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What Should You Look For When Buying An Infant Car Seat? 5 Guidelines From Experts

When I was expecting my first baby, car seat shopping felt unduly stressful. I mean, they won't let you leave the hospital without one — for good reason — but which one is actually safest (and which hunk of titanium safety can we actually afford)? In the end, we chose a pretty expensive titanium hunk, and cheaped out on the stroller, because driving seemed way riskier than strolling. But what should you look for when buying an infant car seat?

There are some recommendations, but keep in mind that the safest seat depends on your child's age, weight, and whether or not it's been properly installed. "Car seats are very often used or installed incorrectly," Lisa Strickland, a car seat safety specialist, tells Romper in an email interview. So ultimately, "the best car seat is one that fits the child, fits the car, and is used properly every time."

Strickland recommends reading your manual and consulting with a child passenger safety technician (CPST), even if you've read your car seat manual cover to cover. You can find a certified CPST in your area at http://cert.safekids.org. With the right car seat and a little know-how, you'll be set to take your baby on the road. (Pro tip: don't forget the diaper bag.)

The Age & Weight Requirements

Centers for Disease Control

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend rear-facing seats only, from birth to 2 years of age. Just be sure to check the weight limit on your seat. If your baby's big, like mine, they might well outgrow it before they turn 2. Some car seats are convertible, so they'll grow with your child (unlike baby clothes, which seem to last only a day or two before becoming obsolete). Unfortunately, most infant seats aren't convertible, and are strictly rear facing. So expect to buy two car seats in two years, and budget accordingly. The AAP also noted that the safest place to install a car seat is in the middle backseat.

Whatever car seat you choose, check that it actually fits a newborn. According to Strickland, "It's important to note that not every car seat that is rated down to a newborn weight will fit the average newborn. This is because some seats have a high lowest harness slot, which makes the straps above the shoulders for the average newborn. Harness straps should be at or below the shoulders for rear-facing children."

Before buying, ask about harnesses, and maybe even bring a tiny teddy bear to try it out.

The Safety Rankings

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Consumer Reports independently tests and ranks just about every car seat that hits the market. If safety is your number one concern, their highest-rated seat — the Chicco KeyFit — offers the best crash protection. It's also labelled a Consumer Reports "best buy," ringing in at $180. Currently ranked the safest car seat in America, it includes an infant insert for babies 4 to 11 pounds.

But wait — is it really safer than other car seats? Why would the federal government allow less safe car seats to be sold? "Every car seat sold on the U.S. market passes stringent Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS)," explains Strickland. "The seats are not given a grade, just a pass/fail. If they pass, they are approved to be sold on the U.S. market."

Confused by words like LATCH and the straps attached to the seat? A quick lesson in car seat lingo: LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) versus seatbelt. LATCH installs directly into your car, no seatbelt required. "Every car seat sold on the U.S. market has to have LATCH straps and a seatbelt path," says Strickland. Neither path is safer than another, but Strickland explains that it's absolutely unsafe to use both the LATCH and seatbelt together. It's an either/or scenario.

Because all car seats you can purchase in the U.S. have been proven safe, Strickland doesn't consider any car seat safer than another. But, the independent rankings might make you feel better.

Consider Your Patience

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No one wants a car seat they can't easily transfer from one car to another when traveling, or a car seat they can't figure out how to use without reading the manual every time. Consumer Reports recommended the Maxi-Cosi Mico AP Car Seat for ease of use. It also happens to be "the lightest premium car seat on the market," according to Amazon. So if you're suffering from shoulder or back issues, it might be the car seat for you. Prices range from $150 to $200.

Do You Want To Buy Another One Soon?

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"Newborns have two choices for car seats," Stickland explains. "Rear-facing only seats, also known as the infant seats, or convertible seats, which are seats that rear face then forward face at at least 2 years of age." She notes that rear-facing seats are probably more convenient, because the base stays in the car — allowing you to carry your baby around in the bucket seat. Convertible seats, on the other hand, remain in the car, which might make your trips to the supermarket more arduous. (It's also worth remembering that the infant seats generally have a low weight limit, leading you to need a new car seat between your child's first and second birthday.)

Assuming you're OK with that, The Graco Milestone Car Seat faces forwards, backwards, and is compatible with a booster seat. You can take your infant home in one, and use it until they're ready for seatbelts. It will do the hokey pokey and turn itself around, because . . . well, you know. This car seat costs $230 dollars.

If You Prefer The Newest Gear

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The New York Times reported that cBeyoncé used an Orbit Baby Infant Car Seat to transport her daughter, Blue Ivy. The Orbit Baby costs a whopping $440, however, so imitation comes at a stiff price, I'm afraid.

Strickland notes that the Orbit has a feature allowing you to turn it when it's been installed, which makes placing your little one in the car seat a whole lot easier. Still, it's not actually any safer than a less expensive seat — it just comes with more bells and whistles. "Every seat passes very stringent FMVSS testing," Strickland explains. "So a $40 car seat and a $400 car seat both pass the same crash tests."

Proper installation and use is the real key to safety, moms and dads. The Car Seat Lady advised all parents to watch this video to ensure their child's strapped in safely. In fact, watch it twice — I did, because as it turns out, I've been making some safety mistakes myself (namely, buckling the chest clip too low).

Car seats are wonderful pieces of technology that can indeed keep your infant safe, so long as you remember the line from Spiderman: "With a great car seat comes great responsibility." That's how it goes, right?