A car seat is part of your child's life for several years, so selecting the right one is important. Every make and model has to meet the same regulatory requirements, but your vehicle and personal preferences influence which car seat is best for your child. Here's a quick guide to get you started.

First decision

When you shop for a car seat, the first decision you face is whether to buy a single seat that adapts as your child grows or to purchase separate seats for each stage. Each strategy has advantages. When you choose separate, age-appropriate seats, you always have an up-to-date model. When your child outgrows it, you can re-sell the outgrown one to offset the cost of an upgrade or use it for younger children as your family grows. Buying one seat that can be reconfigured saves the time and research involved in multiple purchases and eliminates the need to store or sell the one that isn't currently needed.

Rear-facing stage

For at least the first year of your child's life - and longer in some states - you are required to transport them in a rear-facing car seat. Some baby car sets are constructed as complete units, like seats for larger children, while others consist of a base that secures to the vehicle and a snap-out seat that doubles as an infant carrier. Fixed seats are often convertible models that can be repurposed for front-facing seat use as your child grows. If you opt for the convenience of a removable carrier model, be mindful of safety whether you're in the car or out. A 2010 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics identified dangers to children in carriers that tip over or fall.

Front-facing stage

The transition to a front-facing car seat is partly a personal decision and partly a legal one. Most states require children to travel in a rear-facing car seat until they're one year old, but some states mandate rear-facing car seats for children until they reach two years old. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend leaving children in rear-facing seats until they are 3 years old or until they outgrow the seat's size or weight limit.

If you own a convertible-style seat, switching it to front-facing mode is as simple as turning it around and re-attaching it, though seat installation may vary by model and manufacturer. If you're buying a new seat, it's time to revisit the notion of an upgradeable seat. Many front-facing seats fit a child all the way through preschool and then convert to a booster seat for the elementary school years. Whichever option you choose, pay close attention to the size and weight limits of each seat you compare. These limits dictate how long your child can safely use the seat.

Booster seat stage

As children grow, there's a period when they're too large for car seats yet not large enough to be safely restrained by a car's seat belts alone. Booster seats fill this gap, which typically lasts until a child reaches 10 or 11 years old or a certain height and weight. If you purchased a combination seat earlier, follow the manufacturer's instructions, which may vary by model and manufacturer, to convert it to a booster seat when your child outgrows its size or weight limit. If you're buying a new booster seat, select either a high-back or backless seat. High-back seats protect your child from whiplash-type injuries in vehicles with low or no headrests in the back. Backless models take up less space and are easier to move between vehicles. Your child may object to using a booster seat at this age, and backless models - because they're less visible - may be easier to "sell."

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