Are there any services available for finding a car seat for my brand of car?
As a pediatrician, parent of now-teenagers, and someone who officially trained as a child passenger safety technician instructor over 10 years ago, I can tell you that a lot has changed in choosing a car seat over the past decade. That said, one thing hasn't, and that's the question of which car seat is best. For as long as I've been involved in the field the answer has remained, "the one that meets all current safety standards, best fits your child, fits your vehicle, and will be used each and every time your child rides in the car."
It would be great if this answer would suffice, but it didn't take years of experience educating everyone from parents and grandparents to nurses, police officers, and other first responders on the ins and outs of car seats to figure out that picking one can be a daunting process. As a result, I've come up with several key concepts and features about car seats aimed at helping you, and all parents, have a better understanding of car seats. When the rubber meets the road and you find yourself standing in the ever-more expansive car seat aisle, these tips will hopefully help you choose wisely.
- Rear-facing for the long haul. A decade ago, parents often raced to turn their babies face-forward by their first birthdays, if not sooner. Nowadays, we know a lot more about how best to protect them, and this includes keeping them rear-facing as long as you possibly can. To understand why this is important, simply consider the fact that a majority of crashes are frontal (ie front of the car), which means that everything in the car feels the force of a crash by continuing to move towards the front. For infants and young children whose heads are disproportionately larger compared to the rest of their bodies and whose neck and trunk muscles are not as strong, the difference between feeling this force while facing forward versus backwards can make a significant difference as to their safety. Forward facing, their bodies are restrained by the straps of the car seat, but their heads inevitably feel considerable force as they are thrust forward. In contrast, rear-facing car seats help spread any crash forces your child might feel along the entire length of their bodies as they are pressed into the cocoon-like car seat. What this means when you're picking a seat? A car seat that has higher rear-facing height and weight limits, thus allowing for much longer use rear-facing.
- Getting it right means getting it tight. This concept applies both to installing the car seat in your car, and also to snugly securing your child in the seat. When it comes to choosing a seat, this means making sure you test out how easy (or difficult) it is to adjust harness straps, whether the seat accommodates your child's size (ie for someone who has a premature or small newborn, for example, only certain seats are specifically rated down to 4 pounds and/or have crotch straps that can be adjusted to better fit very small infants). Similarly, make sure that the car seat actually fits well and can be secured properly on your vehicle's seat, since not all car seats fit well in all vehicles.
- Don't celebrate early graduations. As parents, we're used to celebrating early graduations—whether it is our precocious preschooler getting moved up to the next class, a 2-year-old who graduates from diapers to underwear well before his peers, or the jump from crib to toddler bed. In the car seat world, however, children are safest if they "graduate" from one position or car seat to the next as late as possible (within the recommended limits)—whether it's from rear- to forward-facing, from a forward-facing 5-point harness seat to a booster seat, or a vehicle's seat belt used in combination with booster seat to one used alone, with no booster seat. As with your choice of rear-facing car seats, applying this concept to what to look for on the labels in selecting other seats means once again looking for higher height and weight limits. While some forward-facing seats only allow for use of the 5-point harness straps up to 40 pounds, there are now readily available seats that allow for harness use up to 60 or even 80 pounds.
While this is meant to be an helpful overview and starting point for anyone purchasing a car seat, it is by no means complete. In my book, Heading Home with Your Newborn: From Birth to Reality, you can find a great deal more useful information about choosing a car seat. You can also make use of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Car Safety Seats: A Guide for Families 2012 to help guide you in the process. And finally, in addition to encouraging all parents to always read their car seat instruction manuals as well as their vehicle instruction manuals, I would be remiss as a certified child passenger safety professional if I didn't also strongly encourage you to make sure that you've got the "best" seat for your child by also visiting a local fitting station. Located all across the country, someone similarly trained can help you make sure your child fits snugly in the seat, the seat fits properly in the car, and that it meets all safety standards.