By Bree Fowler, AP Auto Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — My husband and I are expecting our first child. So we're rookies when it comes to buying stuff for infants. We were overwhelmed when we dropped by our local baby superstore to search out the right model of child safety seat. The number of seats we saw was astronomical and some of the prices weren't much lower.
After a chat with a sales associate and a bit of home research, I narrowed down my options and was ready to make a decision.
To help you, here are three questions a parent should ask when buying a child safety seat.
1. DOES PRICE EQUAL SAFETY?
The answer: No. All child safety seats currently on the market meet minimum safety requirements, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But some do hold up better than others in crashes. What matters more is that parents install the seat correctly.
So while prices range from about $80 for a basic infant car seat to about $370 for a convertible car seat with all the trimmings, "ultimately parents have to be able to use (the seat) safely," said Jennifer Stockburger, program manager of child and vehicle safety for Consumer Reports.
Karen Aldana, a spokeswoman for NHTSA, said parents should focus on finding a seat that fits well in their car or truck and make sure that it's installed correctly. Hang on to all packaging and the sales receipt until you know the seat is a keeper.
Aldana said there's nothing wrong with using a hand-me-down car seat, but find out exactly how old it is and make sure it hasn't been recalled. Parents can also register their seats with NHTSA to be notified of future recalls.
Both Stockburger and Aldana said parents should have their seat checked at a NHTSA designated site, which can be found on the agency's Web site, www.nhtsa.gov, to make sure it's installed correctly.
"And parents don't panic. It's not your fault," Stockburger said. "It's a very complicated process and this is very precious cargo."
2. HOW BIG IS MY CHILD?
The answer determines what seat you should buy. Safety seats fall into three basic categories: Rear-facing seats to be used from birth until the child is 1 year old or weighs 20 pounds. They provide greater protection in a crash for especially fragile infants.
In its most recent ratings, Consumer Reports ranked the Chicco KeyFit ($179.99) as its top infant seat.
Above that weight or age, you can use forward-facing seats, which can hold children up to about 40 pounds or about 4 years-old.
Consumer Reports ranked the Britax Diplomat ($259.99) as the best forward-facing convertible model with a weight limit of 40 pounds. For harness seats with a capacity of over 40 pounds, Consumer Reports chose the Evenflo Triumph Advance ($129-$169).
But Stockburger said the current industry trend is for children to remain in rear-facing seats longer, because they provide better protection in a crash. Some of the top-rated rear-facing seats can now accommodate children of more than 30 pounds.
"Don't be too anxious to graduate them to the next step," she said.
Next comes the booster seat that should be used until children are 8-years-old or 4'9." After that, kids can sit in the back seat of a vehicle without a booster.
Stockburger also stressed that the use of a booster shouldn't be rushed either, noting that like a race car driver, children are safer when protected by a safety seat's five-point harness than they are with just a seat belt.
3. HOW MUCH WILL THE SEAT MOVE AROUND?
A seat that's convenient for one parent may not be for another. For a city-dweller like myself, the best option is probably a lightweight infant carrier that can fit into a base installed in my husband's car, snap into a stroller frame or be strapped into the back of a taxi.
For parents whose seats may never leave their car, another option is the convertible seat. While larger than an infant carrier, they can be used as rear-facing seats until a child is large enough, then be turned around to become a front-facing seat. That helps you avoid buying a second seat when the child gets larger.
There are also seats especially designed for parents with multiple babies or smaller, low birth-weight babies. NHTSA rates all kinds of car seats on their ease of use. The results are on its Web site.
Much like the vehicles they ride in, car seats offer a number of features that can jack up their sticker price.
Graco offers a base model infant car seat that holds children of up to 22 pounds and cost about $89.99, while a higher-end model that can hold children up to 30 pounds and includes an ergonomic handle, front adjusting harness, rotating canopy with a "peak-a-boo" window and a boot with blanket for chilly days can cost as much as $159.99.
It's up to parents to decide what they really need and what they're willing to pay for.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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