Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Quick-Reference: Car Seats

I have a nice post about nursing in random places planned, but I wanted to post this quickly (a) so that you'll know I'm still around, and (b) because it's useful.

Types of Car Seats:

Infant carrier: This is a rear-facing-only seat intended for infants from birth until approximately one year of age (longer if you have a smaller child). These are sometimes also called a "bucket" seat. They usually have a handle for carrying and can be easily taken out of the car with a base left installed in the car. Has a five-point harness (straps at each shoulder, each hip, and between the legs). Smaller models have a weight limit of 22 pounds. Newer, larger models may go to 30, 33, or 35 pounds. Check your manual. Seat is outgrown when baby either reaches the maximum weight limit or the top of baby's head is within 1" (one inch, 2.5cm) of the top of the shell. Harness shoulder straps should be in the slots AT or BELOW baby's shoulders.

Examples of Infant Carriers: Graco SnugRide, Chicco KeyFit, Britax B-Safe, Evenflo Discovery

Convertible: This type of seat may be installed either rear-facing or front-facing with a five-point harness. Some converstible seats may also have booster mode. These seats are designed to be used from birth through toddlerhood. They have a separate weight limit for each type of use. The rear-facing weight limits for newer seats is usually 40 or 45 pounds. The front-facing weight limits for the five-point harness on newer seats is often 65 to 85 pounds. Check your manual. If it converts to a booster, the weight limit for the booster mode is typically 100 pounds, sometimes as high as 120 pounds.

The seat is outgrown rear-facing and should be turned to face front when ONE of the following conditions is met: (1) The child reaches the maximum weight limit for rear-facing (e.g., 40 pounds); or, (2) the top of the child's head is within 1" (one inch) of the top of the seat. When REAR-FACING, the shoulder straps should be adjusted AT or BELOW the child's shoulders.

The seat is outgrown for the five-point harness in front-facing mode when ONE of the following conditions is met: (1) The child reaches the maximum weight limit for front-facing (e.g., 65 pounds); (2) the child's EARS are above the top of the seat; or (3) the shoulder straps cannot be adjusted higher than the child's shoulders. When FRONT-FACING, the shoulder straps should be adjusted AT or ABOVE the child's shoulders.

If there is a booster mode on your seat, the booster is outgrown when the child reaches the maximum weight limit for the booster (e.g., 100 pounds). Check your state's laws for when you can legally remove your child from any kind of car seat. Ideally, a child should remain in a booster seat until the seat belt fits properly across his hips and chest when not in a booster.

Examples of Convertible Car Seats: Britax Marathon or Boulevard or Advocate, Graco MyRide65, Safety 1st Complete Air65  or All-in-One, Evenflo Tribute or Symphony or Titan or Triumph, Sunshine Kids/Diono Radian, Cosco Scenera

Front-Facing/3-in-1: There are some seats which do not rear-face but do have a five-point harness and then can be converted to boosters. If you purchase one of these, remember that they are FRONT-FACING ONLY (i.e., they should not be used for infants or toddlers under about two years old). They are, however, very useful seats for toddlerhood through elementary-aged kids. Some of these seats have five-point harnesses with weight limits of 85 pounds!

See above for how to know when your child has outgrown this type of seat.

Examples of Front-Facing-Only seats are: Britax Frontier, Graco Nautilus or Argos

Booster: Booster seats simply act to position your child so that the car's seat belt fits properly over her shoulder and across her hips. There are two types of boosters, the high-back or belt-positioning booster, which features a back as well as the seat and the backless booster, which is just the seat. The high-back boosters usually afford more head support and protection and will properly position the shoulder belt so that it falls across your child's shoulder and the middle of her chest. Boosters without a back simply lift your child so that the lap belt falls across the hips and not the stomach and the shoulder belt falls across the shoulder and chest and not the neck or face.

Your child has outgrown the booster seat when he has reached the maximum weight limit (as much as 120 pounds on newer boosters) or when the seat belt fits properly without a booster seat (typically around a height of 4'9"). Check your state's laws for when you are legally permitted to no longer use a booster seat for your child. (For example, in my state of California, a new law was enacted this year requiring children to remain in a booster seat until age 8 or 4'9" tall. Several other states have similar laws.)

Examples of High-Back/Belt-Positioning Boosters are: Graco TurboBooster, Britax Parkway, Evenflo Big Kid Booster (Many high-back boosters can be converted to backless boosters if desired, such as the Graco TurboBooster.)

Examples of Backless Boosters are: Graco TurboBooster Backless, Harmony Secure Comfort, Evenflo Big Kid No Back Booster

Basic Rules:

1. Keep your child rear-facing as long as possible. The minimum is one year AND 20 pounds. The recommendation is at least TWO YEARS. Check your state's laws for when you can legally turn your child front-facing.

2. Keep your child in a five-point harness as long as possible. The minimum in many states is 3 years AND 30 pounds. In some states it is 4 years AND 40 pounds. The recommendation is to remain in a five-point harness until it is outgrown. Check your state's laws for when you can legally put your child in a booster seat.

3. Keep your child in a booster seat until the seat belt of the car fits properly. Check your state's laws for when you can legally no longer use a booster seat.

4. When buckling a five-point harness, make sure the chest clip is buckled and aligned with the child's armpits.

5. The straps should be tight but not to the point that the child is put in an unnatural position. You should not be able to pinch the strap at the child's collarbone and maintain the fold (your fingers should slide off the strap when attempting to pinch it).

6. Car seats EXPIRE, typically six to seven years after the manufacture date. The expiration date should be printed on the car seat itself. Make sure you pay attention to this. The car seat cannot be guaranteed to keep your child safe after this date (the plastic parts or straps may wear out after prolonged use or storage).

7. If your car seat has been in a moderate accident (even if there was no child in it), it should be replaced.

Car Seat Scenario:

Let's take a typical family with two kids, two years apart in age, and see what a car seat saga for them might be like. In a case like this, the family can probably get away with buying two to three car seats for the time the children are all in car seats, and then one or two booster seats. (Booster seats are inexpensive. You can get a backless booster at Walmart for about $15.)

Probably, you'll start with an infant carrier, such as a Graco SnugRide, for the first child. You'll use this seat until it is no longer comfortable or until the child outgrows it. Let's say this happens when the child is seven months old. You'll then purchase a convertible car seat with a rear-facing weight limit of 45 pounds and a front-facing weight limit of 70 pounds, for example, a Britax Advocate. You'll put your baby in that, rear-facing.

Some time passes and you have a second baby. Your first is about two years old. You keep him in the Britax Advocate and put the baby in the carrier, the Graco SnugRide. (The SnugRide is now two years old and is still safe to use, assuming it's been stored safely and it hasn't been in a car accident.) When your second baby is about nine months old, you decide he's too big for the carrier. But what to do? Do you buy a second convertible seat for the baby and keep the two-year-old in his Advocate, or do you buy something new for the two-year-old and put the baby in the Advocate?

Well, that's up to you. If you want to minimize your carseat-buying, here's what I suggest.

Buy a new seat for the two-year-old, perhaps a front-facing-only seat such as the Graco Argos. Put the baby rear-facing in the Britax Advocate and the two-year-old front-facing in the Graco Argos. You'll be able to use the Britax Advocate for about four more years, but you'll then have to replace it. By then, your older child will certainly be big enough for a booster seat (at six years old!). By then, too, your younger child will be front-facing, so he can use the newer seat, and you can buy an inexpensive booster for the older child.

Total number of car seats for both kids: Four (including the inexpensive booster).

If you forego the infant carrier, which some people do, and start out with only the convertible seat rear-facing for your first child, you'd only need to purchase three total car seats.

There are car seats that are purported to be "the only car seat you'll ever need," such as the Diono RadianR120. This is mostly true. This seat can be used from birth (5 pounds), rear-faces to 45 pounds, then turns front-facing with a five-point harness until 80 pounds, then converts to a high-back booster until 120 pounds! This is probably a very good buy, especially if you have a larger child who will make full use of those higher weight limits. I also like the Radian because it has a higher height limit, so a taller, skinny kid can use it, or a tall and heavy kid can use it, much longer than some of the other seats that aren't as high. However, remember that a car seat expires about six or seven years past its manufacture date, so keep an eye on that date. Still, if you bought two of these and then one or two inexpensive boosters, you probably wouldn't need any more seats if you only have two kids two or three years apart. **Correction: I was just reading the description of this car seat on Amazon.com, and it says it has a 10-year life span. So it really would be the only car seat you'd ever need! And at less than $260, that's a great value. The added perk for Diono Radian car seats is that they are some of the narrowest seats on the market, meaning it would be easier to get three across in a mid-sized car. (That's why I'm in the market for one!) I have an older model Radian, and it works well for us.

As for us, we have something like six car seats and I'm looking to buy a seventh. But I have three kids I'm trying to fit across the back seat of a mid-sized SUV, so that changes my parameters a bit. If I had a minivan, I'd have more car seats than I'd ever need. Plus, one of my seats expires in September, so I have that in my defense! It is handy to have an extra seat or two on hand in case your child needs to ride in someone else's car, or if you have two cars (another reason we have an excess of car seats - my kids often ride in dad's and grandma's cars). Especially if there's an emergency situation where your car seats are with you in your car and your child is not, it can be reasonable to have a seat stored in your garage just in case. For a just-in-case seat, it's good to have one that any of your children could use in a pinch, with just an adjustment of the straps. That's where my Graco Nautilus comes in handy! (Well, the baby can't use that one, but the other two kids can.) This scenario happened when my youngest baby was born. A friend took the older two boys for the day, and we wouldn't have had to take any seats out of our car to put in hers. (Except the Nautiluses were in my mom's car, because we were expecting her to take the two boys. This is a long story that has nothing to do with car seats.)

I did once have a situation where my cat peed in my baby's car seat. It would have been very nice to have a backup seat to use while I cleaned that one. (I didn't have an extra seat at the time, but it spurred me to buy one just in case there was a "next time.")

I hope that helps some. If you have a strange car seat situation you'd like help deciphering, feel free to ask!

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