How All-in-One Car Seats Work

A car seat is essential for transporting your child safely. You'll want to choose the best make and model available to protect your snuggly little one. See more pictures related to car safety.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, car crashes are the No. 1 cause of death for children under the age of 14. Fortunately, parents can greatly reduce this risk through the use of car seats. When used properly, a car seat cuts an infant's risk of death by 71 percent, with a 54 percent risk reduction for kids over the age of one [source: National Highway Transportation Safety Administration].

Faced with these statistics, the question isn't whether or not to use a car seat, but how to choose the right one for your child. According to guidelines established by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children should ride in a car seat from birth until at least the age of eight, and some kids will need a car seat up to the age of 12.


Obviously, a tiny infant will have vastly different requirements than an older child when it comes to choosing a car seat. AAP recommends that infants ride in rear-facing seats until they reach the age of one and weigh at least 20 pounds (9 kilograms). Kids should then be placed in a front-facing car seat until they meet the maximum weight rating on that particular seat, usually 40 to 80 pounds (18 to 36 kilograms). From that point, children should sit in a booster seat until they're at least 4 feet 9 inches (144.76 centimeters) and can be safely restrained with a standard seatbelt [source: American Academy of Pediatrics].

Parents who follow the AAP's standards will find that their child needs three different types of car seats over the child's lifetime. Fortunately for parents (and their wallets), this doesn't necessarily mean you'll need three different car seats. Instead, parents can look for all-in-one products that replace individual car seats. With an all-in-one car seat, you can enjoy the benefits of both rear- and front-facing car seats, as well as a booster seat all-in-one unit. These combination products grow with your child from birth to 100 pounds (45.4 kilograms), converting to meet his or her needs with each new stage of development.

Convinced that all-in-one car seats are one of the most important home appliances you'll ever buy? Read on to learn about the different types that are available, and how to choose among them.


Types of All-in-one Car Seats

With so many types of all-in-one car seats on the market, it can be hard to choose the best unit for your child. All-in-one car seats combine an infant seat, forward-facing toddler seat and booster seat into one single appliance. These all-in-one products should not be confused with combination car seats, which only face forward and cannot be used in the child's first year of life.

It's also important to distinguish all-in-one car seats from travel systems, which generally include a car seat and base, carrier and stroller. These combination products are made primarily for infants: They allow parents to quickly transfer baby from the car to the stroller. They aren't designed to accommodate toddlers or older children.


Size, fit and weight limits are some of the most important considerations when you're comparing different types of all-in-one car seats. Before making a purchase, try installing the seat in your car to make sure it will fit. Depending on the design of an all-in-one car seat, it may accommodate infants in the rear-facing position until they reach 20, 30 or even 35 pounds (9, 13.6 or 15.8 kilograms, respectively). Experts agree that rear-facing seats are by far the safest, so many parents leave kids in this position as long as possible. If you'd like to leave your child rear-facing past the standard 20-pound mark, choose a unit with the highest possible weight limit for this configuration.

Another factor to consider when comparing types of all-in-one products is the type of restraint system. Harness systems are considered safer and more versatile than older shield or T-bar restraints, which are generally being phased out by most manufacturers. Five-point harnesses, which connect at the baby's hips, shoulders and between the legs are also thought to be safer than three-point models, which skip the connections at the hips.

When comparing harness systems, be sure to check the weight limit for each model. Once the child is placed in the forward-facing position, the harness can restrain him or her until a body weight of between 40 and 80 pounds (18 and 36 kilograms), depending on the model. Once the weight limit is reached, the child must use a standard seatbelt and booster seat. Many parents prefer to keep their child in a harness for as long as possible for added safety. If you'd prefer to stick with the harness, look for a unit that's rated to a higher weight limit than the standard 40 pounds (18 kilograms).

Just as home appliances made from stainless steel are hard to resist, parents may also have trouble skipping past car seats covered in lush fabrics in lieu of a more practical model. While safety should be your No. 1 priority when choosing an all-in-one car seat, it's hard to ignore aesthetic appeal entirely. Considering you'll be stuck with the same car seat for eight or more years, it makes sense to choose a unit that's both attractive and functional. You can also look for covers and pads to change the look of the seat or hide stains and spills over time.


Pros and Cons of All-in-one Car Seats

An all-in-one car seat converts to accommodate your child as he or she grows.

Before you start shopping for baby supplies, take the time to understand the pros and cons of all-in-one car seats so you can decide if they're the best option for your family. While the average all-in-one seat will almost always cost more than a regular infant or toddler seat, it may actually be the most economical choice in terms of long-term value. Rather than buying three individual seats as your child grows, you can keep the same unit to grow with your child. You'll also be protecting the environment by choosing these combination products. Instead, you'll only need one single unit over the first 12 years of your child's life.

Perhaps the most important advantage of these all-in-one products is the higher weight ratings for these seats in both rear- and front-facing positions. For example, while the average infant seat can hold your child up to 20 or 25 pounds (9 to 11 kilograms), many all-in-one units are rated up to 30 pounds (13.6 kilograms) or even higher. This means your child stays in the safer rear-facing position for a longer period, which can help keep him or her protected. Higher ratings in the front-facing position mean your child can use a harness for an extended period of time, which often protects the child better than a seatbelt [source: Consumer Reports].


Another benefit to these seats is the added sense of familiarity for both parents and kids. Parents get used to the features of an all-in-one seat, and they won't have to learn how to use a new seat for each stage of development. Kids can enjoy staying put in a seat they're used to, which may make the child more willing to ride safely.

In addition to the many advantages of these seats, parents should also consider the potential cons of all-in-one car seats. One of the primary drawbacks to these units is their larger size and weight. Unlike infant or booster seats, all-in-one car seats are fairly heavy and bulky. They also don't come with the built-in carry handles of many other types of car seats, which makes them tough to transport.

Because all-in-one car seats are meant to stay in the car, they're also considered less convenient than other types of seats. You'll need a separate stroller and carrier, and you should be prepared to carry your baby in out and of the car by hand, as the car seat doesn't transform into a carrier like it does with an infant seat.

While many all-in-one products are designed for children from birth to ages eight and older, they may be a bit too large for infants and preemies. It can sometimes be tough to fit smaller babies successfully into these seats, so a separate infant carrier may be required in some cases [source: Plomp].

After weighing the pros and cons of all-in-one car seats, read on to learn more about how to use and maintain these units.


All-in-one Car Seats Use and Maintenance

No matter which all-in-one car seat you buy, you can't count on it to protect your child unless you learn how to use it correctly. While the manufacturer's instructions should be your first resource, many safety agencies offer their own tips and recommendations for installing and using car seats safely.

One of the first decisions parents must make when installing a car seat is determining which way the seat should face. According to Safe Kids USA, a rear-facing child seat is the safest way to transport your child. Once the child has reached the maximum weight limit for the seat, turn the car seat around so your child faces forward. Keep your child in the forward-facing seat using the built-in harness until he or she reaches the maximum weight limit for the harness, then switch to the booster/seat belt configuration. Children need a booster seat until they're at least 4 feet 9 inches (144.76 centimeters) and some states may have even more stringent requirements, so be sure to check the laws in your area [source: Safe Kids USA].


No matter which way your car seat faces, keep it in the back seat, and you'll automatically reduce your child's risk of injury. Never use a rear-facing car seat in the front seat of a car equipped with air bags.

Once you've determined the correct placement for your all-in-one car seat, it's time to figure out how to fasten it securely to your car. Cars built after 2001 are equipped with a system known as LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children). LATCH can help reduce installation errors and help your child stay safe. Most cars have two LATCH connectors on either end of the back seat, which allows parents to safely strap in two car seats using this system [source: Children's Hospital of Philadelphia].

After the seat is secure, you must also position your child correctly within the seat. According to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, harnesses on rear-facing seats should be positioned at or below the child's shoulder level, while harnesses on forward-facing seats should be positioned at or above the child's shoulder level. For all children, a well-fitting harness should fit snugly to the body and shouldn't be twisted. If you can pinch a section of the harness away from your child after he or she is buckled in, the harness is too loose [source: The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia].

If you plan to take your child on an airplane, look for an all-in-one car seat approved by the FAA for in-flight use. The seat must be narrower than 16 inches (40.6 centimeters) to fit in a standard plane seat and can usually only be placed in a window seat to avoid blocking egress. Make sure to ask about discounts for children traveling in car seats [source: Federal Aviation Administration].

After all this traveling, most car seats will probably end up with juice stains or cracker crumbs at some point (or everyday!). To make cleanup easier, choose water-resistant covers that you can wipe clean. If your car seat gets too dirty, simply choose a new cover or padding system. To make sure your child will stay safe, only choose covers or pads designed for your particular car seat.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Pediatrics. "Car Safety Seats: Information for Families for 2010." 2010. (Feb. 12, 2010).
  • The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "Car Seats for Your Infant." 2009. (Feb. 12, 2010).
  • The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "LATCH: Making Child Safety Seat Installation Easier." 2009. (Feb. 12, 2010).
  • The Cleveland Clinic. "Choosing a Car Seat." (Feb. 12, 2010).
  • Consumer Reports. "Car Seats Buying Guide." (Feb. 12, 2010)..
  • Federal Aviation Administration. "Child Safety on Airplanes." Aug. 14, 2008. (Feb. 12, 2010).
  • Helperin, Joanne. "Choosing a Car Seat." (Feb. 12, 2010).
  • National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. "2006 Traffic Safety Facts on Children and Crashes." 2007. (Feb. 12, 2010).
  • Plomp, Karen. "Selecting the Best Car Seat for Your New Baby." Diaper Pin. (Feb. 12, 2010).
  • Safe Kids USA. "Injury Facts: Motor Vehicle Occupant Injury." 2004. (Feb. 12, 2010).