Any new parent will tell you the first time strapping a baby into a car seat and pulling out into traffic is a terrifying experience.
Knowing you've put time into finding the right car seat can help ease this anxiety. Here are five factors to consider when shopping for the best child car seat.
1. The size and age of your child
You'll need to update your child's car seat at each phase of her growth. Here are the main types of seats:
- Rear-facing seats connect to your car, and they have their own safety belt for your child.
- Forward-facing seats connect to your car and are designed to face forward.
- Booster seats simply raise children up, so the car's seat belt fits them properly. Some booster seats have backs with neck and head support.
- Convertible seats change from rear-facing to forward-facing with a harness and tether.
- All-in-one seats change from rear-facing to forward-facing to booster seats.
- Travel systems include a base, car seat and stroller. The seat snaps into the base in your car and into the stroller, making it easier to transfer a child from car to stroller.
Infants should be in a rear-facing seat until they're at least 1 year old, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration advises. It's safest to keep children in a rear-facing seat as long as they remain within the manufacturer's height and weight limits — about three years. After that, it's time to face forward.
See also: 7 pet safety lessons for driving
Use a forward-facing seat until your kid is around age 7, checking the manufacturer's weight and height requirements to know when it's time to next move into a booster seat. Children can move out of booster seats around age 12, or once they're big enough that the lap belt rests against the child's upper thighs (not the stomach) and the shoulder belt lies snugly across the shoulders and chest (not the neck or face). Children should continue to ride in the back seat through age 12.
Check SaferCar.gov to find seat recommendations based on your child's age and size.
Car seats are required to meet federal safety standards. NHTSA created a rating system based on how easy it is to: install the seat in the car, understand instructions and labels attached to the seat, and strap in a child properly. The ratings range from poor (one star) to excellent (five stars).
Consumer Reports rates car seats based on a 35 mph crash-performance test and ease of use and installation. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates booster seats based on a crash-performance test.
3. Your car
Nearly every car and car seat built since 2002 is designed to use the "lower anchors and tethers for children" (Latch) restraint system. Latch seats have straps and hooks that attach to anchors in a car. If you have an older car, you can use the seat belt to connect the car seat to the car, or you can contact your local dealer or manufacturer to install an anchor kit.
You can find car seats for less than $100 or more than $1,000. Spending more might get you a seat that's easier to use and comes with more features, but you can find a perfectly safe seat for less.
As Consumer Reports puts it: "Many mid-priced models work as well as or better than pricier ones. Whatever the cost, a certain seat may simply just not work with your car."
Your cheapest option might be to buy a seat that serves one size of child. But you might save in the long run with a seat that can grow with your child, from rear-facing to forward-facing to a booster.
Not only is an easy-to-use car seat best for your sanity; it's best for your child. According to Consumer Reports, nearly 80 percent of car seats are installed incorrectly. The key to purchasing the best car seat is to make sure you can install it correctly, making it the safest bet for your child.