A Guide to Car Seat Basics

When thinking of important purchases that we make for our children, car seats often go overlooked, but choosing the right car seat for your child can be one of the biggest decisions you’ll make during their young life.

Car accidents kill thousands of children a year, and cause injury to hundreds of thousands more.  And after your car itself, the car seat is the object that is protecting your child.  While all of the car seat options (convertibles, boosters, latch seats, etc) may seem confusing, they each serve the purpose of protecting your child at a different stage of their life.  Consequently, it is vitally important that you pick the right car seat for your child. And in many states, it’s also the law.

Car seats have evolved a long way over the years.  Initially, they were simply to keep your baby from crawling around your car, or perhaps lift them up enough that they could be entertained by looking out the window.  If you’re a grandparent, you might remember something like this:


And something like this isn’t as old as you might think.  This was commonplace in the early 1980s, and if you’re a parent in your mid to upper 30s one of those kids could have been you.


So it’s understandable, especially if you haven’t walked through the car seat aisle at your local Target in awhile, that all of the options can seem bewildering.  But fear not, by the end of this article you’ll be able to pick the right seat like a pro.

Before we get going on the different types of car seats, it’s important to remember a few things:

1.) Basically any car seat, sold new, by a major retailer, is going to be legal to federal US safety standards. Car seats that you buy second hand, either from a friend, at a garage sale, on Craigslist, or even on Ebay, may be unsafe, outdated, expired, or illegal either at the federal or state level.

2.) Yes, car seats do expire.  Car seats will have a date of manufacture, or a date of expiration listed on them (look on the side, the base, or the manufacturer’s labels).  The date of expiration is typically 6 years after the date of manufacture, and is a reminder that technology and safety standards are constantly changing.  The LATCH system, for instance, was not standard 20 years ago, but is the standard today.  It is entirely possible for car seats to look functional or clean, but be well outdated.  The date of expiration or manufacture should not be confused with the date of purchase.  If a store decides to put a 2012 model out on the shelf, understand that it probably expires in 2018, even if you only buy it in 2017.

3.) This guide is just that: a basic guideline.  It does not presume to know every law in every municipality, nor every make and model of every car seat.  Common weight, height, and age ranges may be given for certain kinds of car seats, but please refer to your local government and the car seat manufacturer for absolutes.

Part 1: A Guide to Infant Car Seats

Part 2: A Guide to Convertible Car Seats

Part 3: A Guide to Booster Seats

Part 4: A Guide to 3 in 1 Seats

Part 5: What is LATCH?


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