Picking Out Toddler Car Seats

Finding a toddler car seat that has all the safety features, fits your vehicle and is easy to use requires a little homework, but is worth the effort.

Choosing a car seat for your toddler is an important decision for many reasons, and one that should not be taken lightly. Besides the obvious safety concerns (the seat you choose should adequately protect your child in the event of an accident), the ease of use should also be a major factor in your decision. For instance, you'll need to know how quickly you can securely strap your child into the seat on a busy morning when you're running late (or when part of you is sticking out in the rain!). Here are some of the main factors to consider when choosing a car seat, and how to make sure you get the best one for your needs.

Safety, of course, should be your main concern. It's very important to buy a new car seat when possible: a used seat may have been recalled or may have been involved in an accident already, compromising its structural integrity and ability to protect your child. Many baby and child items can be safely bought at garage sales, but this is not one of them - unless it's a late model and still in the box. However, it's better to do a little homework and choose a few models to check out before you head to the baby superstore.

An excellent source for toddler car seat information and ratings is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The NHTSA's "2004 Child Safety Seat Ease of Use Ratings" report is available on their website (www.nhtsa.gov), and rates car seats on factors such as assembly, ease of use, clarity of instructions, and more.

Another major concern when shopping for a car seat is whether it will actually fit in your car. The NHTSA actually recommends trying to install the seat in your car before you purchase the seat, so you may ask the salesperson if you can use a floor model for this purpose. If you cannot find a store that is willing to let you "try before you buy," then at least measure the space available in your car and take a tape measure in the store to measure the car seat models you like. Height, width and depth are all important to measure: a seat that is too tall will impair your ability to see through your back window when driving, and a seat that is too wide may take up so much of the back seat that other passengers can't ride there. However, if you have taken these precautions and still manage to buy a seat that doesn't fit your car, most stores will allow you to exchange it for another - so keep your receipts and all the packaging that came with the seat, just in case!

Once you have found a seat that fits in your car, make sure it is easy to adjust the straps. Your child will be wearing different clothes from day to day and season to season, and straps should be easy to loosen in order to fit the "bulkiness" of your toddler's winter coat, or to tighten when she's wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Most reviews indicate that the car seat models that are easiest to adjust have a wheel on the side that you can turn in order to tighten the straps; this feature is generally found on the pricier car seat models, but you may find that the added ease of use is worth the higher price.

You may also want to look for a car seat that converts to a booster seat as your child grows. Convertible seats that can also be used as rear-facing seats for babies fit kids up to 30 or 35 lb. rear-facing and 40 lb. front-facing, while toddler/booster seats can be used for kids up to 20-40 lb. as a toddler seat and 80 lb. as a booster. Booster seats generally accommodate 80-100 lb. But keep in mind that trying to get too much in one seat may backfire in terms of usability or safety, so read reviews carefully. Keep in mind, also, that booster seats (especially the backless models) are relatively inexpensive and easy to install compared to convertible car seats, so buying a good convertible car seat for your baby now and a simple booster seat later may be a good idea.

Once you have chosen the perfect car seat for your toddler, your car and your budget, plan a free visit to a car seat inspection center to make sure that it is installed correctly. The NHTSA operates these inspection centers all over the U.S., so you can probably have your seat inspected at a police station or hospital near you. Inspection center locations are available on the NHTSA's website or by calling the NHTSA.

And finally, once you've chosen a toddler car seat based on your research, you may wish to read reviews from other parents to find out how it operates in "real life" situations. Amazon.com is a good source of reviews for the many models of car seats it sells, or you can visit one of the many websites that offer consumer reviews as well as price comparisons. (When actually buying the seat, however, make sure you purchase it from a store where you can see it in person first and easily return it if it doesn't fit your child or your vehicle!)

Following these guidelines should help you to find a car seat that is easy to use, safe, and a perfect fit for your car. (Convincing your toddler to let you actually buckle him into the seat, however, is another article altogether"¦)

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