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.
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- American Academy of Pediatrics. "Car Safety Seats: Information for Families for 2010." 2010. (Feb. 12, 2010).http://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/on-the-go/pages/Car-Safety-Seats-Information-for-Families-2010.aspx?nfstatus=401&nftoken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000&nfstatusdescription=ERROR%3a+No+local+token
- The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "Car Seats for Your Infant." 2009. (Feb. 12, 2010).http://www.research.chop.edu/programs/carseat/infant.php
- The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "LATCH: Making Child Safety Seat Installation Easier." 2009. (Feb. 12, 2010). http://www.research.chop.edu/programs/carseat/latch.php
- The Cleveland Clinic. "Choosing a Car Seat." (Feb. 12, 2010).http://my.clevelandclinic.org/healthy_living/Pregnancy/hic_Choosing_a_Car_Seat.aspx
- Consumer Reports. "Car Seats Buying Guide." (Feb. 12, 2010)..http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/babies-kids/baby-toddler/car-seats/car-seat-buying-advice/types-of-car-seats/carseats-types.htm
- Federal Aviation Administration. "Child Safety on Airplanes." Aug. 14, 2008. (Feb. 12, 2010).http://www.faa.gov/passengers/fly_children/crs/
- Helperin, Joanne. "Choosing a Car Seat." Edmunds.com. (Feb. 12, 2010).http://www.edmunds.com/advice/womenfamilies/articles/103317/article.html
- National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. "2006 Traffic Safety Facts on Children and Crashes." 2007. (Feb. 12, 2010). http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/portal/site/nhtsa/menuitem.9f8c7d6359e0e9bbbf30811060008a0c/
- Plomp, Karen. "Selecting the Best Car Seat for Your New Baby." Diaper Pin. (Feb. 12, 2010).http://www.diaperpin.com/articles/article_carseat1.asp#infvsconv
- Safe Kids USA. "Injury Facts: Motor Vehicle Occupant Injury." 2004. (Feb. 12, 2010).http://www.usa.safekids.org/tier3_cd.cfm?content_item_id=1133&folder_id=540