As a parent, you want nothing more than to protect your children from harm. If you are about to have your first kid or if it’s been a while since your last one, it might seem a bit intimidating trying to figure out what car seat to buy and how to use it properly. Or maybe you are just trying to decide when to move your child to the next seat and what options you have. Here is a guide to the types of car seats you might come across and when to move your child from one to the next.

Knowing When to Change Car Seats

Moving your child into a new car seat depends upon their age and size. Children should remain rear-facing as long as possible, but at least two years. Rear-facing is the safest way for your child to ride in the vehicle because it protects their head, neck, and spine from injury in the case of a car accident. Some states even have laws requiring kids to remain rear-facing until age two. If they are two, only turn them forward-facing if their head is within one inch of the top of the seat or seat handle or if they have hit the height or weight limit.

If your child is forward-facing, once again you will want to keep them in the five-point harness until they are big enough to safely use a seatbelt with a booster seat. The five-point harness helps distribute the force of a car crash over the body and keeps the child sitting upright in the seat properly. 

Determining when to move into a booster seat is based on a few different things. First, have they reached the height and/or weight limit for the forward-facing car seat they currently use. Second, will they stay buckled and sitting upright properly (it’s much easier for a kid to unbuckle a seat belt than a five-point harness). Third, do their knees bend naturally at the end of the seat? Finally, make sure the seatbelt, when used with the booster seat, goes across their hips and shoulder, not their stomach and neck. If all these check out, they might be ready to move into a booster.

Choosing the Right Car Seat

When looking for car seats for your child there are a few different types on the market. There are infant car seats, convertible car seats, combination car seats, and booster seats. 

Infant Car Seats

Infant car seats are exclusively rear-facing. Most of them have a base that is strapped into the vehicle and remains there. The seat is a removable carrier the baby can stay strapped into and carried around in when outside of the vehicle. Most infant car seats also have the option of getting a stroller it can lock onto.

Infant car seats vary in height and weight limits. When your baby outgrows their infant seat, it’s best to move them into a convertible car seat so they can remain rear-facing.

Pros

  • Infant seats are portable, allowing the baby to keep sleeping.
  • It can be snapped onto a stroller so you don’t have to worry about if the stroller reclines to properly support the newborn’s head and neck.
  • You can buy extra bases rather than multiple car seats for different vehicles.
  • Designed to fit a newborn’s body size better than other seats.

Cons

  • Many infant car seats will be outgrown by the time the child is one.
  • As your child grows the car seat will get heavier to carry around.

Convertible Car Seats

There are a couple of different types of convertible car seats. Some allow you to only have your child in the rear-facing and forward-facing positions. Other convertible car seats can be used rear-facing, forward-facing, and as a booster seat. Convertible seats that can be used in all three ways are often referred to as all-in-one or 3-in-one car seats. 

As you are shopping for a car seat, be sure and check the description to see if it is a rear-facing and forward-facing only or an all-in-one seat. The seat manufacturer will list all the ways it can be used and the height/weight limits for each.

Pros

  • Most have higher weight limits than infant seats.
  • It can be used rear-facing and forward-facing.
  • Some feature a metal frame for added reinforcement and protection.
  • All-in-one convertibles can also become a booster seat.

Cons

  • Have to buy a different seat for each vehicle.
  • Not very portable as they generally remain in the car.
  • Some can seem large for the size of a newborn.

Combination Seats

Combination seats, sometimes called harnessed booster seats, are forward-facing seats that can be turned into a booster seat. While the child is forward-facing, the seat will have a five-point harness which can later be removed to use as a booster with the vehicle’s seatbelt. 

Pros

  • Some have a steel frame for added protection.
  • It can be used forward-facing and then as a booster seat.
  • A great option if your child has not outgrown the forward-facing limits but needs a new seat.

Cons

  • It cannot be used for infants.
  • They are not carriers of any kind.
  • You will likely want to buy one for every vehicle the child will ride in.

Booster Seats

Booster seats are used with just the vehicle’s seatbelt. There are two types of boosters you can buy: High back boosters and backless boosters. High back boosters have a back just like convertible car seats or combination seats, but they don’t have the harness. 

The shoulder strap of the seatbelt will feed through a spot towards the top of the booster seat and the lap belt will go under the armrests. High back boosters help ensure there is something behind the child’s head in the case of a crash and also helps keep them from slouching over if they sleep in the car.

Backless boosters are just the seat portion. They can easily be switched from one vehicle to the next because they are relatively small and lightweight. The child will just need to pull the lap belt portion under the armrests. Some backless boosters come with a guide for the shoulder strap to make sure it sits correctly on the child.  

Pros

  • Lightweight and easy to move between vehicles because it’s not strapped in.
  • High back boosters help keep kids sitting in the seat properly.
  • Less expensive than most other car seats.

Cons

  • The child must be ready to stay buckled and sitting properly in the seat.
  • They can only be used as a booster seat with the vehicle’s seatbelt.

Moving to a Seatbelt

If you have an older child that might be pressuring you to let them go without a booster seat and just use the seat belt, there are a few things to consider before letting them do so. Make sure the seatbelt hits them across the hips and shoulder when they are sitting without a booster seat. If the seatbelt goes across their neck or is on their stomach, they need a booster still. They should also be at least 4 foot 9 inches tall with their knees naturally bent over the seat and their feet on the floor of the vehicle.