Of all the challenges facing new grandparents, becoming car-seat competent may be one of the greatest. Actually, children should progress through the different types of car seats in a way that is wholly logical once you understand the basics.
Children usually progress through these types of seats: infant seat, rear-facing convertible seat, front-facing convertible seat and booster seat. Since the convertible seat is used in both rear-facing and front-facing positions and since some parents choose not to purchase an infant seat, only two or three seats should be required to accommodate a child from birth until he or she is old enough to wear regular seat belts.
Although seat types are standard, weight limits are not. Pay close attention to the age and weight limits on the seats you use or purchase. Usually this information is attached to the car seat itself.
Here’s what grandparents need to know about all four types of car seats:
This starter seat used to be necessary until a baby reached at least seven pounds. Newer models of rear-facing convertible seats can accommodate children as small as five pounds, so some parents skip the infant seat altogether. Some still prefer the infant seat, for a couple of reasons.
This seat commonly comes in two pieces, the infant carrier and a base that it snaps into. That means that a baby can be removed from the car without taking the baby out of the seat -- great when baby is sleeping. Also, some are available as part of a travel system -- a stroller/car seat combo.
Most grandparents should be able to skip buying the infant seat and go straight to the rear-facing convertible seat. Those who really want to use the parents' infant seat should be able to buy an extra base for use in their car. Some infant seats are designed so that they can be used without the base; but these require more care to secure correctly. Infant seats are always used rear-facing.
Rear-Facing Convertible Seat
Most grandparents will start their car seat buying with a convertible seat, which accommodates babies in the rear-facing position until they reach a certain point and then accommodates them in the front-facing position. Babies must be carried in the rear-facing position until they reach one year old and 20 pounds; however, most experts recommend that the seat be kept facing rearwards the maximum period of time allowed by the particular seat manufacturer. The latest study shows that keeping babies rear-facing until at least age two provides optimum safety.
The baby's height is also a consideration in deciding when to switch the position of the seat. When rear-facing, the harness slots should be at or below the child's shoulders. The hard plastic shell should extend at least one inch above the baby's head. The length of the baby's legs is not important in making the decision to switch the seat.
Front-Facing Convertible Seat
When it's time to turn the convertible seat to the front-facing position, the harness slots should be at or above the child's shoulders. Also, not all harness slots can be used in the forward-facing position; check your manual. The tops of the child's ears should be below the top of the car seat shell.
The car seat can be used in the front-facing position until the child is around 40 pounds. Some of the newer models will accommodate children who weigh more than 40 pounds. Again, experts recommend that the child be kept in the harness in the convertible seat as long as possible.
The final seat that most children will need is a booster. Boosters come in two basic styles, high-back and low-back. Some high-back boosters convert to low-back. The low-back style is for older, taller kids. Boosters use the vehicle safety belts but control the position so that the belts do not strike the child’s face or neck region.
One More Option
A combination seat offers one more option. Just as the convertible seat covers Stages 2 and 3 above, the combination seat can cover Stages 3 and 4. It is a forward-facing seat with a five-point harness. When the child outgrows the harness, it can be removed and the seat will serve as a high-back booster chair using the vehicle safety belt. You might buy a combination seat, for example, if your grandchild is old enough to ride facing forward and you want to replace the convertible seat for some reason.
The SaferCar.gov website has a graphic that displays this information in a visual format. Grandparents will also need to know the laws of their state in regard to car safety seat use, although most will prefer to utilize the safest practices rather than the minimum required by law.
Grandparents may be especially interested in how easy a car seat is to use. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) provides ease of use ratings for child safety seats.
Now that you know what type of seat you need to buy, the next hurdle is to install the seat. You will need the instructions that come with the car seat. If they were accidentally thrown away, you can find them online. You may also need your vehicle manual. More information about installation is available online. If you are unable for some reason to install the seat yourself, in some areas there are businesses that will do the job for a price. Child safety seat inspection stations are readily available to check the installation. These stations are usually located in law enforcement offices, fire stations or health care facilities. Less often they may be found in car dealerships or offered by non-profit organizations. You may need to make an appointment to be sure that a certified car seat technician is available.
All car seats sold in the last decade or so have been designed to be used with the system known as LATCH. This system connects car seats to anchors in vehicles. The LATCH system is designed to make proper installation of car seats easier. Car seats that use LATCH are not safer than those installed in the usual way, using car safety belts.
One concern that has developed about LATCH has to do with weight limits. Since current recommendations keep children in safety seats longer, the weight of the child plus the weight of the safety seat could exceed the safe limit for the lower anchors. As a result, there are new regulations about the use of LATCH.
For assistance with this article, thanks to Heather Corley, the About.com Guide to Baby Products and also a Child Passenger Safety Technician and Senior Checker with Safe Kids USA.