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Front-Facing Car Seat: Choosing One That Is Right For Your Child

Is your child ready to graduate to a front-facing car seat? Our experts give helpful hints on what to look for and how to decide on the seat that is right for you.

Is a front-facing car seat right for your child? Whether she's outgrowing the baby bucket or just hates not seeing you, your gut tells you she's ready for the next step. But what is it? There are a few things you should know before moving to a forward-facing seat, as this seat is essential to your child's overall safety while riding in the family car. Here, we'll look at all your car seat options and help you decide what's best for your family.

When Should You Start Using a Front-Facing Seat?
The school of thought has changed greatly over the last few years in terms of when to move your child to a front-facing car seat, and most experts now recommend keeping your child rear-facing for as long as possible.

"In the U.S., car crashes are the number-one cause of unintentional injury and death to children ages 0 to 14 years old. Rear-facing puts a child in the optimal position during a crash, protecting the head, neck and spinal cord," says Allana Pinkerton, a certified child passenger safety instructor and global safety advocate for Diono. "Many parents purchase a forward-facing seat for a child too young to go forward-facing. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends staying rear-facing up to 2 years old."

If your baby has outgrown an infant seat, she still needs to be rear-facing for safety until she's 2 years old. Some seats can be used as rear-facing and then simply turned around for a forward-facing seat when your child reaches the proper size and age. Others are strictly forward-facing seats that can support kids as they grow into grade-school age. So what do you need?

What Are the Differences in Car Seats?
There are four types of car seats, two of which are rear-facing:
 

  1. The Infant Car Seat
    You probably brought your baby home from the hospital in this "baby bucket." It's portable and rear-facing (only). Some carry babies up to 35 pounds and 32-inches, but once baby gets bigger (and longer), the benefits of her being comfortable and safe outweigh the convenience of her being portable. If she has outgrown the limits of a portable infant seat, it's time to move to a larger rear-facing seat that stays anchored in the car.
     
  2. The Convertible Car Seat
    This is the next step for many families who still want their child to be rear-facing, but aren't ready for the booster yet. It holds babies between 5 and 40 pounds, but it is not portable. With this seat, the baby is seated a tad more upright than the infant car seat. And once the child turns two, you can flip the seat around to be forward-facing.
     
  3. Combination Harness/Booster Seat
    If your child looks like a giant in the convertible car seat, this type of seat enables you to have the safety of a 5-point harness, with a lot more room for your "big kid" to move once he hits his second birthday. This is designed to be forward-facing and hold kids age 2 and up who weigh between 25 and 90 pounds. This same seat can be used with the shoulder strap belt for kids up to 120-pounds (basically, through college!) once they have outgrown the harness.
     
  4. Booster Seat
    These are forward-facing seats for kids ranging from 40 to 120 pounds. It basically lifts the child up a bit and positions her so the seat belt falls "just right."


So, What Type of Seat Should You Buy?
By far the most important features in a front-facing car seat are a well-fitting five-point harness, deep head wings and energy-absorbing foam. "As a child grows, it takes more restraining force to keep their head and body contained within the seat, especially in a side impact collision," says Pinkerton.

"A car seat with structural integrity can play a role as well, since a larger child will eventually be sitting in the seat. While all car seats have to meet the same standards, going above and beyond is only going to benefit your child if you're in a crash."

After you've verified the safety features, check out the size of the seat. If it's too large and you can't fit it into your vehicle, or if it fits in the car but takes up too much space, it might not be the seat for your family. Cup holders, toys and other add-ons that make your child comfortable are often worthy investments. Many forward-facing seats have these little extras and are perfectly safe so long as you operate according to the manufacturer's instructions.

You'll also need to test how the seat can be installed in your vehicle. Even if a child fits comfortably in the car seat, it doesn't mean it's safe unless you can get a proper fit in your car. Be sure to "try before you buy." Most retail stores will allow you to take a model car seat out to the parking lot and try it out.

Want more info? Here are 5 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Car Seats.

Christina Montoya Fiedler is a Los Angeles-based parenting writer. Read more of her work on Red Tricycle.

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