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How to buy a convertible car seat

how to care for convertible top

  Download our illustrated guide to convertible car seats

The lowdown on convertible car seats 

You have a choice of two types of car seat for your baby: an infant car seat or a convertible car seat. 

A convertible seat converts from a rear-facing seat for babies and toddlers to a forward-facing seat. It carries children from birth to somewhere between 40 and 80 pounds and up to 50 inches tall, depending on the seat.

Another type of convertible seat known as a 3-in-1 or all-in-one car seat can change from rear-facing to forward-facing, then into a booster seat for children up to 100 pounds. (Note: Some "3-in-1" car seats are not for babies. They're forward-facing only, and convert from car seat for older toddlers to high-back booster to backless booster.)

It's cheaper to buy a convertible car seat for a newborn instead of starting with an infant car seat and then transitioning to a convertible. But experts say young babies are safer in an infant car seat. Many parents say their newborn seems to be swimming in a convertible seat, and they have to use head rests, towels, or other cushioning to prop him safely in place until he grows into the seat.

A convertible car seat is also less convenient for you at first: Convertible seats are heavy. And unlike infant car seats, they have to be installed in the car rather than clicked into a base that's installed in the car – so you can't easily take them in and out of the car, carry your baby in them, or snap them into a stroller.

What to look for when buying

Ease of use: Look for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration's five-star rating system: The more stars a car seat has, the easier it is to use. The NHTSA ratings take into account how easy it is to install the seat in your car and secure your child in it, as well as the content and clarity of the instruction manual.

A five-point safety harness: The straps – one for each shoulder, one for each thigh, and one between your baby's legs – are more adjustable (and thus safer) than older designs.

Easy adjustments. You'll need to adjust the harness as your child grows, so avoid seats that make this complicated. Better car seats allow you to adjust the straps and harness height easily from the front. A few models even have one-hand belt adjustments with quick-release buckles.

LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children):  Since 2002, all car seats and vehicles have been compatible with the LATCH system. LATCH allows you to attach the car seat directly to your vehicle instead of using the seat

belt to secure it. This can make installation safer and easier. Convertible car seats are equipped with top tether and bottom straps, but the manufacturer may recommend not using the top tether strap in the rear-facing position. Follow the manufacturer's instructions.

Easy cleaning: Kids and messes go hand in hand, but a surprising number of car seats come with covers you can't take off. A detachable, machine-washable cover makes cleanup much easier.

Comfort: A well-padded seat with plenty of head support gives your baby a better ride.

Side-impact protection: Some car seats have special energy-absorbing foam and other features designed to better protect your baby's head and chest in a side-impact accident.

Important safety notes

How to install

You might think that anyone who can read an instruction manual and follow directions can install a car seat correctly. In reality, it's not so easy. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 3 out of 4 car seats are improperly installed.

For safety's sake, have your car seat and its installation checked by a professional. To arrange an inspection in your area, use the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration's car seat inspection station locator.

For advice on avoiding the most common car seat installation mistakes, see our article on installing a car seat. You can also talk to parents in our Car Safety  groups.

Where to install

Car seats must be installed in the backseat. For babies and toddlers under age 2, install the car seat facing the rear of the car. Experts say it's safest to keep your child rear-facing as long as possible. at least until your child is 2 years old or reaches the maximum rear-facing height and weight limit for your car seat. (Most newer convertible seats can handle kids up to 40 pounds or so in a rear-facing position.)

Secondhand seats

We don't recommend buying used car seats. Secondhand seats could be missing important parts, have been involved in an accident (even unseen damage can affect the way a seat functions), fall short of current safety standards, or have been recalled due to faulty design. Moreover, plastic gets brittle as it gets older, so a seat that's too old could break in a crash.

If you use a secondhand seat, make sure it has never been in an accident, is less than five years old, and comes with all parts and instructions.

What it's going to cost you

Convertible car seats, as well as 3-in-1 and all-in-one seats, generally cost between $80 and $380. The top-of-the-line models are pricey, but often have higher weight limits, so you can use them longer. 

  Download our illustrated guide to convertible car seats

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