You'll need a car seat even before your baby is born, as you won't be allowed to take your baby home in a car without one.
Check that the model of seat you are considering fits easily into your car as some seats will fit your car better than others. You should be able to try out seats in your own car with the help of a shop assistant at any reputable shop. You should have no difficulty in fitting the car seat and when secured with the seatbelt the seat should be held fast with little movement.
You need to be sure to get the right size chair for your baby and the simplest way to do this is to buy by weight. Weight spans can vary from chair to chair, but broadly they are grouped as 0-10kg, 0-13kg (both from birth to around 9-12 and 12-15 months respectively), 9-18kg (from around nine months to up to 4 years), and up to 25kg (up to 12 years). You can of course, get car seats for older children also. Combination seats span this entire weight range and can be used rear- or forward-facing.
Car seat ages and stages
Let your child's weight be your guide of when to move up to a bigger seat as some children are smaller than others of the same age. The 0+, 1, 2 and 3 group sizes can be combined depending on how adaptable a particular seat is, but packaging will guide you if you are unsure. |
- Infant carrier – Rear-facing seats for children weighing up to 13kgs. This is from birth to a maximum age of nine to 12 months (but quite probably younger). These are classed as Group 0 (up to 10kg) or 0+ (if they go up to 13kg).
- Child seat – Forward-facing (some rear facing seats can safely be turned round, where this is clearly stated) seats for children weighing from 9kg to 18kg or up to 25kg. This is from about nine months to four years. These are classed as Group 1 or 2 depending on what weight the particular seat is designed to go up to. If they are suitable all the way through from birth they will include 0+ in their classification.
- Booster seat – These integrate the adult belt into a seat with good support for the child's body (and preferably head). These are suitable for children weighing between 15kgs and 25kgs. This is about four years upwards until the child no longer needs a special car seat. These are classed as Group 2 and 3 seats. You can now also get a seat that will go all the way through from Group 1 to 3 if you want to, though the designs can be quite hefty if yoh have a smallish car.
- Booster cushions – These are what they say, really. They will lift the child up so the adult seat belt cuts across their body more comfortably. These are suitable for children from six years of age. These should be used until your child is over 135cm in height, after which time, an adult belt may be used.
All car seats have to comply with regulation ECE R44.03 (or R44.04) which is the latest safety standard.
Unless your infant carrier is adjustable to a fully-flat carry cot position then it's not suitable to leave your young baby in for prolonged periods: A fully flat position offers your baby's spine the best support for development. Some manufacturers now offer this as a lay-flat recline option which is useful if you know you are going on long car journeys.
You may wish to buy other nursery items second-hand but do not buy something which ensures your child’s safety second-hand. If it is old, it may have worn away in crucial areas, it may not come with all the safety instructions, and it may have already endured the stress of an accident, however minor that may have been.
NB: Baby seats should never be fitted either front-facing or rear-facing, when an air bag is active. If your car does not have an option to de-activate passenger air bags, a child should not be placed in that seat.
Car seats for newborns: rear-facing infant carriers
Newborn babies need rear-facing car seats because these have a more reclined position, giving your baby's back and neck essential support. These are commonly known as infant carriers and will be suitable either from birth to 10kg (0) or from birth to 13kg (0+). With a 0-13 kg chair you'll be able to leave your baby facing backwards for longer, which is preferable.
For very young babies the seat should have a 'head hugger' to give full support to your baby's neck until he's old enough to hold his own neck up comfortably.
Infant carriers should have handles so that you can lift the baby in and out of the car when he is still in his chair, perfect for when he's fallen asleep and you don't want to wake him. If you have a travel system you'll also be able to attach the car seat onto the pushchair frame for even greater flexibility.
Once your baby is over the weight limit of the chair, or if the top of his head starts to come up over the top of the seat, then it's time to move on to the next size of car seat.
Sun and wind shades for infant carriers are fairly standard, particularly in models that are part of a travel system. Seats may also include storage compartments at the back.
Many infant carriers have a rocker function, which if done well, is a neat little feature enabling you to use the seat effectively outside the car, doubling as rockers.
Combination seats can be used as either rear-facing or forward-facing seats and are suitable from birth up to 18kg. A car seat can be expensive so this dual purpose might seem a more economical option, but these seats can be less flexible in other ways: Combination seats are heavier and are not designed to be carried about. Like forward-facing car seats, they're made to be left strapped into the car, so you'll always have to disturb your baby to take him out of the car.
Most people tend to buy an infant carrier for the early months (sometimes as part of a pushchair ‘travel system’) and then move onto the larger car seat when their child grows out of the carrier. (See the box on ages and stages of car seats.)
If you're planning on more than one baby it will make more sense to get two separate seats designed specifically for each purpose, as when the second baby comes along you'll need a second chair anyway.
Carrycots lie sideways across the back seat of the car, strapped in by two seat belts. As the name suggests, carrycots are highly portable and, importantly, the fully flat position means, from a spine support point of view, they are more suitable for infants for prolonged use. If you have a carrycot as part of a travel system then you'll be able to take the cot from the car and attach it to the pushchair frame to create a pram.
Once your baby can sit up unaided (at around six months) the carrycot will no longer be suitable.
It is important to check that the carrycot you are thinking of buying is suited to use in a moving car.
Forward-facing car seats
Forward facing car seats for use from around nine months to four years (depending on the size of the child). They usually cater for babies and children from nine to18kg. Now that your child's spine has developed sufficiently for him to sit in an upright position in the car he'll also be able to face forward and have a good view of what's going on.
These seats usually stay in the car as they are large and require a lot of securing with the car’s regular seatbelt. Because your child will still be quite young, the seatbelt is designed to be hard for small fingers to release.
Once a child has grown out of the larger forward-facing seat (usually around the age of three to four years, depending on the height of the child), then a booster seat should be fitted, until the child is at least 1.35cm tall. This is to ensure that the adult safety belt (now fitted conventionally across the child’s body) is holding your child’s body correctly rather than potentially pulling across his upper body or neck.
Booster seats for younger children usually come with side protection for their heads, which is useful for comfort. As your child grows, you can just use a booster seat which looks more like a solid cushion. Some of the full-height booster seats come with a detachable seat for convenience.
Isofix and other seat belt replacements
This stands for the International Standards Organisation Fix and refers to a feature in some models of car and some car seats where it is possible to simply click the car seat securely into place in your car rather than using the adult seat belt. This makes it easier to know that you have fitted the car seat properly, as often parents get confused about where seat belts should thread, or whether they go over or under seat arms, and so on. One AA survey revealed that as many as 80 per cent of child car restraints are not fitted properly, with about 30 per cent being dangerously ill-fitted.
These are by no means fitted as standard in all new cars, but in an increasing number of them.
Many manufacturers offer their own versions of such a fixing, so that the car seat can be used with or without the fixing. (For example, you might want to use your car seat in another vehicle from time to time and changing the fixing would not be easy, so the seat can be conventionally secured with a seatbelt too.) For example, Maxi Cosi do seats which can be Isofix-compatible, and Mamas & Papas do Surefix bases for their infant carriers.
General checklist to look out for across models
Covers Are they removable and washable?
Safety Does the chair conform to safety standards? Does it fit in your car properly in all its guises? And in all the seats you plan to be able to use it in?
SIP Like the body of your car, some car seats come with side-impact protection.