One of the truisms you'll hear most as a new parent is "they grow up so fast." It's not only an encouragement to enjoy every moment, but also a reminder that you need to keep up to date on the practical realities of parenting a growing child. One of those realities is the switch from a rear-facing infant car seat to a front-facing toddler/preschooler seat. When you decide the time has arrived, the actual installation takes just a few moments.
When to move up
Deciding when to switch from a rear-facing to a front-facing seat isn't entirely straightforward. Most states require your child to remain in a rear-facing seat until at least 1 year old, but three states - California, New Jersey, and Oklahoma - extend that requirement until your kids reach 2 years of age. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests keeping your child in a rear-facing seat until the age of 3 for additional safety, but that's a personal choice, not a requirement. If you lean toward that extra year in a rear-facing seat, check the manufacturer's instructions. Your child might exceed the seat's weight or size limits, and in that case, its safety is compromised.
Whether you start fresh with a new front-facing seat at this point in your child's growth or switch a convertible car seat from its current rear-facing position to a front-facing position, the installation process is largely the same. Most vehicles built since 2002 are designed to support the LATCH system (lower anchors and tethers for children), which provides permanent anchors for child car seats. One is at the top of the seat behind the headrest, and it anchors the top of the seat through a tether. The lower anchors are usually located between the seat cushion and seat back, though on SUVs and minivans their positions can vary. You can install a car seat safely using either the lower anchors or a seat belt.
The LATCH method
Start by settling the car seat into position in the rear of your vehicle. Locate the tether strap on the back of the car seat and click it into the upper anchor behind the seat. Tighten it just until most of the slack is taken up. Next, locate the lower anchors - you might need to check the owner's manual for your vehicle. Loosen the anchor straps on each side of the car seat until they reach the anchors easily, and clip the straps to the anchors. Tighten until most of the slack is taken up. Lean your weight on the car seat and tighten each strap in turn until the seat is firmly held in place. When you can't budge it an inch in any direction, it's secure. Finish the installation by tightening the upper tether until it, too, has less than an inch of play.
The seat belt method
Sometimes the position of the anchors in your specific vehicle might not work well with the car seat you've chosen. In that case, you use the seat belt method. Start by clipping the seat's tether into the upper anchor. If you drive a vintage vehicle without an anchor, your mechanic can install one at minimal cost. Next, pull out a generous length of seat belt and slide the end through the seat's seat belt channel. Reach around to the other side of the seat, draw the end through, and clip it into its buckle. Lock the seat belt - check your vehicle's owner's manual if you don't know how to do it - and then lean your weight on the seat and pull the seat belt tight. When it won't move an inch in any direction, it's secure. Finish by tightening the upper tether until the seat back also has less than an inch of play.
A few details
Installing the seat physically in the car is only part of the process. The harness in car seats is adjustable, and you'll need to make sure it's at the correct setting for your child's age and size. Some also require adjustment when you switch them from rear-facing to front-facing positions, and you might need to change the seat's angle so your child sits in a more upright position. Some seats provide multiple paths for the seat belt, depending whether they're installed front-facing or rear-facing, so check the manufacturer's instructions to be sure you've gotten it right. If you want to be absolutely certain, you can take your vehicle to a certified child car seat inspection station and have it checked by a technician. You can find a searchable database of inspection sites at the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration's Parents Central website.