It can be difficult to select the best model when it comes time to get a new car seat. But even trickier is knowing how to dispose of the old one, as car seats should not be passed on to friends and neighbors. Consumer Reports ratings can help with the selection, and for a short time, Babies “R” Us can assist with disposal.
Babies “R” Us holds an annual promotion now through Feb. 17 that allows parents or caregivers to take in their old baby gear for a significant discount off something new. For car seats, this is particularly useful, as children typically move into several different ones as they grow. It is also an opportunity for parents to know that their old seat will be recycled instead of ending up in a landfill.
While it is nice to share and reuse most baby items, car seats are one product you shouldn’t reuse, especially if you don’t know its history. If a seat has been involved in a crash, it could be dangerous to use and you might not know if a manufacturer has recalled the seat. Components in car seats deteriorate and weaken over time, which is why car seats have an expiration date stamped on the back typically marked six years from the manufacture date. In addition, current seat designs incorporate new features and may be subject to newer standards that can improve the protection for your child.
Your safest bet is to buy a new seat. Consider Consumer Reports as your shopping assistant to help you find the right seat for your child’s needs.
Many parents purchase a rear-facing only infant seat as their first one. These seats are typically designed and marketed to protect children from birth to a maximum weight between 22 and 35 lbs. But the height of a typical child may limit the use of a higher capacity seat to a much lower weight limit than claimed, and many parents find their children are too tall for a seat before they are too heavy. While all children are different, consider replacing your infant seat with a convertible seat at about 8 to 12 months The convertible purchase allows you to keep your child in a rear-facing position longer but allows for her added height or weight. It is recommended that children ride rear-facing until age 2 or until they reach the maximum height and weight limits allowed by the seat.
Convertible seats can be installed either rear- or forward-facing, and can typically be used until at least 40 lbs. (rear facing) but with more height range than infant only seats. Once it’s time for them to move to a forward facing seat, that mode ranges from a minimum of 20 lbs. to maximums typically between 40 and 65 lbs. Although this type of seat can be used for newborns, we recommend—and most parents choose—the convenience of a detachable carrier and better fit of an infant seat. As your child approaches the limits of a convertible seat, you’ll need to decide whether he needs more time in a harnessed seat, such as a toddler/booster, or is ready for a booster seat.
In the past, most convertible seats had a capacity of 40 lbs. Toddler boosters are forward-facing seats that were meant to fill the gap between a child too young to stay correctly seated in a booster but too big for a convertible seat. With the higher capacity of many new convertibles, this is a seat you may be able to skip. But if your child has outgrown her convertible seat in either height or weight and is not quite ready for a booster, this will fill the gap and offers a value in that it can later convert to a booster. Weight minimums for use with harnesses can be as low as 20 lbs. and have a maximum as high as 90 lbs., but we don't recommend placing a child as small as 20 lbs. in any forward-facing seat. And while some children younger than 3 years old might be heavy enough to meet the lower end of the weight range of a belt-positioning booster, they're better protected in a harnessed seat.
See our full car seat ratings and buying guide.
Belt-positioning boosters are typically used for children ages 4 to 12; most states require child seat use far longer. The main purpose of a booster seat is to position a child so a seat belt, designed for a larger adult, will properly fit. A good booster seat puts the shoulder portion of the seat belt midshoulder, across the stronger, bony structure of a child's chest and collarbone and the lap portion of the belt across the upper thighs and hips, not the abdomen. Boosters are tempting to parents who want to stop using a harness, because they are often inexpensive and easier to use. But it’s safer to keep your child in a harnessed seat as long as possible. See our guide to determining if your child is ready for a booster seat.
This type of seat can be used from birth until booster mode (typically 80 lbs or higher), which can be a good value. But while these seats try to do many things, they end up not performing as well as a seat dedicated to a specific-sized child. In our testing, we found that since they are larger and longer, many don’t fit as well rear-facing; newborns may be swimming in the seat while booster-age children are cramped. Plus, with so many different modes of use, the instructions and labels can be confusing and overwhelming.
Whichever model you choose, remember that moving your child up to the next level car seat often means a step down in overall safety. It’s also very important to make sure a seat is installed properly in your vehicle using LATCH or seat belts. You can find your local car seat installation clinic at Safe Kids events.