Long after your little one has outgrown his crib or stroller, he will still be strapping in to a special seat for car rides. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be in a child safety seat or belt-positioning booster until they are at least 4 feet 9 inches tall. Most children reach that milestone between ages 8 and 12, according to the AAP. It's also the law: All 50 states and the District of Columbia require the use of child restraints, though age and height requirements vary by state.
"When they are properly installed, car seats have an outstanding record for protecting children," said David Strickland, a certified car seat technician and the administrator with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "It's the best investment in safety you can ever make."
There are lots of options, from infant carrier seats to convertible infant/toddler seats to backless boosters. For your child's early years, it's important to choose something that will keep him comfortable and safe on the road until he is ready for a booster seat.
Get help from a pro. Have your seat installed by a certified child passenger safety technician or have one inspect the seat once you've installed. Visit the NHTSA website at icsw.nhtsa.gov/cps/cpsfitting to find a certified technician or a car-seat check event in your area. This service is free and often performed at police or fire stations.
Face the back. Keep your child in a rear-facing seat until he is at least 2 years old. Longer is even better, said Strickland. "Children even older than 3 can use the support of a rear-facing seat," Strickland said. "We're still talking about neck and back structures that are very weak at that age and can use support in a crash."
The middle is best. If possible, put the car seat in the center of your back seat to minimize impact from a side collision, said Scott Adler, managing editor at Babycenter.com.
Strap position matters. Make sure the clip on a five-point harness goes across the child's chest, not her stomach. If your child is in a belt-positioning booster seat, the shoulder belt should cross her shoulder and breastbone instead of her neck, and the lap belt her hipbones, not her stomach, Strickland said. All harnesses and straps should be snug against your child.
Find the perfect fit. Check the seat's instruction manual for the height and weight guidelines to make sure your child is the right size for his seat, Strickland said.
Car seats expire. Don't use a seat that is more than six years old, or one that you do not know the history of, Strickland said. Always replace your car seats if you have been in a collision, and don't use a hand-me-down car seat that has been involved in a crash.
A team of experts at Target recommends three infant/toddler convertible car seats at different price points.
Cosco Apt Inner Circles. Children can remain rear-facing in this seat until they reach 40 pounds and 43 inches tall. The maximum weight for forward-facing children is also 40 pounds. It has an adjustable five-point harness and two cup holders. The seat, which costs $54.99, has extra side impact protection and is available in stores only.
Eddie Bauer XRS. This seat is safe in a rear-facing position for children up to 40 pounds and 40 inches tall. It is safe for front-facing children up to 65 pounds. It also has an adjustable five-point harness and side impact protection and is available in stores and online for $129.99.
Graco Headwise 70 with Safety Surround. This seat has a removable pad for cleaning, energy-absorbing foam to ease the impact of a collision and a reclining seat. It is safe for rear-facing children up to 40 pounds and forward-facing up to 70 pounds. It is available online and in stores for $199.99.
. Find out which seats have worked best for other people who have the same model of car. Adler suggests that parents talk to other parents or visit online communities to see what people are saying about their car seats before buying one.
. All car seats meet federal safety standards. To help differentiate between different models, NHTSA has a site that rates seats by their ease of use. Visit www.nhtsa.gov/Safety/Ease-of-Use to see ratings on a seat's instructions, labels, vehicle installation features and child restraints.
. Register your seat with the manufacturer. Fill out the card and send it in by mail, or register your seat online so the manufacturer can reach you if there is a safety recall.