What type of Baby Car Seats are there? An illustrated guide.
Updated: Jan 22
If you are new to the world of car seats there is a big chance that you are overwhelmed with the plurality of choices and it’s more than likely you are unsure about what the best and safest option for your child is.
To help you get a clear idea of what is available on the market, we have put together this illustrated article that explains all the major differences within this product category. This will give you peace of mind when it comes to your purchasing decisions. To start with, let’s look at the different types of car seats at a glance:
Based on their functionalities, car seats can be subdivided into 4 types:
Infant-only, also known as rear facing-only.
Convertible car seats (converts from rear facing into forward facing)
Combination car seats (Forward facing only but combines multiple functions in one seat).
Now that you have an overview of the different types of car seats, we will dive a little bit deeper into the detailed functionalities of each type, followed by some benefits and drawbacks so you can easily determine what works well for you and your little sprout.
What is an Infant-only Car Seat?
An infant-only or a rear facing-only car seat is a compact and portable seating solution that is suitable for newborns and small babies up to the age of 1 year, or until they have reached the size and weight limits as provided by the manufacturer. It is designed to keep your child safely strapped in the car.
Can be used as a carrier: This can come in handy when you need to do groceries or any other quick stops with your baby.
Most models come with a separate base that you strap onto the car seat so it is easy to quickly click-in the infant-only car seat. In case you utilize multiple cars (personal, grandparents,...) you can purchase additional bases, so switching between cars becomes a breeze.
Cannot be used in a forward-facing manner so there is no room for error in terms of orientation.
Has a 5-point harness and is by default positioned at an angle to provide the best possible protection for your newborn child.
They truly are infant-only, this means that your baby will quickly outgrow it and you need to buy another car seat as soon as your child exceeds the weight or size limits as provided by the manufacturer. For most babies this happens within the first year.
What is a Convertible Car Seat?
A convertible car seat is a seating solution for your child that you can convert from a rear-facing to a forward-facing orientation. It is suitable for children starting from birth until they have outgrown the car seat and it allows you to place your children in a safer rear-facing orientation longer.
"Fun fact: For marketing purposes (and lots of confusion) you will also find names like “All-in-one” or “3-in-1” car seats. But as long as you can change it from a rear-facing to a forward-facing position it is considered a convertible car seat."
Due to the larger size to fit different ages, the convertible car seat allows your child to stay in a rear-facing, and thus much safer position, beyond infancy.
They last longer than the infant-only car seat, so you get more bang for the buck.
A 5 point harness and tether restrict the movement of your child in case of an accident.
Allows you to position your child in a rear-facing orientation for much longer, which is the safest position in case of a crash.
Larger than infant-only car seats.
Can’t be used as a carrier.
Doesn’t work with an interchangeable base principle, so switching between cars is a hassle.
What is a Combination Car Seat?
A combination car seat is a seating solution for your child that you can transform from a forward-facing seat with harness into a booster seat with and without back support. The combination car seat is forward-facing only and is designed to keep your child safely seated in the car.
"Fun fact: In this category you can also find names such as 3-in-1 car seat. Important is that you can only install it in a forward-facing orientation."
Fits different ages and sizes so they last longer than a single purpose seat.
More value for money as you don’t have to purchase everything separately.
Five point harness to keep your child firmly strapped in.
Tether that holds the car seat in position.
Larger than a rear-facing or infant-only car seat.
Not suitable to double as a carrier.
They are meant to live in one car only as altering between cars is time consuming.
What is a Car Booster Seat?
A car booster seat is a seating solution to elevate your child to the correct height for the car’s seat belt. Car booster seats with a back support also provide protection to the back and the head of the passenger. This forward-facing only booster seat is designed to safely position children in a car.
Car booster seats come in two forms, with a back support and without a back support:
Booster Seats without back support:
Booster seats without a back support are designed for cars with high seats and head supports only as they offer no support or protection for the forces of an impact. Parents often choose this type of booster seat when multiple cars are in use as it is small and easy to transfer from one car to another.
Small, ideal for use in multiple cars.
No belt guide like a booster seat with a back support.
Not suited for sleepy heads.
Booster Seats with back support:
Booster seats with a back support are to be used in cars with lower seats and no head support but can also be used in cars with high seats and head support. These booster seats provide that extra layer of protection in case of an accident.
Also, for children who nap a lot during travel, the booster seat with back support is the safest choice as it prevents the child from slouching into an unsafe position. The back and side walls together with the belt guide ensure that the belt is always at the correct position of the child's body, whether napping or awake.
Great support of the child’s body.
Belt guide to ensure correct position at all times.
Extra layer of protection in case of impact.
Bulkier than the backless booster.
Unlike car seats, booster seats don’t need to be secured to the car seat by the seat belt, anchors or a tether. Instead, it is the seat belt that envelops both the child and the booster seat, keeping them both safely in place.
However, if the booster seat has integrated anchors and a tether and your child has a fixed spot in the car, it won’t harm to secure it in place as it will help to maintain its position in the car when your child is getting in and out.
What is the difference between rear and forward-facing car seats?
The difference in rear vs forward-facing car seats lies in the way the car seat is oriented in relation to the most common driving direction, which is forward. In a rear-facing car seat, the child is looking towards the rear window of the car, in a forward-facing car seat towards the front window.
The reason car seats have been designed to be oriented in a rear-facing manner has everything to do with the safety of your child in case of an accident, this is especially true for the youngest of children and that’s why the infant-only type of car seat only allows you to place the car seat in a rear-facing manner on its base.
This ensures that you don’t “forget” to orient the car seat in that particular direction and offer your child the highest level of safety during car travel.
Why is a rear facing-car seat safer than a forward-facing car seat?
This has everything to do with the forces of the impact in case of an accident and how well those forces are being absorbed by the car seat.
In case of a frontal impact, which is most common in car accidents, rear-facing car seats offer a much better protection for the child's underdeveloped head and neck as it prohibits the whiplash effect and distributes the forces of the impact evenly over the child's body.
Being involved in a car accident is never a good thing but the younger a child is the more devastating the impact can be on their underdeveloped body. Compared to adults, young children have a relatively large head compared to the rest of their body.
They only just learned to keep their heads up when they learned to sit up straight so the neck muscles as well as the bones are nowhere near fully developed and are therefore very vulnerable to any harsh mechanical stresses, such as in a car accident.
A crash in a forward-facing orientation will cause the relatively large and heavy head to move independently from the much smaller neck, causing the spinal cord to be stretched. If the spinal cord stretches more than 5mm, chances are high that the spinal cord breaks. This means there is a very high chance of fatal injury or lifelong paralysis.
Sitting in a rear-facing orientation might not look very social, but it offers the best possible protection in case of a frontal impact. In fact, in Sweden it is quite common to keep children in a rear-facing position until the age of 4 and then transition directly into a forward-facing booster seat.
Is a rear facing car seat mandatory?
In most countries and states it is mandatory by law to have children positioned in a rear-facing car seat until they have reached the age of 2 or until they have exceeded the maximum height or weight limits as provided by the car seat manufacturer.
Even when it is not mandatory to have your child seated in a rear-facing car seat, it still is the best thing you can do for the safety of your child. There is absolutely no benefit for your child or yourself to have your child sit in a forward-facing manner during car travel.
Always check your local safety regulations as to what is mandatory by law.
Won’t my child feel sick in a rear-facing car seat?
Most of us know how big of an impact car sickness can have on our well being and we’ve all heard the stories of how being placed in a rear-facing orientation causes us to feel sick. But is this really true? Does the rear-facing orientation lay at the foundation of car sickness?
Motion sickness or car sickness is caused by a sensory conflict between the visual input as provided by the eyes and the input as provided by the balance organs. This means that facing placing your child in a forward-facing direction will not help against motion sickness.
Even though it can sometimes be quite painful to hear your child crying because she doesn’t want to be in that rear-facing position, it is best never to give in to that as you will only increase the risk of serious injury in case of an accident.
Most children will fall asleep after driving around for a little while. As soon as they close their eyes, the conflicting sensory input stops and the chances of nausea will decrease. You as parent can help out a bit by driving calmly, accelerating and braking slowly and not turning the heating up too much. A bit of calming music can do wonders too!
Do preemies need a special car seat?
Premature children are a bit of a niche category as they require extra care when it comes to...well, just about anything. But how does this turn out when we are talking about car travel?
If a premature child has no medical condition that requires it to be transported while lying flat on the back or the tummy and the weight of the child is not lower than the minimum required by the car seat you can use a rear-facing car seat with inclination. In other cases the child needs a car bed.
When your doctor or pediatrician lets you know you can use a car seat, you should look for a car seat that is designated for very small children or car seats with newborn inserts that ensure a better fit between your child and the infant car seat. Your pediatrician can help you to determine if a certain car seat is right for your child.
Only use car seats that come with a standardized newborn insert as aftermarket inserts are not being tested by the manufacturer and by consequence do not assure it meets safety standards. Adding blankets or towels does not ensure your car seat meets the required safety standards either.
What is a car bed for preemies?
A car bed for preemies is an alternative to the infant car seat that allows premature infants to be transported while laying on their back or stomach. This medically approved bed is used for infants with a low birth weight and other medical conditions like breathing difficulties.
Car beds are like car seats to be placed on the back seat of the car and are oriented perpendicular to the driving direction. The car bed itself is attached to the car by the seat belt while your infant is being restrained by an integrated harness.
Do disabled children need a special car seat?
Disabled children can have problems with their positioning when seated due to muscle tone problems, cognitive challenges or development issues, but does this mean that they need a special kind of seating solution in the car no matter what?
For many disabled children, unless recommended differently by a physician, a standard car seat provides enough postural support and protection to meet the standard transportation safety requirements. For disabled children who exceed the physical limitations of a standard car seat, a special child restraint system is needed.
It is the task and responsibility of your treating physician to help you to determine what the best seating solution is if your child requires additional medical attention. Based on the medical condition, your physician will assess what transportation requirements need to be fulfilled to obtain the safest and most comfortable method of traveling for both your child and you.
That said, in case there is any underlying medical condition, you should always ask for the advice of a medically trained practitioner before purchasing and using a car seat for your child.
Car seats for disabled children look a lot like standard car seats but have additional features implemented to meet the specific medical needs of the child. These can be:
A backwards tilting feature to better facilitate an upright posture.
Padding that can be adapted to the body contours.
Seating with depth adjustability.
Back support with height adjustability.
A Crotch post that prevents the child from sliding down and prevents the child from crossing its legs.
A footrest to provide an extra sense of stability.
A padded tray to provide forearm support.
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