Car seat knowhow

One of the most important pieces of baby equipment is a car seat, which you'll use right away, starting with your baby's first ride home from the hospital. Car seats are required by law in every state, and correct and consistent use of them is one of the best ways parents can protect their children. It's never safe to hold an infant or child on your lap in a moving vehicle.

An infant must never ride in a rear-facing car seat in the front seat of a vehicle that has passenger air bags. The safest place for all children to ride is in the back seat.

The two types of car seats for infants are infant-only seats and convertible seats, which accommodate both babies and toddlers. Whichever type you use, be sure to install it rear-facing, which is the only safe position for infants in cars. When your child reaches 1 year of age and weighs at least 20 pounds or more, depending on the car seat model, you can switch to a bigger car seat or turn around the convertible seat so that the child faces the front. Until that time, a baby's neck muscles aren't very strong. In a collision, a forward-facing baby is at greater risk of head and neck injuries because the head may be thrown forward.

(right) can be used longer.

Registering your car seat and checking for recalls

When you buy a new car safety seat, register it using the registration card that comes with it. That way, the manufacturer can let you know if your child's seat has been recalled.

You can find out if an older car seat has been recalled by calling the manufacturer or the Department of Transportation's Auto Safety Hotline, (888) DASH-2-DOT, or (888) 327-4236. This information is also available online at www. nhtsa.dot.govlarsjproblemsfecalls/ndex. cfm.

Infant-only seats

These are used for babies who weigh up to 20 pounds or more, depending on the safety seat. They're the best seats for newborns and may be the best fit for premature infants. Many models come with a detachable base, which allows you to carry your baby in and out of the car in the car seat without having to reinstall the base. The base attaches to the car, and the car seat easily snaps into the base.

Infant-only car seats come with either a three-point or a five-point harness. The harness is made of straps that secure your baby into the seat. A three-point harness fastens snugly between the baby's legs, and a five-point harness comes from either side of the hips to snap into the crotch piece. An advantage of five-point harnesses is that they provide more stability than do three-point harnesses. They allow even the smallest baby to fit snugly inside a car seat.

Convertible seats

These are bigger and heavier than infant-only seats and can be used longer and for heavier children, up to 40 pounds. Although you'll save some money using a convertible seat, an infant-only seat may be easier to use and may fit a newborn better.

Convertible seats have one of three types of harnesses:

• A five-point harness made of five straps — two at the shoulders, two at the hips and one at the crotch

• An overhead shield that swings down around the child

• A T-shield — a T-shaped or triangular shield attached to shoulder straps If you're using a convertible seat for a small infant, it's best to use one with a five-point harness. A small baby's face can hit a shield in a crash.

Choosing a car seat

How do you know which car seat to buy? No one seat is safest or best. The best car seat is one that fits your child's size and weight and can be installed correctly in your car. Choose a seat with a label that says it meets or exceeds Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213 (FMVSS 213).

Car seat safety tips

Here are some tips for installing and using child car seats:

• Never substitute any type of regular infant seat for a child car safety seat. Regular infant seats simply allow babies to sit up — they're not designed to protect a baby in a crash. Some car safety seats can double as infant seats, however.

• Child safety seats should always be placed in the back seat of a vehicle.

• Safety seats should face the rear of your vehicle until your child is at least

1 year old and weighs at least 20 pounds. It's recommended that you keep your child safety seat facing the rear as long as the weight limit allows it.

• Safety seats should never be installed in a seat with an air bag.

• Read your vehicle owner's manual and the car seat instruction manual to ensure that you're installing the seat correctly.

• Become familiar with your vehicle's rear seat belt system or anchor system. Newer vehicles and car seats use an anchor system called LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children), which makes installation easier because you don't have to use seat belts to secure the car seat. But unless both your vehicle and your car seat have this anchor system, you'll still have to use seat belts to secure the car seat.

• When the safety seat is properly installed, you shouldn't be able to move it more than 1 inch from side to side or front to back.

Look at several different models. When you find a seat you like, try it out. Try adjusting the harnesses and buckles. Be sure you understand how to use it. If possible, try installing the car seat in your vehicle before you buy the seat. Choose a seat that can be held tightly against the vehicle seat back. A car seat that's upholstered in fabric may be more comfortable for your baby.

If you decide to borrow a car seat or buy a used one, make sure it's safe. Don't use a car seat that:

• Is more than six years old

• Doesn't come with instructions

• Is missing parts

• Has been recalled

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