No matter how well your delivery went, how perfectly prepared the nursery is or how madly in love you are with your brand-new baby, there’s nothing quite as nerve-wracking as that first drive home. Having a car seat you feel comfortable with should make things at least a teensy bit less tense. (And by the way, you won’t be allowed to leave the hospital at all without one.)
There are two basic options for a newborn: infant carriers and convertible car seats.
Infant carriers are generally good for about the first year and function as an entire travel system: They latch into a base that stays in your car and can also be snapped into specific strollers or stroller frames. (If you decide to go this route, make sure your carrier is compatible with your stroller.) This means when you’re out with baby, there’s no need to unbuckle and buckle (and risk waking up a sleeping baby) when you take him from home to the car to the stroller and back again. For suburban families who use both the car and stroller frequently, this is generally the way to go. Look for a handle that’s comfortable for carrying —this becomes more important the older (and bigger) baby gets. If you live in a city and will be taking cabs or for some other reason will be using lots of different cars, make sure to get a carrier that can also be installed without the base.
Convertible seats simply stay in the car. You’ll have to snap baby in and out every time and there’s no carrying option or separate base, but the advantage is they can be used much later into babyhood. If you’re looking to save money and will generally be using the same car, this is a good option.
A five-point harness is a must. Go for straps that aren’t tricky to adjust and a buckle that’s easy to latch and unlatch. When you set up a rear-facing car seat, make sure the shoulder harnesses are at or below baby’s shoulder level. (The opposite holds true for front-facing car seats, so it can be easy to misadjust.)
Since your newborn won’t be able to hold up his head, look for a seat with an insert to support his head. It’s safer than using an attachment. (Only use inserts manufactured by the same company as your car seat — otherwise, you risk an improper fit.) If this still isn’t enough support, you can roll up receiving blankets around your baby’s head to keep it in place. Skip neck pillows — while they may seem supportive, they can actually be dangerous in an accident.
During an accident, this can keep baby safe and protect him from impact.
Deep side walls and adequate barriers around the head, neck and spine will protect baby if there’s a side-impact accident. Look for research and evidence on the manufacturer’s website that support any claims about side-impact protection.
Does the material and padding feel soft and cozy? This might sound like a luxury, but anything that helps soothe baby is essential in the first few months.
Normal life span is about six years—after that, the plastic can become brittle. This is especially important to look at if you’re borrowing a car seat from a friend or relative. (On that note, only accept hand-me-downs from someone you truly trust — make sure you know what the car seat has been through before you put your own baby in it. For that reason, you should never buy a car seat at a secondhand store.) Never use a seat that doesn’t have a label with the date of manufacture and model number and instructions.
If you can take your fingers and pinch the webbing of the harness together, the car seat’s straps aren’t tight enough.
Register your car seat so you’ll be notified of any recalls or product updates.
Once you think you have your car seat installed correctly, get it checked out by an expert. Your local fire department or police station should have a car-seat-safety expert, who can make sure everything’s in place. The most common mistake parents make is simply not installing the seat tightly enough. See if yours is properly in place by holding the car seat at the belt path and trying to move it from side-to-side and front to back. If you can move the seat more than an inch in any direction, it isn’t tight enough. If you have a 3-in-1 or convertible car seat, make sure the seat belt or LATCH belt is correctly in place. Triple-check the seat’s owner’s manual to be certain. If the entire installation process proves too overwhelming to tackle on your own (it happens to even the best of parents), your local expert can walk you through the entire process.
Babies should ride-rear facing until they’re two years old, or until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by their car seat’s manufacturer. Then, they can move to a forward-facing seat with a harness. All children under the age of 13 should ride in the back seat, where they’ll be safest. In vehicles without back seats (like a truck or sports car), turn off the front seat airbag, which could harm baby. Check your owner’s manual to find out how.
Plus more from The Bump, Car Seat Types Infographic: