Buying and Installing a Child Seat

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author photo by MSN Autos Editors April 2008

How difficult can it be to get a good child seat that you and your youngster can live with? Plenty difficult.

Picking a New Seat
First, you have to pick from among dozens of child seats on the market. One expectant couple in Washington state was so bewildered by the choices they told MSN Autos they went back to the store three times.

Here are some guidelines from child safety advocates:

  • Familiarize yourself with the laws in your area. The National Safe Kids Campaign Web site has a listing by state of child safety regulations and laws that apply to automotive travel. Note that National Safe Kids, a child safety advocacy group, also includes information about child safety improvements that it wants mandated.
  • Do some homework before you head to the store to purchase a child seat. It can be bewildering to sort through the various seats, unless you have an idea of what kind of seat your child needs. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Web site includes a chart specifying the types of seats needed for children, based on age and weight. The site also includes child seat test results, so you'll see which ones failed, as well as a glossary of child-seat terms, which can be helpful to familiarize you with seat features.
  • Don't forget to read the owner's manual for your vehicle so you know what kind of installation procedures you'll go through with a child seat. Newer passenger vehicles, those produced as of Sept. 1, 2002, are required to have Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH). This system is supposed to make it easier to install up to two child seats in the rear seats of vehicles.
  • Be sure any seat you're looking at has a label showing it's in compliance with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 213.
  • The seat should be designed for your child's age and size. An infant-only seat is for newborns up to 12 months and 20 pounds. When a child turns 1 and weighs about 20 pounds, a larger seat is needed. Convertible seats are another option. Safety booster seats are recommended for children aged 4 and older who weigh more than 40 pounds. Read the seat manufacturer's information to be sure you're aware of which seat fits your child.
  • Note that different seats require different positioning in a vehicle. A rear-facing infant seat should only be positioned so it faces rearward. It should never be put in front of an active frontal airbag. A front-facing, toddler-only child seat should only face forward. Again, it should never be put in front of an active frontal airbag. Check the manufacturer instructions to be sure you're putting the child seat in its proper position.
  • Keep your store receipt and check the store's return policy. If the seat doesn't work well for you and your vehicle, you may want to return it.
  • Obviously, it's best if you can test the seat out with your child to ensure a good fit. However, there are times-when the child is not yet born, for example-when this is impossible. But remember to be flexible. If your child is born early and the doctor advises a preemie bed and all you have is a standard newborn seat, don't try to “make do” with your seat. Preemies typically need to lay flat, and there are special seats for them. Check with your doctor and/or hospital to find out where to get a preemie seat.
  • The same holds true if your child has been injured and now is wearing a cast that makes it difficult or impossible for him or her to ride in the usual child safety seat, or if your child has spina bifida. Check with your doctor and/or hospital about getting a child seat that will accommodate your youngster.

Picking a Used Seat
A number of sources recommend never putting your child in an older-model car seat, since the technology and safety features may be outdated, and the seat may have already been weakened or damaged in a crash and therefore ineffective. That said, many people obtain their child seats through hand-me-downs, garage sales or consignment shops. If you are going to use a secondhand seat, most of the guidelines above apply to used seats. There are a couple of other guidelines, too:

  • Make sure the used seat has not been recalled or in a crash. The NHTSA site has a list of child seat recalls, going back to 1991. Ask the owner of the seat about this. Note that you may not always be able to see visible damage on a child seat from a crash. If you are not able to confirm that the seat is crash-free, don't take the seat. Better to be safe than sorry. Child seat experts say crash stresses can weaken a seat and make it less effective in protecting a child the next time there's a crash.
  • Get all the pieces and parts that came with the seat when it was new as well as the instructions and any other manufacturer material. You will need them to know how to properly use the seat. You also will want to register with the manufacturer as the new owner of the seat, so you are notified if there is a recall.
  • Children eat in their seats, and sometimes the crumbs and liquids work their way into child seat clips and clasps. Test them all out to ensure they're in good working order.

Check Out Your Vehicle
Sometimes, the problem isn't the child seat. It's the vehicle you're putting it into:

  • Read the vehicle owner's manual to learn what the automaker recommends for child seat safety.
  • Children age 12 and under should ride in the back seat of today's vehicles, away from the frontal airbags. Some child seat experts say the middle position in the rear seat is the safest for little ones. Besides keeping youngsters away from frontal airbags, it also provides some space on either side in the event of a side crash. And it's a spot where you might be able to keep your little one out of the hot sun.
  • Vehicles with easy access to the back seats tend to make it easier for parents to reach children, position the seats with less struggle and check them regularly. Vehicles with two passenger doors and cramped rear quarters can challenge parents' efforts to properly position child seats.
  • If your child must ride in the front seat-because the vehicle doesn't have a back seat, for example-be sure the frontal airbag is turned off. Pickup trucks typically come with a key-activated cutoff switch. Two-seat sports cars from makers such as Mercedes-Benz and Porsche have optional child safety seats that automatically detect if a child seat is placed on the front passenger side, and automatically deactivate the frontal airbag when that happens.
  • Today's cars, sport-utility vehicles, trucks and minivans have a dizzying array of seat shapes and contours. In general, the more contoured a seat is, the more difficult it is to position a child seat on it firmly, according to safety officials. The flatter the seat cushion, the more likely it is to position the seat so it's firmly planted and doesn't wiggle.
  • The slope of the seatback can affect child seat effectiveness, too, especially where newborns are concerned. And, positioning of splits in bench seats can be another factor in how well a child seat fits in a car, according to Lori Miller, highway safety specialist at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
  • Seat belt connections-where they're located in the seats-can cause problems, too. Some are located a bit forward of where the seat cushion meets the seatback; others are at the joint where the two meet. The differences in both seat contours and seat belt connectors, of course, don't have anything to do with child seats in general. "The seats in vehicles are designed for the comfort of adults," Miller said.

    Putting a Seat to the Test
    So what do you do, now that you've found a seat you're interested in and you've examined the insides of your car? Test the child seat out in your vehicle, following the installation instructions provided by the manufacturer:

    • Remember to get your knee into the seat and really push to get it in proper position.
    • Lock the seat firmly into place, ensuring it doesn't wiggle more than an inch forward or sideways.
    • Put your child into the seat and fasten all the belts, harnesses and clasps, following the instructions from the manufacturer.

    What's Your Comfort Level?
    How do you feel? Exhausted by a 15-minute struggle with that seat, or pleased that the process went so smoothly? How does your little one look? Comfortable, or ready to bolt?

    To ensure you've done the installation and buckling in of your little one correctly, take your vehicle-with installed seat and buckled-in child-to a child seat inspection station. They can be found at the NHTSA Web site. Usually, you also can inquire about child seat checks from local police or fire authorities in your area. Typically, you must make an appointment ahead of time to bring your vehicle and child seat in. Once there, you will find helpful technicians who can quickly spot any errors or problems. They also are a good source to answer your child seat safety questions.

    Child Comfort Important, Too

    Make sure you dress your child comfortably. You know how encumbered you feel when you're riding in a car with an awkward-feeling outfit on. The same is true of your youngster. Be sure clothing allows the crotch strap on the child seat to be fastened properly between the legs.

    And don't add that blanket or stuffed animal until your little one is snugly positioned and properly belted in. An animal or blanket can move out of position as you drive, leaving your child loosely strapped in-a condition you want to avoid.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Buying and Installing a Child Seat - Autotrader