A car seat is the most important piece of baby gear—the hospital won’t let you drive your baby home without one. Before you get behind the wheel, read this.
Pricier does not mean safer.
All car seat manufacturers are required to meet the same strict safety standards, notes Alisa Baer, M.D., a New York City-based pediatrician and certified child passenger safety instructor. "When I first shopped for a seat, I realized the difference in price is often due to a designer name or fancier fabric," says Jill Hunt, a mom of three in Atlanta, Georgia. What’s most important: making sure a model fits your car.
Go for new over used.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) caution against buying a second-hand car seat if you don’t know the seat’s history(to make sure it hasn’t been in an accident); it’s older than six years; it has visible cracks; it’s missing parts or the instructions; or the seat was recalled (check safercar.gov or call the NHTSA’s Vehicle Safety Hotline at 888-327-4236). Says Dr. Baer, who runs the website The Car Seat Lady, "When in doubt, it is best to buy a new car seat—it’s the only baby product parents purchase that has the potential to save a child's life."
Make sure properly installed.
A certified child passenger safety technician can teach you how to install the seat correctly. To find one near you, visit seatcheck.org or call 1-866-SEAT-CHECK. Breanna Gunn, a mom of one in Friendswood, Texas, got help from a trained technician at her local police station: "As a new mom, I was relieved to find someone who could make sure my car seat was installed the right way."
Keep the straps snug.
In the winter, bulky snowsuits or coats can prevent straps from fitting right. Dr. Baer recommends dressing the baby in three thin layers instead, such as a bodysuit, a footed sleeper, and a button-down cardigan, and then adding a blanket (over the straps, which should be snug against baby’s body).
Keep baby rear-facing as long as possible.
You might be eager to switch your convertible car seat to the forward-facing position, but the AAP recommends that children ride rear-facing as long as possible—until they reach the height and weight limits set by the car seat manufacturer. (At a minimum, babies should stay rear-facing until they turn 1 and weigh at least 20 lbs.) Says Dr. Baer, "Studies show that even 3- and 4-year-olds are five times safer riding rear-facing than forward." Drive safely!