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By Maureen Connolly
Investing in a quality car seat and installing it properly is by far one of the best things you can do to keep your infant safe when driving. Below, we answer some of the most commonly asked questions about infant car seats:
Question: What are the most important things to consider when choosing an infant car seat?
Selecting a seat that fits your child and your model car is critical to the safety of your infant. Certain car seats will work better or worse in different model cars (for instance, the space between the front and rear seat of your car may be too small to allow the brand you like to properly recline). You can save yourself time and aggravation down the road by asking the manager at the store you plan to buy a car seat from if you can test-drive the display model of the brand that you're interested in. (Most stores have a display model for each of the car seats they sell.) Be sure to ask to see the directions on how to install the seat. While it's nice to find a car seat with a pretty pattern or fabric, ultimately the most important thing is that the car seat fits properly to safely transport your infant.
Question: What's the difference between a convertible seat and an infant seat? Which one will protect my infant best?
Convertible seats are designed to grow with your child, meaning that they can be used in the rear-facing position until your infant is 1 year old and 20 to 22 pounds. A few convertible seats will accommodate a 30 to 35 pound child in the rear-facing position. When your child turns a year and reaches the maximum allowable weight, you can turn the seat into a forward-facing position. Infant seats, on the other hand, are intended to be used only in the rear-facing position and up until your baby is 1 year old and 20 pounds. So once your baby reaches both of these milestones, you'll need to purchase another seat.
While you may use an infant seat for a shorter amount of time, there are advantages to these seats. The design of an infant car seat is smaller than a convertible, so an infant who is on the lighter side (say 6 or 7 pounds) may be more secure in a smaller seat (whereas an 8- or 9-lb baby would do just fine in a convertible seat.) Unlike convertible seats, many infant seats come with a separate base that allows you to detach the seat. This enables you to transport the baby in his seat instead of having to remove him from the seat every time you take him out of the car. It's also nice to be able to buckle your infant into his seat indoors, rather than have to do it out in the car. Another plus to the infant seat is that if you use two different cars to transport your baby, you only need to purchase a compatible base (rather than another car seat) to install in the second car.
Question: Does a detachable base make the infant seat more or less safe?
It depends. If you can get the base to fit securely and you get a level reading when you attach the car seat, then this is a perfectly safe way to transport your baby. If, however, the seat fits more securely (meaning you get less movement) without the base, then you're better off not using it.
Question: What does the term LATCH mean?
LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. As of 2002, all cars (this includes minivans and pickup trucks) are required to include the LATCH system. A lower anchor is used instead of a seatbelt to secure the seat. Meanwhile, a tether strap hooks to the top of the seat and allows you to get an even tighter fit. Tethers have been required in cars since September 2000. If you have an older model car, you can purchase a tether kit directly from the car manufacturer.
Question: Any Tips for Installing a Car Seat?
Count on spending at least an hour reviewing the directions and installing the seat.
Don't wait until the day you plan to take the baby home from the hospital to install the seat. You don't need that kind of pressure hanging over you. Ideally, you'll install the seat several weeks before your baby's due date in case of an early arrival.
If you're having trouble with the installation, call the toll-free number that most manufacturers include with their seats. The consumer reps are often very knowledgeable and happy to answer all of your questions.
Once you've installed the seat, have it inspected at a local cars seat safety checkpoint. Your fire department should have information on where you can go; very often they conduct the checkpoints themselves. You can also find checkpoints in your area by logging on to The Safekids Website. Go to the right-hand side of the home page where it says, "Find coalitions and events near you." They list events by state and area.
When using an infant car seat, be sure the carrier handle is placed in the downward position while driving. Leaving it up could seriously injure your baby should the car be in an accident. If you like to use the handle to dangle toys, buy a toy that attaches to the car window with a suction device instead.
Make a point to regularly check the car's seat to make sure the safety belt is still holding the carrier securely in place and that the level indicator says the seat is at a safe angle.
For more information about child safety seats check out the American Academy of Pediatrics' newly updated guide on car seats.
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Maureen Connolly writes frequently about infant and child safety. Her first book, The Essential C-Section Guide, will be published by Broadway Books in May 2004.