Which baby car seat to buy?

If the car seat is easier to use, there is a greater chance that it will be used properly.
If the car seat is easier to use, there is a greater chance that it will be used properly.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

As soon as expectant parents go public with their big news, the baby gear bonanza begins: cribs that transform into toddler beds, self-folding strollers that charge cellphones and the millions of smaller-ticket items, such as the US$15 (S$20) Swedish-designed contraption that does a superior job of clearing out your baby's nose. (It really does).

But there is one essential piece of equipment that even many hospitals will not let newborns leave without: a car seat. Beyonce's daughter had been spotted around town in the Orbit Baby infant car seat, which retails for about US$440 - paparazzi shield included.

Many parents may be willing to spend in the name of safety, especially in a world where defective ignition switches and exploding air bags manage to escape the attention of safety regulators for far too long.

But is there superior safety to be had in the most expensive seats, such as the US$875 Maxi Cosi Pria 70, in hand-sewn leather, a car seat that can easily be mistaken for one of Brookstone's full-body massage chairs? Not necessarily.

Car seats need to meet federal safety standards, but many children are still injured in crashes or worse, in part because three out of four car seats are not installed properly, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Other studies put the misuse rate much higher.

"A seat is only as safe as how well it is used," said Dr Alisa Baer, a paediatrician who has installed more than 10,000 car seats and is one of the certified child car safety experts behind the Car Seat Lady, an advocacy group.

"Anytime something is easier, there is a greater chance you will be using it properly."

Many parents will buy three different seats by the time their child finishes kindergarten, which explains how Americans spent nearly US$715 million on the seats in 2012, according to Mintel, a research firm. But it is hard to differentiate between true safety features and mere aesthetics.

Here is a guide to help you decide which features may be worth paying for:

• All seats can be secured using a seatbelt or the Latch system (which stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children), essentially a set of metal clips buried in the back-seat cushions and a top tether, the position of which depends on the car. Regardless of which seat or installation method you choose, children up to two years old should be seated rear-facing.

• Several items can make the seat less of a hassle to install and use, although they may add a bit to the cost. Depending on how many features you want, prices can range from US$100 to much more. Some seats have separate straps for each half of the body, which makes it less likely the straps will twirl or become uneven, which can be dangerous in a crash.

As your child grows, you will also need to adjust the shoulder strap height. Some seats require you to pull the straps out and rethread them through the seat, while others are much simpler (look for a "no rethread" harness).

Other features make the seat installation less laborious. Push-on Latch connectors (as opposed to a less expensive hook) are easier to attach to the vehicle's metal anchor and disconnect with the push of a button. Seatbelt lock-off devices help pinch the belt into place.

And finally, it is important to position rear-facing seats at the proper angle: Some seats have a built-in foot or different recline positions that will help achieve this without using towels or other jury-rigging.

Many seats also have an indicator on the side to help you figure it out; the easiest, on more expensive seats, is a bubble indicator like the kind on a contractor's level.

• If you are thinking about buying a used seat, be sure it was never in a crash or recalled by the manufacturer. Also pay attention to the car seat's age: Just like milk, these seats can expire, typically in five to 10 years, because the plastic may become brittle, among other things.

The car itself can also make the job more difficult. A recent study assessing how easy it was to install seats with the Latch system in 102 vehicles awarded the highest rating to just three cars: the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz GL-Class and the Volkswagen Passat. Ten vehicles received poor ratings, including the Nissan Altima and Volkswagen Jetta, but the rest were in between.

• Everyone's lifestyle is different. People with multiple children may need narrower seats that can fit three across the back seat, whereas city dwellers may want a seat that can be installed quickly using a seatbelt while giving directions to a cab driver.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2015, with the headline 'Which baby car seat to buy?'. Print Edition | Subscribe