Sunday, December 11, 2011

Playing Musical Car Seats

I've been going on about pregnancy and birth and breastfeeding a lot lately, so I thought we'd have a change of pace today and talk about car seats. Some of this post will simply be reiterating information I've already written about, but it's information that bears repeating.

When NJ was born, we didn't know much about car seats, other than that you needed one for your baby. We got a Graco travel system, which I selected based almost solely on the cute pattern. It turned out not to have been a very good choice of car seat, as it was very difficult to properly adjust the straps. Also, we found out quickly, as NJ was a rather large baby, that carrying the baby in the car seat carrier quickly became uncomfortably heavy. By the time he was two months old, we were tired of using the carrier and tired of how much space it took up in the car. At that point, I had somehow become more educated about car seats in general (I think because I was involved in a parenting forum on LiveJournal) and had learned that Britax are considered the best car seats. We bought a Britax Roundabout, which at the time had a rear-facing limit of 33 pounds and a front-facing limit of 40 pounds. (The one linked to here is a much newer version, with a higher weight limit and slightly different design than the one we bought five years ago.) We kept NJ rear-facing until he was about 16 months, and then turned him forward because he was getting very cranky in the car and we thought it would be nicer for him to be able to see out and look around. He used that seat until long after SB was born.

Here is baby NJ in his Graco infant seat. This was the day we came home from the hospital.

It looks like he's not quite buckled correctly. We were still car seat newbies at that point. It's close, but the shoulder straps look a bit crooked and loose.


When SB was born, we decided we needed a new infant carrier seat. We had planned to just start him out in the Roundabout, but when we put him in it when we left the hospital, he just seemed too small for it, even though it's supposed to be usable for babies as small as 5 pounds. I'm not sure I believe that. We had given NJ's old infant seat to some friends when they had a baby, so we asked for it back. They offered just to go in with a couple other friends and buy us a new car seat instead, because to ship a car seat across country would cost nearly as much as simply purchasing a new one online and having it shipped to us directly. I picked out the Chicco KeyFit30, which was supposed to be a phenomenal car seat that would allow a baby to stay in it until he was 30 pounds! At first, I loved it. But I realized a few things fairly quickly. First, a kid would outgrow this seat by height long before reaching the 30-pound weight limit, unless he was a very fat baby. Second, you do not want to try to carry a heavy baby around in this car seat. It's a fairly heavy seat to begin with, and once you add the heft of a growing baby, it's very uncomfortable to carry. Convenient? Yes. Practical? Reasonably. Comfortable (for the parent)? Not so much. Still, because SB was much smaller than NJ, he lasted in his carrier quite a bit longer. I believe I switched him into the Roundabout, which NJ had since vacated, when SB was seven or eight months old.

The problem I have with the KeyFit30 and other similar infant seats, such as the Graco SnugRide35, is that they are massive seats. They take up a lot of space. This is manageable when you have only one child, but once you add a second (and third!) car seat to your car, the space these seats take up is ridiculous. Not to mention how heavy they are. The nice thing about the lower-weight-limit carriers is that the seat itself isn't as big and heavy. My complaint is that you don't end up using it as long as you could, because you get tired of the big-ness of it. At least, that's what happened to me. And let's be realistic, here, how many babies hit 22 pounds before a year old? Even NJ was only about 26 pounds at a year old, and he was well over the 90th percentile.

Here's baby SB, about five months old, in his KeyFit30, buckled correctly:
(Note: You shouldn't have toys hanging from the handle of the car seat when the seat is in the car, as they become a hazard should there be an accident. In my defense, in this picture, the seat is not in the car, but on the ground at the park.)

When SB was born, one of the gifts we requested was a new car seat for NJ, so that SB could use the Roundabout. We got NJ a Graco Nautilus, which is a fantastic front-facing-only car seat which has a 5-point harness to 65 pounds and then converts to a booster seat up to 100 pounds. In other words, once you've turned your child front-facing, this is the last seat you'd need to buy. (It looks like Graco has since come out with a new seat, called the Argos, which has higher weight limits but appears to be otherwise identical to the Nautilus.) And we liked it so much that we got a second one for NJ as a backup seat in my mom's car. The problem with the Nautilus is that it is also a massive seat. It's wonderful; I love it. But it's huge. And when we started planning a third child, near SB's second birthday, we realized that we'd need to do some car seat revisions in order to fit three car seats. Thus, my post about the Three-Across Car Seat Adventure in August. For SB's second birthday, I asked for a Sunshine Kids Radian 65 (Sunshine Kids is now called Diono), which purports to be a car seat with one of the narrowest "footprints" on the market. They claim you can fit three across in a small car. It was supposed to be for SB, but he refused to ride in it. So he stayed in the Nautilus, and NJ used the Radian. The Radian has a front-facing five-point-harness weight limit of 65 pounds, like the Nautilus, although it does not convert to a booster. It was fine for NJ to use it, and he liked it. I have three complaints about the Radian. One, it's very heavy (23 pounds), so putting it in and out of cars is a pain. Two, I find it difficult to tighten the harness to my satisfaction. And three, I personally find it much harder to install correctly than a Britax, although I have a friend who bought a Britax and a Radian and found the Radian easier to install. It may depend on your car. I do like that the Radian has SuperLATCH, which allows you to use the LATCH clips until your child has outgrown the seat. With the Nautilus, I had to switch to a seatbelt installation when NJ reached 43 pounds. (Incidentally, a seat belt installation and a LATCH installation are equally safe if done correctly. The advantage to a LATCH installation is that it's easier to do correctly. Whatever you do, though, do not use both simultaneously. You must choose either LATCH or seat belt.)

Here is NJ in the Radian:

And SB in the Nautilus:

And SB in the Roundabout (in the garage - it wasn't installed in a car at the time I took the photo):

And now there's a third kid. GI is currently using the KeyFit30. GI, being an even larger baby than NJ was, is getting awfully heavy to carry around in that thing, but the convenience has kept me using it for now. I moved NJ into a booster seat, as he's 45" and 58 pounds now, and I feel that he is big enough to use a seat belt with a booster seat safely. Also, booster seats tend to be narrower than car seats, so it was one of the only ways I could get three across. SB is now in the Radian, as there was no way I could fit the massively wide Nautilus.

The other day, I spent an hour in the car trying to install the Roundabout, the booster seat, and the Radian in some formation or another. I even tried putting the Roundabout forward-facing for SB and the Radian rear-facing for GI, but the fit just wasn't happening. I'm not sure if it's the width or the shape of the Roundabout that makes it difficult to fit along with the other two seats, but I couldn't get it to work in any configuration. I was very disappointed. It seems my only option will be to invest in a second Radian when I've finally grown tired of using the KeyFit30. Part of me is tempted to try out a smaller infant carrier car seat, but that seems redundant and a waste of money, when that same money could be spent on a new Radian instead. I think once GI can sit up (in a high chair or supermarket cart), I'll want to switch him to a rear-facing convertible seat. I'd really like to put NJ in the middle and GI and SB outboard, but I couldn't make that work with the current collection of car seats because NJ wouldn't be able to buckle his seat belt. It's frustrating. Obviously, I can continue to use the KeyFit30 and just leave it in the car, taking GI in and out of the car seat as I would with a convertible seat, rather than replacing the seat any time soon. I will probably have to start doing this until I can get my second Radian!

And now, a quick review of car seat must-knows:

First, every car seat on the market in the United States has met minimum safety standards. This means you can buy any car seat you want and it will be safe to use, assuming it can be correctly installed in your car. (Some car seats are not compatible with some cars.) When you choose a car seat, you should take into consideration the weight limits, the size of the seat, your budget, your car, the age(s) and size(s) of your child(ren), and how many children you have or plan to have.

Harness:
Straps should be in a straight line and not twisted. Chest clip should be buckled and at armpit level. (This is the most common error I see in car seat usage.) In a rear-facing configuration, straps should be in a slot at or below the child's shoulders. In a front-facing configuration, straps should be in a slot at or above the child's shoulders. Straps should be tightened to where you can't pinch the straps at the child's collarbone and hold the fold.

Installation:
Use either the seat belt or the LATCH system, not both. Make sure the seat is secured tightly enough that you cannot shift it more than 1" in either direction while holding the car seat at the belt path. To get a tighter install, lean into the car seat with your hand or knee and tighten.

Rear-Facing:
The newest recommendations are to keep your child rear-facing until at least two years of age, or until he has outgrown the rear-facing specifications for his particular car seat. Rear-facing is the safest position for all passengers in a car, especially the smallest ones. Most states have laws that require a child to be rear-facing until at least one year of age and 20 pounds (this means that if you have a 20-pound nine-month-old, he should still be rear-facing; or, if you have a 17-pound one-year-old, she should still be rear-facing. The child needs to be both older than a year and more than 20 pounds). You should check your state's car seat laws and be familiar with them.

A child has outgrown a rear-facing car seat when he has met one of the following conditions.
1. The top of his head is within one inch of the top of the car seat; or,
2. The child is heavier than the rear-facing weight limit of the car seat.

Front-Facing:
The longer you can keep your child in a five-point harness, the safer he is. Many car seat manufacturers have come out with seats that allow you to harness a child as heavy as 70 pounds; some go as high as 80 or 85 pounds. You should check your car seat's specifications.

A child has outgrown a front-facing car seat when he has met one of the following conditions.
1. His ears are above the top of the car seat; or
2. The child is heavier than the front-facing weight limit of the car seat; or
3. You cannot adjust the shoulder straps to be at or above his shoulders.

Booster Seats:
There are two kinds of booster seats: high-back and backless. High-back booster seats give a child better shoulder-belt positioning and head support than backless seats. Most booster seats say they are for children who are at least three years old and at least 30 pounds. Some states have laws that state a child must be at least four year old and 40 pounds before transitioning from a 5-point-harness to a booster. When you do decide to put your child in a booster seat, make sure the seat belt goes across his hips and shoulder. If it does not, the child is probably still too short to safely use a seat belt and should remain in a five-point harness until he is taller.

Most children are not anatomically ready for using a seat belt without a booster seat until they are at least seven years old. Most states require a child to be at least six years old or 60 pounds before being legally allowed to be out of a car seat entirely. Many now recommend that a child stay in a booster seat until eight years old or 80 pounds. It is not difficult to find a booster on the market that will accommodate a larger child. Some go as high as 120 pounds.

Miscellaneous:
1. You should not put any after-market products on your car seat. This includes BundleMe-type products, as they go between the child and the seat and may interfere with the harness and not allow you to properly tighten the straps. This also includes the shoulder pads you put on the car seat straps - most car seats come with these anyway. Also, you should not use head-support pillows or newborn positioners that did not come with the seat. If it wasn't in the car seat box, then it shouldn't be on the car seat. Period. Car seats are tested with their various accessories for safe installation, safe buckling, flammability, and other criteria. After-market products are not.

2.  Unless it is specifically stated otherwise in your particular car seat's manual, you should not put anything between the car seat and the vehicle seat, such as a seat-protector mat. Many car seat manufacturers allow you to place a thin towel under the car seat to protect your vehicle's upholstery.

3.  You should not put your child in a car seat while wearing bulky clothing such as a heavy winter coat. It is impossible to tighten the harness straps enough while the child is wearing thick clothing. In an accident, the clothing will compress against the straps, and the child could be ejected from the car seat. Place your child in one or two layers (such as a shirt and a sweatshirt) and then put a blanket over the child over the harness, or put the child's coat on backward after he has been buckled.

4.  Car seats expire. Most seats are good for six years. There should be an expiration date printed somewhere on the car seat itself. Pay attention to this. After the expiration date, you cannot guarantee the safety of your seat anymore, and you should replace it.

5.  Once a car seat has been in an accident, it is no longer safe to use, even if a child was not in the seat at the time of the accident. Your car insurance should cover replacement of the car seat if it was involved in an accident.

Any questions? :)

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