What kind of car seat does my child need?
Updated: Jan 26, 2021
A car seat is one of the most important products you can buy for your child but with so many variations and different names in this product category, it can be quite daunting to find the right one.
In this article you will get a clear overview as to how the world of car seats is structured. After reading this you will know exactly in what category you should look to offer your child the correct seating solution. Let’s dive into the absolute basics of how to choose a car seat:
The type of car seat that your child needs depends not so much on the age of the child but rather on its size and weight and how this matches with one of the car seat groups. Each group has its own safety standards to offer the best possible protection for that particular stage of the child’s life.
The groups are categorized as follows: (add type of seat)
Group 0: Birth to 10 kg or 22 lbs (infant carrier/carrycots/car beds)
Group 0+: 2–3 kg to 13 kg or 5lbs to 29 lbs (rear-facing/convertible)
Group 1: 9 kg to 18 kg or 20 lbs to 40 lbs (forward-facing/convertible)
Group 2: 15 kg to 25 kg or 33 lbs to 55 lbs (combination seat/booster)
Group 3: 22 kg to 36 kg or 48 lb to 76 lb (combination seat/booster)
Now that you’ve had a short overview of the way this is structured, we will have a closer look at the different categories and the reason why it is subdivided like that. We will also look at some general tips that will help you to narrow down your purchasing choices and give you peace of mind when you need to make a decision.
What type of car seat should my child be in?
As we mentioned above, it is not so much the age that determines what type of car seat is suitable for your child but it is more about the size and weight of your sprout. The reason is simple: All children develop at different speeds and within a certain age group some are just smaller or taller than others.
This means that judging by the age, you’d be making some wild guesses as to what is the safest car seat for your child. Each car seat is designed and manufactured to offer the best possible protection in case of an accident but only for a specific weight and size group.
For example: When a child exceeds the height limits of the car seat, the head and neck are not protected according to safety standards during impact. On the other hand, when the child is too small for the car seat, the car seat doesn’t offer enough protection in the right places as there is no snug fit between the child and the car seat.
The weight limits are important because it is the weight of the child+car seat in combination with the acceleration during an impact that will determine the forces the straps and LATCH or ISOFIX systems have to cope with.
In other words, if the child is too heavy for the car seat, the car seat might not withstand a crash in accordance with the foreseen safety standards.
That said, you will still see age recommendations on car seats. This just helps you in distinguishing the categories a bit better, but at the end of the day it is the size and weight that will determine if the car seat is suitable for your child or not.
Let’s take a closer look at each group and the corresponding safety standards:
Group 0: Birth to 10 kg or 22 lbs
In this group you will find baby car seats or infant carriers as well as carrycots and car beds.
Carrycots and car beds are designed for newborn children who need to lay flat during travel because of medical reasons such as apnea or heart rate problems, this is more common with children who are born prematurely. Your pediatrician will inform you if this is the case and they will also instruct you on how to use this properly.
Car beds and carrycots are installed in the middle of the back seat of the car, perpendicular to the driving direction, and are secured by the car seat belts. The newborn is secured with a harness that is integrated in the car bed or carrycot.
Please note that both carrycots and car beds are only to be used for travel purposes and not for overnight sleeping and as soon as your child is able to travel in a reclined position it is best to transition to a rear-facing car seat or infant carrier.
Baby car seats or infant carriers are designed for smaller newborn children who are able to sit in a reclined position without the risk of any medical problems, this sometimes also includes premature born children. Your pediatrician will do the necessary tests to ensure reclined travel for your child is OK.
Baby car seats or infant carriers are preferably installed in the middle of the back seat of the car, using a LATCH/ISOFIX system or the seatbelts (as advised by the manufacturer). They can be installed with or without a fixed base.
For safety reasons, they should be placed in a rear-facing orientation only. In case you intend to install it in the front passenger seat, always make sure that the airbag is turned off.
Even though it might be legally allowed in your country to place the car seat in the front passenger seat with the airbag turned off, it is still recommended by the NHTSA to install the car seat in the middle of the back seat of your car since this area is furthest away from any potential impact during an accident or crash.
Carrycots and car beds are only to be used in the first few months and car seats in this group are to be used ranging from birth up to about 15 months, but remember, this is only indicative as it is the size and weight that is more important.
Group 0+: 2–3 kg to 13 kg or 5lbs to 29 lbs
In this group you will find rear-facing car seats and convertible car seats also known as X-in-one car seats.
Rear-facing car seats in this group are designed for children from birth (2-3Kg/5Lbs) all the way up to 13Kg or 29Lbs and who are able to sit in a reclined position during travel. They are slightly larger than the infant carriers in group 0 and have a higher minimum starting weight as well as a higher maximum weight and size.
The average age indication for this type of car seat is from birth to about 15 months.
Convertible car seats are designed to be used throughout different stages and they always start out in a rear-facing orientation. The name “convertible” means that you can convert the car seat from a rear-facing to a forward-facing orientation, allowing you to use them for much longer than a rear-facing only car seat.
Since convertible car seats are designed for many stages of growth, the height and weight limitations are higher (up to 20Kg or 44lbs) compared to a rear-facing only car seat. This allows you to leave your child in a rear-facing orientation much longer, which is much safer and therefore recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Both these car seats are ideally placed in the back seat and commonly have a base that is permanently fixed to the car via a LATCH or ISOFIX system or the seat belt of the car. This base allows you to quickly attach and detach the car seat in a safe manner so you can easily transport your child from and to the car without detaching the whole belt system.
In both the rear-facing and the convertible car seats a 5-point restraint harness is used to secure the child.
For convertible car seats the average age recommendation starts from birth to about 3 years old when in a rear-facing orientation and starting from 3 years old until about 7 years old when converted into a forward facing orientation.
Group 1: 9 kg to 18 kg or 20 lbs to 40 lbs
In group 1 you can find forward-facing car seats as well as the convertible car seats (since they overlap groups).
The forward-facing car seat is designed for toddlers and preschoolers ranging from 9Kg to about 18Kg or 20lbs to 40lbs.
Unlike the convertible and rear-facing car seat, the forward facing car seat doesn’t have a base that stays in the car. Instead, it is the whole car seat that is permanently fixed to the car using the LATCH/ISOFIX system or the car seat belt. The child itself is constrained with a 5-point harness.
The age recommendation starts as early as 9 months all the way up to about 4 years. Again, if you have the option to keep your child in a rear-facing position longer then this is your safest choice.
Group 2 & 3: 15Kg to 36Kg or 33 pounds to 80 pounds
In this group we transition from a car seat to a booster seat. This can either be done with the use of a combination seat or by purchasing a booster seat.
The main difference between a car seat and a boosters seat lies within the way your child is strapped into the seat.
If your child is strapped in using a 5-point harness, then we are talking about a car seat. The car seat will always have a back support and side walls to protect your child during impact. This type of seat is fixed to the car by latches or the safety belt of the car, or sometimes by both.
If you secure your child using the safety belt of your vehicle, then it is a booster seat. The safety belt of your vehicle envelopes both the child and the seat. The seat itself can be fixed to the car using latches.
Taking into account the size and weight of your child you have two types of booster seats:
1. The booster seat with back and head support (usually from 15Kg to 25Kg or 33 Pounds to 55 pounds). These seats come with a belt guide to make sure the vehicle's safety belt can be installed correctly for your child.
2. The booster seat without a back support. (usually from 25Kg to 36Kg or 55 pounds to 80 pounds). This booster seat doesn’t come with a belt guide and support, the back and the headrest are provided by the car seat itself.
The combination car seat is a forward-facing car seat with a 5- point safety harness that you can transform into a booster seat with or without back support.
The age indication for these groups starts from 4 years to about 10 years of age.
For an illustrated overview of all the types of car seats with all their benefits and drawbacks you can have a look at this article we wrote.
Things to consider when purchasing a car or booster seat.
Now that you have read through the classification of the groups and you know in what group to look for a car seat it is time to have a look at some purchasing tips that will help you to make smart decisions for your child.
Never purchase a car seat with the idea that your child will grow into it. The car seat should fit well from the time you start using it in order for it to be effective enough, a seat that is too big is useless.
Make the transition to another group on time. Just like a car seat that is too big, a car seat that is too small also loses its effectiveness. For example: if the head of your child exceeds the height of the car seat, there is no protection surrounding the head in case of a crash.
Consider the laws in other states or countries. If you are a regular traveler or you are about to make a trip abroad, it is good practice to check local laws and regulations as they might differ from your local laws. (This can have an effect on you wallet and your travel experience)
Consider the medical condition of your child. If your child has a medical condition that requires surgery or any other treatments in the nearby future, it is good practice to seek advice with your medical professional about your car seat options. Bigger brands have special adaptations and inserts available for common conditions like hip dysplasia.
Don’t purchase a used car seat. Used car seats might have been in an accident which basically means they are expired. Also, through the aging process of plastic materials some wear and tear can occur that is not directly visible. These defects can have a devastating impact in case of a crash.
Test before you purchase. A car seat is such a delicate thing to purchase since everything has to be right before you buy. If you go to a physical shop they can help you to determine what is the best fit for you and your child. Ideally you will test it on all the cars that you will transport your children in. Check if the seat belt length is OK, check if you can easily handle all the features, check if the seat can be firmly attached to the car with no more than 1 inch or 2,5cm of wiggle room.
"In case you bought one online, don’t destroy the packaging until you have tested if everything is working the way it should."
Consider a convertible car seat. Convertible car seats are a bit more expensive compared to the single purpose type of car seat. However they have some great advantages: they last longer since they can be used for multiple growth stages. When it comes to a rear-facing position, convertible car seats can be used up to the weight of 20Kg or about 40lbs.
Will you use multiple cars? If both of you are taking on the logistics task then it might be a good idea to look for car seats that work with a fixed base. You can purchase a second base so that switching between cars becomes a walk in the park. In case you are looking for a group 2&3 car seat, look for one that is easy to install and uninstall as it will save you lots of time and frustration.
Consider the option to have the car seat to be compatible with a stroller. For parents who like to go for walks a lot it might be worthwhile to look for a car seat that you can attach to a stroller:
Your first option is a travel system where you have a full-size stroller with an infant car seat that you can clip on the stroller. This way you can leave your child in the car seat without losing any mobility.
In case you’ve already bought a stroller, you can always look for infant car seat adapters that are compatible with your brand of stroller. These adapters are usually relatively low cost and easy to attach. They can be found for the most common brands.
If you can’t find any suitable adapters, there are also things like snap and go strollers. Basically this is a stroller frame with a set of wheels that can fit your infant car seat. Advantages are the price and the little space occupied when the frame is folded flat in your trunk.
You’ve made it, now you should have a pretty good idea about the world of car seats and how this is classified in different weight categories. In case of doubt, you can always check the user guidelines of the product for further information.
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