A child car seat should be high on your to-buy list. You’ll need one to bring your baby home from the hospital and for every car trip thereafter. In fact, hospitals and birthing centers generally won’t let you leave by car with your newborn if you don’t have one. Every state requires that kids up to 4 years of age ride in a car seat; many require booster seats for older children.
The major brands of car seats you’re likely to encounter are, in alphabetical order: Baby Trend, Britax, Chicco, Combi, Cosco, Eddie Bauer, Evenflo, Graco, Peg Perego, and Safety 1st.
There are also car beds for preemies and other very small newborns if there’s a concern that a car seat may not provide a secure fit or that it may exacerbate breathing problems. In addition, there are specially designed car seats for children with physical disabilities. Every model of car seat sold in the U.S. must meet federal safety standards. These are your basic choices:
Infant seats. These rear-facing seats are for babies up to 22 pounds. They allow infants to recline at an angle that doesn’t interfere with breathing and protects them best in a crash. Many strollers are now designed to accommodate infant car seats. All infant car-seat models come with a handle, and nearly all have a base that secures to your vehicle with LATCH connections or a vehicle safety belt, a convenience that lets you remove the seat and use it as a carrier. You can strap most infant seats into a car without a base, using the vehicle safety belts, but most people don’t use them that way.
Infant seats have either a three-point harness–two adjustable shoulder straps and a lock between the child’s legs or–even better–an adjustable five-point system–two straps over the shoulders, two for the thighs, and a crotch strap. The handle usually swings from a position behind the seat’s shell when in the car to an upright position for carrying. Remember to swing the handle to the vehicle position before each trip. Slots underneath most seats help them attach to the frame of a shopping cart.
With an infant car seat, you also can move your baby from car to house or vice versa without waking him or her up–a plus for both of you. Note also that extra bases are available so you can keep a secured base in each of your vehicles. Your baby may outgrow an infant car seat quickly and become too heavy for you to use it as a carrier. As a result, you may find yourself having to buy a convertible car seat after your baby is 6 to 9 months old. However, our advice is still to start with an infant seat before moving up to a convertible seat.
Price range: $30 to $180.
Travel systems. Travel systems offer one-stop shopping: You get an infant car seat and a stroller all in one. Most car-seat manufacturers offer these combination strollers/infant car seats. And many stand-alone strollers are now designed to accommodate infant car seats. With these strollers, you create a carriage by snapping an infant car seat into a stroller. The car seats of travel systems also come with a base, which stays in the car. The snap-on car seat is generally positioned atop the strollers so the infant rides facing the person pushing. Your baby can also ride in the stroller seat alone when he or she is big enough.
Most travel-system strollers can be used only with a car seat from the same company. They can also be bulky, so if you’re a city dweller who negotiates more subway stairs than highways or if the trunk of your car isn’t too roomy, you may be better off with a separate car seat and a compact stroller that is appropriate for a newborn.
Price range: $40 (stroller frame only) to $400.
Convertible seats. With a convertible seat, the child faces rearward as an infant, then toward the front of the vehicle as a toddler. The seat can function as a rear-facing seat for infants up to 30 or 35 pounds, depending on the model, and as a front-facing seat for toddlers generally up to 40 pounds (a few have a 65-pound limit). Models typically have an adjustable five-point harness system–two straps over the shoulders, two for the thighs, and a crotch strap between the legs. Some models have a tray shield that lowers over the baby’s head and fastens with a buckle between the legs. However, our tests show that children, especially small ones, are better restrained with a five-point harness.