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Car seat safety: How to choose and use a car seat

The car seat is an essential piece of child safety equipment. Find out everything you need to know about car safety seats for your child.

The lowdown on car safety seats

If you plan to take your baby home from the hospital in a car, you'll need a car seat from day one. All 50 states have laws requiring your child to be properly restrained in a car seat, usually until he's at least 7 years old. Also, most states now require children to ride in booster seats until they weigh 60 pounds or more, or are a certain age or height.

If you need more convincing, consider these sobering statistics: In 2014, 167,000 children were injured in auto accidents and more than 1,000 died.

In fact, car crash injuries are a leading cause of death for children under age 9 in the United States. The reason? Many children aren't properly restrained. Proper use of car seats could prevent deaths of many children.

How to install an infant car seat

Three out of four car seats are improperly installed. Learn how to install an infant car seat with a seat belt and with the LATCH system. See all baby videos

And while you may assume that most of these tragedies resulted from fiery, high-speed collisions, the truth is that 75 percent of car accidents happen on local roads or undivided highways, and half of the accidents involving children happen on streets where the speed limit is 44 mph or less.

So this is one piece of baby gear you'll want to buy long before your water breaks. In fact, it's a good idea to start shopping for a car seat around your sixth to eighth month of pregnancy. That should give you plenty of time to select the right seat.

Choosing a safety seat

All car seats currently on the market meet the U.S. government's stringent crash- and fire-safety standards, so any car seat you buy new is technically safe. (The same isn't true for secondhand car seats or car seats purchased more than a few years ago, which may have been designed to meet outdated standards or may have been damaged in an accident or recalled for safety violations.)

But even if a car seat itself meets the federal government's standards, it can still present safety problems if it's installed or used incorrectly. The safest car seat, therefore, is the one that best fits your child and your car and is easiest for you to use.

There are three basic types of car seats to choose from:

Baby (or infant-only) car seats: These should always face the rear of the car. They have a weight limit of between 22 and 35 pounds. When your baby reaches the weight or height limits for her infant seat, move her to a rear-facing convertible car seat.

Convertible (or infant-toddler) car seats: These function as both rear-facing seats for babies and toddlers and forward-facing seats for older children. Many new ones are designed to hold a child of up to 40 pounds rear-facing and up to 70 pounds forward-facing. It's safest to leave your child rear-facing as long as possible – in fact, the latest guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) say to keep your child in a rear-facing car seat until the age of 2, or until he reaches the seat's maximum rear-facing height and weight limits.

How to install a convertible car seat: Forward-facing

See how to install a convertible car seat in the forward-facing position, and learn ways to check whether your child is buckled in properly, such as the "pinch test." See all videos

Belt-positioning booster seats: These seats are for kids who are at least 4 and weigh at least 40 pounds. They use the regular car lap and shoulder belts to secure the child. Backless boosters are fine when used with an automobile seat that provides head support.

To get more details about choosing a car seat, read our articles about infant-only seats, infant-toddler (convertible) seats, and booster seats. Or talk to other parents about in the BabyCenter Community.

You'll also find great information in the American Academy of Pediatrics' Family Shopping Guide to Car Seats and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's coverage of child passenger safety.

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