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Car Seat Shopping Smarts

How to Find -- and Install -- the Safest Car Seat For Your Child

By Kathy Sena

Ahhh, car seat shopping: Do you want a convertible seat, a five-point Harness, a T-shield? If you're like many parents, after a day spent weighing all your options, all you want is an aspirin.

Sorting through the car seat maze is important, of course. A properly installed car seat reduces fatal injuries by 69 percent for infants (under age one) and by 47 percent for toddlers (ages one through four), according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

But nobody said it was easy. We asked several experts to explain how to choose and install the right car seat for your child, whether he's entering the world or entering kindergarten.

Your child's age, weight and height determine the type of car seat you'll need, according to NHTSA:

  • Infants. From birth to at least one year old (regardless of weight) and until they weigh at least 20 pounds (regardless of age), infants need a rear-facing car seat installed in the back seat - preferably in the middle.

    What if your eight-month-old weighs 25 pounds? "Bigger doesn't mean stronger," says Sheryll Bolton, R.N., a certified child-passenger safety specialist who coordinates the "Buckle-Up Orange County" program for the Orange County Health Care Agency in California. "Regardless of his weight, it's important to keep your child in a rear-facing seat for the first year, because his musculoskeletal system isn't developed enough to protect him in a forward crash," she says. Specially designed rear-facing car seats are available for babies up to 30 pounds, Bolton adds.

    Convertible car seats are used rear-facing until an infant reaches 12 months and exceeds 20 pounds. Then the seat converts to a forward-facing seat.

    Are detachable bases safe? "What's most important is that the car seat fit your child and your vehicle," says Bolton. While detachable bases meet federal safety standards, often their large base is not compatible with the car's back seat, making it safer to use a one-piece car seat, she explains. However, NHTSA spokesperson Liz Neblett notes that a detachable base that does fit well offers added convenience for parents who may need to switch the baby between two cars.

  • Toddlers. Children over one year, between 20 and 40 pounds and roughly 26 to 40 inches tall need a forward-facing car seat. The question parents face here: Shield or harness?

    In general, a five-point harness may be best, experts say. Both Bolton and Neblett note that T-shields and tray shields may not always fit as snugly as a harness, especially for a small child. When a shield does fit snugly, however, it can offer parents a convenience factor that makes them more likely to use the car seat, says Neblett.

  • Young children. Kids weighing 40 to 80 pounds (roughly ages 4 to 8) need a booster seat, which provides protection and enables the car's seat belt to fit correctly. Kids this age who are not in booster seats tend to put the shoulder strap behind them, increasing their risk of injury in a crash. "Shield-only boosters aren't acceptable for children over 40 pounds," says Bolton. A booster seat that works with the lap/shoulder seat belt is required at that point.

    Be sure to select the appropriate booster seat for your vehicle's back seat, and try the seat before you buy it, because all seats aren't compatible with all vehicles.

    Use the booster seat every time. Even if your child has outgrown her car seat, she still needs the protection a booster seat provides. One NHTSA study showed that only 6.1 percent of booster-aged children were restrained in a booster seat.

    "Never buy a used car seat," says Alan Fields, co-author of "Baby Bargains." "You don't know its history. If the car seat was in even a minor accident, it may be unsafe."

    What about a hand-me-down? Just make sure it hasn't been in an accident and hasn't been recalled, Fields advises.

    Most car-seat manufacturers take a 'one-size-fits-all' attitude, says Fields. Since back seats can vary widely, "You can bet that not every car seat will fit like a glove," he adds. Unfortunately, neither the automotive industry nor the car- seat industry has created a list of incompatible car seats and cars, Fields adds.

    Fields' advice: "Keep the receipt and check the store's return policy. Right after you buy the car seat, set it up in your back seat. It if doesn't fit, take it back."

    In conducting inspections, Bolton rarely sees a correctly installed car seat, she says. Fortunately, most can be adjusted for a good fit. Try these tips from NHTSA:

  • Read up. Read the car seat and vehicle manuals before installation.

  • Back seat is best. Children 12 and under are up to 27 percent safer in the back seat, NHTSA says. Also, never use a rear-facing infant car seat in the front seat of a vehicle with a front-passenger air bag unless the air bag has been turned off. (And even then, a child is safer in the middle of the back seat.)

  • Think snug. On forward-facing car seats, place your knee into the seat and lean forward, using your weight to compress the seat cushion while tightening the seat belt. Check the seat by firmly pulling the base from side to side and forward. It shouldn't move more than about one inch in any direction.

    Rear-facing car seats should recline at a 45-degree angle, but the slope of the back seat may make this impossible. Try placing a tightly rolled towel under the car seat to change the angle.

  • Know your vehicle. Vehicles manufactured before September 1, 1995 may have safety-belt systems that require additional hardware, such as locking clips, for correct car-seat installation. Contact the manufacturer to order. Cars made after that date are equipped with safety-belt locking features that make installation easier.

    According to the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA), vehicles manufactured after September 1, 1999 must be equipped with tether "anchors," and most forward-facing car seats must include a tether. The tether will attach to the top of the car-seat anchor to provide more stability. If your car was manufactured before September 1, 1999, you can ask your dealer to install tether anchors for use with newer car seats, says the JPMA. The JPMA points out that, while tethers provide an extra measure of safety, un-tethered car seats are still very safe.

    When is your child ready for a regular seatbelt? State laws regarding weight and age limits vary widely, Neblett says. The shoulder belt should fit across the child's shoulder, not his neck, she explains. And, with his back to the seat back, his legs should hang over the seat edge.

    In other words, it depends on your child.

    "Many people look at the law and ask, 'How long do I have to keep my child in a car seat?'" says Bolton. "A better question is 'When is it safe to put my child in a seat belt?' The law enforces minimum standards. You want what's best for your child."

    Also See:
    BabyUniverse has a wide selection of car seats
    Check to see if your car seat has been recalled

    Kathy Sena is a Los Angeles-based writer and columnist and the mother of a five-year-old son. She frequently covers health-and-safety issues.

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