How to Buy (and Use) an Infant Car Seat

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You have so many things to do before you go into labor and finally give birth. But this one should be at the top of your list: Buying a rear-facing infant car safety seat that fits your baby and your vehicle.

You can be forgiven for forgetting to pack your overnight bag before dashing out to the hospital or birth center. Or being too busy to send thank you notes for those lovely shower gifts. But if you forget to buy a rear-facing infant seat and learn how to safely install it in your vehicle, you won’t be able to bring your new baby home with you. Yes, really.

Requiring that all newborns leave the hospital or birth center in a baby safety seat is not just hospital policy. It’s also the law in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. According to guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP): “All infants should ride in a rear-facing car seat or rear-facing convertible car seat from the moment they leave the hospital until they’re 2 years old.” There are other car seat regulations after age 2, but we’ll leave those for another article.

Car Seat Safety Facts

Buying your infant safety seat before your baby arrives is a smart thing to do. Here are a few more facts about car seat safety:

  • When used correctly, a car safety seat can reduce the risk of infant death by as much as 71%
  • The safest place for a baby in a vehicle is securely fastened in a rear-facing car seat in the middle of the vehicle’s back seat
  • The “best” car seat is the one that fits your newborn baby and can be installed safely in your vehicle

New or Used?

Safety technology is constantly changing and improving. So if you possibly can, buy a new car seat instead of borrowing or buying a used seat. If buying a new seat isn’t in your budget, here’s what you need to know:

  • Never buy or borrow from someone who doesn’t know the seat’s complete history
  • Never use a baby safety seat that has been in a previous vehicle accident
  • Never use a car seat that is past its expiration date (look for date on seat bottom)

Before You Buy

Whether you’ll be buying your new safety seat online or in a retail store, here are some things that can help you shop smarter:

  • Review your vehicle owner’s manual for car seat installation information
  • Decide if you will be installing the car seat using a LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children) system or a seat belt
  • Measure your vehicle’s back seat to make sure the car seat base will fit
  • Confirm that the car seat will be compatible with your stroller (some aren’t)
  • Check the seat strap label or online specs to ensure the seat is designed for a newborn
  • Visit the manufacturer’s website for instructions, service, and personal support (chat or phone)

If you want to know more about buying your first infant safety seat, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website has a seat-buying video, car seat finder, ease-of-use ratings, installation help, and much more.

After you’ve bought your car seat, be sure to register it online or send the registration card to the manufacturer. This helps ensure that you’re notified if there are any recalls or issues with the seat. Finally, take the time to read the instructions completely to learn how to safely install and use the new seat.

Installation Basics

Now that you’ve bought it, registered it, and read the instructions, let’s talk about installing and using your infant safety seat. There are two ways to secure the seat in your vehicle:

  1. Use a seat belt. Pull the seat belt through the car seat at the belt path. Arrows on the car seat or directions on the label will show you the correct belt path to use. Tighten the belt to secure the seat.
  2. Use LATCH. Connect the lower attachments on the car seat to the car’s lower anchors.

Both seat belts and LATCH are safe ways to secure the seat, but only use one at a time.

Installation guidelines:

  • Car seat should be tightly installed in the vehicle’s back seat, preferably near the center
  • Seat should face the back of the vehicle (rear-facing)
  • Seat should recline according to the manufacturer’s instructions
  • Seat should not move more than 1 inch from front to back or side to side

If you need some help with installation or would feel more confident if an expert reviewed your efforts, the Safe Kids website can connect you with a local child passenger safety (CPS) technician. Many fire stations, police departments, hospitals, and other community organizations also have CPS technicians available.

Securing Baby in the Seat

It may take a few practice tries, but you’ll quickly learn how to safely buckle your baby into the car seat. Here are some tips:

  • Make sure the harness straps go through the car seat at the same level and neither strap is twisted. For a newborn, the harness straps should be in the lowest slots.
  • Remove your baby’s coat or any bulky clothing before placing them in the seat. Cover your baby with a coat or blanket after they are buckled in.
  • Pull the harness straps snugly over the baby, buckle the harness, and close the chest clip at armpit level.
  • Harness straps should be at or below your baby’s shoulder level.
  • Tighten the straps until you can’t pinch any of the webbing between your fingers.
  • Don’t attach any toys, wraps or other items to the car seat or straps.
  • Don’t use a car seat insert or support that didn’t come with the seat.

Congratulations! You’ve learned how to buy, register, install, and use your brand-new baby car seat. So cross it off your to-do list, put your feet up, and relax!

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