How to Choose and Install an Infant Car Seat

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on June 02, 2022
5 min read

As a parent, you want to do everything that you can to keep your little one safe and healthy. Part of the process for new parents is to baby-proof the home and make sure it’s a safe space. This level of preparedness should extend to the car, too. One of the most important pieces of baby gear in which to invest is your baby’s first car seat.

There are so many brands, models, and types out there that it can feel overwhelming to pick out the right one. Here are some tips as to how to choose and install an infant car seat so that you have peace of mind knowing that your baby is protected.

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for children between the ages of 1 and 13. This information underscores how vital it is that you know how to choose the safest infant car seat and install it properly in your vehicle.

If you deliver your baby in a birthing center or hospital, you’ll need to buy an infant car seat before your little one is born so you’re ready for the ride home. Infant car seats are made specifically for small babies, from birth up to 22 to 35 pounds. The maximum weight and height depend on the model. As your baby grows, you’ll need to buy bigger car seats to accommodate their height and weight.

One of the most important infant car seat requirements is that they are tested to meet federal safety standards in the event of a 30-mph crash. They should always be placed in the backseat of the vehicle, never in the front near an airbag.

There are different types of infant car seats, but no matter which model you choose, your infant needs to be rear-facing. This means that the seat is positioned so that the baby’s back is facing you. This helps to protect their head, neck, and spine in case there is an accident. There are three types that you can choose from, all of which have a protective harness.

  • Rear-facing only car seats. These infant car seats are made for small babies and newborns and the seat is usually portable. This way you can use the seat as a carrier or stroller and the base stays in the car. These are also called travel systems. Babies usually outgrow these models around one year of age.
  • Convertible seat. This type of car seat is one that can grow with your child. When your baby is an infant, the convertible seat is rear-facing. Once your child is old and big enough, it can be flipped so that it faces forward and is equipped with a harness and tether. These seats usually aren’t portable and stay in the car.
  • All-in-one. These are bigger seats that adjust as your child grows. It starts out rear-facing, can be flipped forward, and then converted into a booster seat. These seats are bulky so they usually aren’t taken from one car to another. These seats do allow children to stay rear-facing for longer, since they are bigger, allowing for extra protection.

Once you’ve picked out a model that works for your car and lifestyle, be sure to read the labels carefully. It’s important to note that just because a car seat is expensive doesn’t mean it performs better than a cheaper model. They are all held to the same safety testing standards. You can find affordable seats, so avoid buying a used seat if possible, since there’s no guarantee that all the parts are intact and working correctly.

If you can, try a few different car seats in your car to see which models and styles fit best. Some retailers can help you with this.

Now that you’ve got your infant car seat, the next step is installing it correctly. Read the user manual carefully since there are two ways that these car seats can be installed: either with a seatbelt or a LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children) system. The LATCH system offers attachments that keep the car seat in place instead of a seat belt. Depending on your car, the LATCH system might be easier to use.

Installing with a seat belt. The first step is to place the car seat in the back, facing the rear. Studies show that the safest place is in the center, away from the side doors. Then, pull the seat belt all the way out so that it locks. Weave the seat belt through the car seat’s belt path, making sure that the belt stays flat and doesn’t get twisted. Once the seat belt is through, buckle it and give it a test pull to make sure that it’s locked.

After the seat is in place, push down on the car seat’s base and tighten the belt. The seat shouldn’t be able to move more than an inch in any direction. Next, adjust the reclining angle so that the car seat is semi-reclined. This keeps your baby’s airway open. After that, attach the car seat to the base.

Using the LATCH system. If you choose to use the lower anchors, start by putting the car seat base in the back of your vehicle. Look for the lower anchors, which should be where the seat cushions meet. Sometimes the attachments are located behind the seat (in a sedan) or on the ceiling or floor (minivans, trucks, and SUVs). Almost all cars made after September 1, 2002, come equipped with a LATCH system.

Once you’ve found the lower anchors, connect the lower attachments on the infant car seat base. Press down on the base to tighten the straps, making sure that they aren’t twisted. Just like with a seat belt, make sure that the car seat base can’t move more than an inch in any direction and recline it so that it’s in a semi-reclined position. Lastly, attach the carrier to the car seat base.