Of all the challenges facing new grandparents, becoming car-seat competent may be one of the greatest. One of the complicating factors is that there are so many kinds of car seats. The different types of seats will become more understandable, however, once you understand the different stages of growth and the different types of seats each one requires. This information should help you purchase and use the best car seats for grandchildren.
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 can be used in both rear-facing and front-facing positions, no more than three seats should be required to accommodate a child from birth until he or she is old enough to wear regular seat belts, around age 8. Although seat types are standard, weight limits are not. Pay close attention to the age and weight limits on the seats you purchase. Usually this information is attached to the car seat itself.
Here’s what grandparents need to know about all four stages of car seat usage:
- Infant Seat
This seat commonly comes in two pieces, the infant carrier and a base that it snaps into. Grandparents may be able to skip buying the infant seat. Since the infant seat comes in two pieces, grandparents can often use the parents’ infant seat by buying an extra base for use in their car. Some infant seats are designed so that they can be used without the base; these will easily transfer to a grandparent’s car. Although babies seven pounds and up can be carried in a rear-facing convertible seat, newborns really don't fit well in them. The infant seat is usable to at least 20 pounds.
- Rear-Facing Convertible Seat
Most grandparents, therefore, 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 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 used in the forward-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.
- Booster Seat
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 is the combination seat. 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.
Within categories or types, car seats still vary tremendously. As a grandparent, you may be 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.
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.