’s height and weight.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends selecting a car seat based on your child’s age, weight, and height. Generally, children under the age of 3 years old should sit in rear-facing car seats. Forward-facing car seats should be used up to age 7. And booster seats should be used for children between the ages of 8 and 12 — or until they are big enough to fit the seat belt properly. Use the NHTSA’s “Car Seat Finder” to find the right car seat for your child’s size.

Decide on a model.

While height and weight determine the appropriate child passenger restraints, there are still other things to consider when choosing a car seat type. For example:

  • Rear-facing infant car seats can snap onto a stroller or be used as an infant carrier, meaning you don’t have to risk waking your sleeping baby by transferring him or her to a separate carrier.
  • Convertible car seats that transform from rear-facing to forward-facing could save you money in the long run because they can be used from birth through toddlerhood. However, the downside is that they aren’t portable like an infant seat.
  • All-in-one car seats also change from a rear-facing seat to a forward-facing seat, but with the bonus of converting to a booster seat as well (potentially saving you more money).
  • Forward-facing combination car seats that transform into a booster could be used when your child outgrows a rear-facing seat.
  • Booster car seats, either backless or with a high back, can be purchased separately if the car seat you already own doesn’t transform into one.

Test for comfort.

A comfortable seat can make all the difference as you transport your child to the grocery store, to daycare, on vacation, and everywhere else. Check if the material and padding feel squishy, soft, and cozy. Look for a seat with an insert that supports your child’s head. Make sure the car seat’s straps are well-fitting and tight enough. And if the seat transforms into a carrier, make sure it’s not too heavy for you to carry.

Ensure compatibility.

Read the child-safety sections of your vehicle owner’s manual, including recommended tips and warnings, and information on features, like Automatic Locking Retractor (ALR) mode, Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH), and using the child restraint systems. You may discover things you didn’t know! For example, manuals often explain how sunny weather could make seatbelts too hot for a small child, that safety seats should not be placed in the front passenger seat, and that a child should not sit in the lap of a front-seat passenger.

Choose a store that accepts returns.

Every car seat is different and some may fit better in your car than others. Avoid getting stuck with one that’s not right for you by choosing a retail store that allows returns, or the option to test-install a seat. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! Test a few car seats out until you find one that fits your car well, and your child comfortably.

Check the expiration date.

If a trusted friend or relative gives you a car seat, make sure you check the expiration date. Car seats are typically good for about six years until the plastic becomes brittle and a safety hazard. Look for the expiration date on the seat or in the owner’s manual. If the seat is expired, it’s time to buy a new one.

Schedule a car seat installation.

Got a car seat, but aren’t sure how to install it — or wondering if you put it in right? Visit NHTSA online to have your car seat inspected by a certified car seat safety technician for free! They even offer Spanish-speaking technicians. Simply enter your zip code for a list of results near you that may include your local fire department, police station, or Child Passenger Safety Center. On National Seat Check Saturday (September 29, 2018), during Child Passenger Safety Week (September 23-29, 2018), certified child passenger safety technicians are available at car seat events nationwide to provide safety tips and car seat installation instructions to parents and caregivers. Or, find child passenger safety technicians in your area through the National Child Passenger Safety (CPS) Certification Program.

Register the seat.

It’s important to register your car seat so that you’ll be notified of any recalls or product updates that pertain to the seat. If you don’t register it, you may not know the car seat has been recalled! Use the information sticker found on your car seat to register it online with the manufacturer, or mail the registration card that came with it. You can also sign up with the NHTSA to receive email alerts about car seat and booster seat recalls.

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