The list of what your newborn needs to come home from the hospital is short: a baby blanket (easy), an adorable outfit (choosing one is actually fun), and a car seat (oh, boy). A car seat is an absolute must-have item—and a purchase that can be a little daunting if you’ve never chosen one before.
There are four main types of car seats: infant, convertible, all-in-one, and booster. Children are required by law to ride in a car seat. According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), car seats reduce the risk of your child being injured in an accident by more than 70 percent. Many hospitals even check that your newborn is properly strapped into a car seat before sending you home.
How do you decide which kind to buy? The most basic features to look for relate to age appropriateness.
Until the age of 2, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children sit in a rear-facing seat. (That is, a seat in which your child faces the rear window.) In the event of an accident, a rear-facing seat will cradle your baby like a ball in a mitt instead of jolting them forward. Infant seats are designed for babies to be used from day 1 until they are about six to nine months old. These seats are conveniently portable, snapping into a car-seat base. That makes it easy to lift out the entire seat when taking your little one out of the car—an ability you’ll especially appreciate when they’re asleep.
A convertible car seat is another option that can safely be used rear-facing. Once the baby is old enough, the seat can become forward-facing. Convertible seats are bulky and not easily portable, but the big advantage is that they are versatile and can grow with your child until they are ready to switch to a booster.
From the age of 2 until about 4, most kids will ride in a seat that faces forward (or faces the front window). Children should remain strapped in with a five-point harness—which is two shoulder straps, a belt around each leg and a chest clip. Make sure to check the height and weight limits of your seat, and ride with your child seated upright, which is a safer position than reclining. Convertible seats and all-in-one car seats—which can transition at every stage, including to a booster— are your forward-facing choices.
If your child is in a convertible seat and has outgrown the upper-weight (about 40 pounds and around age 4), he can graduate to a booster seat. The booster uses your car’s seat belt system and gives your child a lift, so that the belt fits snugly and safely across the waist and chest. According to AAA, when your child is at least 4’ 9” (usually between the ages of 8 and 12), he will be big enough to ride without a booster.