Car Seats: Everything You Want and Need To Know To Keep Your Kids Safe

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A toddler in a front-facing car seat.
Jonathon Klein

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Did you just find out you’re about to be a parent? Mazel tov! Kids are...great? Fun? Demon spawn designed to prevent you and your significant other from ever sleeping in the same bed again? Just kidding! Sorta. One truism about children all parents can agree on, though, is that you’ll want to keep them safe, and that starts with car seats.

Aside from shopping the Volvo section of Cars Direct, car seats are the second-most-important kid-related safety purchase you can make. They’re the last line of defense in keeping your children protected in the event of an accident and shield them from whiplash, concussions, broken bones, and everything in between. So choosing a safe option that fits your child is paramount, but how do you know what to pick when you get to Target? Where do you start? 

Right here with me, The Drive’s very own Jonathon Klein, a bonafide dad of three! I’ve seen it all, people. I’ve dropped car seats in every car imaginable and I want to impart that knowledge onto you, the stressed-out, and terrified new parent. 

So let me guide you on a topic only an actual parent would have experience with. This is usually where I’d say, “Ready?” but don’t worry, you don’t have to be ready just yet. That comes when you first hear them cry. Let’s do this.

A car seat.
Jonathon Klein

A car seat.

What Is a Car Seat?

The name tells you exactly what you need to know. A child’s car seat is a seat, one that resembles a motor racing seat (sweet), that’s designed specifically to keep a child safe in a vehicle in the event of an accident. As you’d expect, these seats have different constructions, supports, and harnesses compared to the= seats adults use. 

There are, however, multiple types of car seats built to accommodate various ages, weights, and heights. Buying one for your child is priority numero uno. 

Why Do You Need a Car Seat For Your Child?

Do you like the pitter-patter sound of their feet running to you? The first smile they crack at your goofy-looking face? Are you going to want to walk them down the aisle at their wedding? Do you want to see them grow up and have children of their own? If you answered yes to any or all of those, that’s why you need a car seat.

Car seats provide complete protection for your children in the case of an accident. If you strapped an infant into a regular-old seat belt and got into a head-on collision, you’d become numb from the outcome. Put them in a car seat. 

What Are The Types of Car Seats And Which Is Best For Your Child?

To that end, it’s helpful to know the types of car seats and what types of children they’re designed for. Let’s dive in!

A rear-facing car seat.
Jonathon Klein

A rear-facing car seat.

Rear-Facing

Rear-facing car seats are those that buckle into your car with the child facing the seatbacks of the rear cabin’s seats. These car seats are designed for infants and children who weigh less than 40 pounds, measure shorter than 57 inches, or are short enough that their legs aren’t bent while touching the seatbacks. These are designed for children between the ages of 0-2.

Jonathon Klein

A front-facing car seat.

Front-Facing

Front-facing car seats are those that buckle into your car with the child facing the front of the vehicle. These car seats are designed for toddlers to young children who weigh more than 40 pounds or measure taller than  57 inches. These seats are designed for children between the ages of 2-8, again depending on height and weight. 

A convertible car seat.
Jonathon Klein

A convertible car seat. 

Convertible

Convertible car seats are seats that are designed to grow with the child, so they can convert from rear-facing to forward-facing and finally to a booster seat. This style offers parents a one-stop car seat that will work across the child’s age. These are designed for children between the ages of 0-10. 

Booster Seat

A booster seat is specifically designed for when a child becomes too big for a front-facing car seat. These work with the car’s 3-point seat belts and offer elevated seating for the child. These are designed for children between the age of 5-10.

How Much Are Car Seats?

I know you weren’t expecting such variety in price, but car seat pricing can get out of control very quickly. Here are the real price ranges for each style of seat. 

Rear-Facing

$60-$700

Front-Facing

$70-$1,400

Convertible

$60-$2,250

Booster Seat

$20-$320

A menagerie of car seats.
Jonathon Klein

A menagerie of car seats. 

Where Should a Car Seat Be Located?

Positioning a car seat depends on whether or not you have more than one child. Infants in rear-facing car seats should be positioned in the middle of the rear seats, with the two seats next to them open. As they grow, you can switch them to the passenger-side rear seat so that the car door opens away from traffic. 

With two children, you always want to place the youngest in the middle with the oldest on the passenger side. If you’re like me and have three children, well, it’s three across. 

A LATCH point.
Jonathon Klein

A LATCH point. 

What Is LATCH and Isofix?

LATCH is actually an acronym that stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren. Yeah, we know, that’s sorta dumb, but these anchor points, which are also known as Isofix anchors, are far safer than a traditional seat belt anchor for child seats.

A LATCH- or Isofix-equipped car has three anchor points inset in the rear seat, two at the base and one behind it. These anchors provide more rigid structure for the seat to attach to and keep the car seat more secure. Likewise, LATCH- or Isofix-equipped car seats have three anchor attachments, two for the lower anchors of the seat, and one for the rear for forward-facing seats. 

To that end, let’s talk about installing a car seat. 

Here’s How To Install a Car Seat

When I first installed a car seat, I got it hella wrong and it took at least 10 tries to get it right! After learning from my mistakes, and seeing my children grow, I have vowed to pass along my knowledge to you, my dear readers. Let’s do this!

Rear-Facing

LATCH/Isofix

  1. Drop the car seat into the rear of the car with the seat facing the seatback and make sure it’s level. 
  2. Attach the first LATCH clip to the LATCH anchor on the inside of the seat. 
  3. Attach the second LATCH clip to the LATCH anchor on the outside of the seat.
  4. Sinch the LATCH belt tight so that there’s almost no movement when you try to rock the seat side to side. 

Seat Belt

  1. Drop the car seat into the rear of the car and make sure it’s level.
  2. Feed the car’s seat belt through the car seat base and clip it into the receiver. 
  3. Pull the seat belt tight so that there’s little movement in the seat. 
  4. Lock the seat belt. 

Front-Facing

LATCH/Isofix

  1. Drop the car seat into the rear of the car with the seat facing forward and make sure it’s level. 
  2. Attach the first LATCH clip to the LATCH anchor on the inside of the seat. 
  3. Attach the second LATCH clip to the LATCH anchor on the outside of the seat.
  4. Attach the rear LATCH clip to the rear of the seatback. 
  5. Sinch the LATCH belt tight so that there’s almost no movement when you try to rock the seat side to side. 

Seat Belt

  1. Drop the car seat into the rear of the car and make sure it’s level.
  2. Feed the car’s seat belt through the car seat base and clip it into the receiver. 
  3. Pull the seat belt tight so that there’s little movement in the seat. 
  4. Lock the seat belt.

Convertible

Depending on whether the car seat is rear-facing or front-facing, you’ll follow the same instructions as the rear and forward-facing seats. 

LATCH/Isofix

  1. Drop the car seat into the rear of the car with the seat facing forward or rear and make sure it’s level. 
  2. Attach the first LATCH clip to the LATCH anchor on the inside of the seat. 
  3. Attach the second LATCH clip to the LATCH anchor on the outside of the seat.
  4. Attach the rear LATCH clip to the rear of the seatback if facing rear.
  5. Sinch the LATCH belt tight so that there’s almost no movement when you try to rock the seat side to side. 

Seat Belt

  1. Drop the car seat into the rear of the car and make sure it’s level.
  2. Feed the car’s seat belt through the car seat base and clip it into the receiver. 
  3. Pull the seat belt tight so that there’s little movement in the seat. 
  4. Lock the seat belt.

Booster Seat

Seat Belt

  1. Drop the car seat into the rear of the car and make sure it’s level.
  2. Feed the car’s seat belt through the car seat base and clip it into the receiver. 
  3. Pull the seat belt tight so that there’s little movement in the seat. 
  4. Lock the seat belt.
A car seat's 5-point harness in action.
Jonathon Klein

A car seat's 5-point harness in action. 

Why Do Car Seats Have 5-Point Harnesses? 

5-point harnesses are derived from motor racing. There, these belts are designed to work with the car’s roll cage and the driver’s helmet to protect them in the case of a crash. Child car seats use the same principle but without the helmet. 

These harnesses are composed of five straps, two across the shoulders, two across the legs, and one between the thighs. This configuration provides the most amount of safety and security for the race car drivers and your precious cargo. 

Here’s How To Buckle In Your Child

Buckling your child into a car seat is different than buckling yourself into a car seat. Plus, the 5-point harness changes placement as the child ages, unlike your seat belt. Here’s how to buckle your child into each style of seat. 

Rear-Facing

  1. Place the baby all the way into the car seat with the baby’s back flat against the seatback. 
  2. Take the harness straps and slide each little arm through the holes—the two top straps should be straddling the baby’s neck with the clasp resting on their chest. 
  3. Lock the clasp together. 
  4. Take the two seat belts and click them into the thigh receiver. 
  5. Tighten the strap sinch at the base of the seat until snug, but you’re still able to get two fingers in between the chest clasp and the baby’s chest. Make sure that the chest clasp is located at the baby’s nipples. No higher, no lower. 

Front-Facing

  1. Adjust the shoulder straps to fit the height of your child. 
  2. Adjust the thigh strap to fit the height of your child.
  3. Place the child all the way into the car seat with their backs flat against the seatback. 
  4. Take the harness straps and slide each arm through the holes—the two top straps should be straddling the child’s neck with the clasp resting on their chest. 
  5. Lock the clasp together. 
  6. Take the two seat belts and click them into the thigh receiver. 
  7. Tighten the strap sinch at the base of the seat until snug, but you’re still able to get two fingers in between the chest clasp and the child’s chest. Make sure that the chest clasp is located at the child’s nipples. No higher, no lower. 

Convertible

  1. Place the baby all the way into the car seat with their backs flat against the seatback. 
  2. Take the harness straps and slide each little arm through the holes—the two top straps should be straddling the baby’s neck with the clasp resting on their chest. 
  3. Lock the clasp together. 
  4. Take the two seat belts and click them into the thigh receiver. 
  5. Tighten the strap sinch at the base of the seat until snug, but you’re still able to get two fingers in between the chest clasp and the baby’s chest. Make sure that the chest clasp is located at the baby’s nipples. No higher, no lower. 

Booster Seat

As a booster seat uses the car’s existing seat belt, you’ll buckle your kids in just as you buckle yourself in. Ensure, however, that the belt is secured across their laps and does not cut across their throats.

Three car seats all in a row.
Jonathon Klein

Three car seats all in a row. Good lord.

A Dad of Three’s Car Seat Pro Tips

As a dad of three toddlers, 3, 2, and just a few months old (I know, what were we thinking!), I’ve installed car seats all types of wrong, bruised and bloodied my knuckles, and cursed the designer gods more times than I care to admit. Through those trials and tribulations, I’ve learned a thing or two. Let me impart my knowledge to you as Yoda did to Luke. Learn the ways of the car seat, you will!

  • When your car seat comes with LATCH anchors, extend the belt portions all the way out before you try to install them. This will save you time trying to extend them in the cramped confines of your car.
  • Car seats can be too big for your car (ask me how I know), so you’ll want to check the dimensions to make sure you’ve got a big enough back seat. Our family had to swap from a Volkswagen Tiguan to a Volvo XC90 just to fit all three car seats.
  • The surfaces on the car seat are going to get gross, that’s just a fact. Mercifully, they’re machine washable. Thank you, car seat designers.
  • Clip-and-click car seats that lock into a seat base or stroller are handy, but they’re heavy once you strap a kid in there. Be wary of weight as you’ll end up lopsided trying to bring them into the house or apartment whenever you leave. 
A baby giving a thumbs up.
Jonathon Klein

You've got this, dude. 

FAQs About Car Seats

You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers!

Q. Are All Car Seats Safe?

A. Yes and no. All car seats are safer than strapping your bouncing bundle of joy into the back seat or letting them roll around in a picnic basket buckled down in the trunk. But not all car seats provide the same level of safety. You’ll need to do your research. 

Q. What About Portable Car Seats, Are They Safe?

A. Technically, all car seats are portable, but if you’re referring to dual-purpose stroller and car seat products, yes they are safe. But which one you buy will determine how safe it is. Again, do your research. 

Q. Ok, Then What Is the Safest Car Seat?

A. Unfortunately, you can’t rely on the federal government to tell you one way or another (I know, I know, surprise, surprise). The NHTSA tests car seats but only awards pass/fails. Independent analysis, either through Consumer Reports and The New York Times’ Wirecutter, utilizes rigorous testing regimens and suggests the best car seat on the market right now is the Chico KeyFit 30, though that’s only an infant car seat. 

Q. Can You Keep Using a Car Seat After an Accident?

A. Would you keep your airbags? We didn’t think so. The only way you’d be able to tell if the car seat is still good is if you had access to an x-ray machine and could inspect the seat’s construction for damage. Really though, just get a new car seat. Your kid’s safety is at stake. 

Q. Someone Once Told Me A Car Seat Expires. Do Car Seats Have Expiration Dates?

A. They do! Car seats are good on average for between 5-10 years, but you can read more about that in The Drive’s Car Seat Expiration guide. 

Q. Let’s Talk Turkey, Are Expensive Car Seats Worth It?

A. Some can be, some aren’t. You’ll really want to do your research about the safety of each car seat. There are those that cost a pretty penny but end up being less safe than your average car seat purchased at Walmart or Amazon. 

Q. So What’s The Difference Between a 3-Point Harness and 5-Point Harness?

A. A 3-point harness is what you, me, and every other adult uses every single time we get into the car.  The number three refers to the anchor points it features—above your shoulder and right and left of your hips. Three-point harnesses found in cars also have tensioners, which retract and lock in the event of a hard stop or accident. 

A 5-point harness is typically found in race cars, but child car seats also use them, as they’re safer in the event of an accident. Five-point harnesses have two anchors above the shoulders, two straddling the hips, and one between the thighs. Along with upper bolsters that keep the child’s head secure, a 5-point harness is recommended for children until they’re old enough to use 3-point seat belts.

Q. Then When Do Children Transition to Seat Belts?

A. States used to require children to be in booster seats or car seats until a certain age. However, science has evolved to understand that not all children are built the same way. It’s now recommended that children who weigh less than 40 pounds continue to use booster seats until they reach 40 pounds or heavier and are taller than 57 inches. 

Q. What If I Need Help, And/Or Need a Hunky Fireman Fix, Do Fire Stations Check Car Seats?

A. I’m sorry to pop your bubble, but not all fire stations check car seats anymore. And most doctors and nurses aren’t going to assist beyond the cursory car seat check they do before they let you leave the hospital. What you can do is visit  SafeRide4Kids.com and find a child seat technician close to you and ask for help.

Q. You’ve Been a Great Help, How Can I Ever Repay You?

A. Buy me coffee. I’ve got three kids, and I need to always stay awake. Just kidding, just click the links and tool around our other articles on The Drive.

Let’s Talk, Comment Below To Talk With The Drive’s Editors!

We’re here to be expert guides in everything How-To related. Use us, compliment us, yell at us. Comment below and let’s talk! You can also shout at us on Twitter or Instagram, here are our profiles.

Jonathon Klein: Twitter (@jonathon.klein), Instagram (@jonathon_klein)

Tony Markovich: Twitter (@T_Marko), Instagram (@t_marko)

Chris Teague: Twitter (@TeagueDrives), Instagram (@TeagueDrives)

Featured Products

Graco 4Ever DLX Car Seat

Evenflo Chase Harnessed Booster Car Seat

Baby Trend Expedition Jogger Travel System

Chicco MyFit Harness and Booster Car Seat

Graco Slimfit 3 in 1 Car Seat

Britax Grow with You Car Seat

Got a question? Got a pro tip? Send us a note: guidesandgear@thedrive.com