It was the summer of 1983 and like any expectant parents, Beth and I were gathering up all the stuff we’d need for the new baby. Then, as now, that included a child safety seat for the car. Problem was, we were driving a 1965 Ford Falcon that had no rear seat safety belts. How would we attach the car seat?

I got out the trusty JC Whitney car parts catalog and found a lap belt of the type that every flight attendant shows you how to use. The back seat of the Falcon popped right out, I drilled a couple of holes in the bottom of the car and bolted the belt in place. “Problem solved,” I proudly thought. “The new baby will ride in safety (if not exactly in style).”

And indeed our daughter, Aliza, was riding as safely as other babies of her generation. Many cars had only lap belts in the rear, and in any case, child safety seats of that era were designed to be secured only at the bottom. This was far from ideal because in a sudden impact, the child seat could pivot forward and then snap back.

Now, of course, child safety seats are much safer. Forward-facing seats, and a few rear-racing models, use a top tether that connects to an anchor in the vehicle’s rear deck or ceiling to solve that pivoting problem.

However, as Aliza and her husband, Chris, recently learned while shopping for a car seat for my first grandson, Ethan, increased safety brings increased complication and a whole raft of decisions about which seat to buy. And these days, you’ll probably wind up buying two or three seats as your child grows.

Choosing a car seat

All car seats on the market must meet federal safety standards, but which one will best fit your child, your car and your lifestyle?

Do some research. A great place to start is How to Find the Right Car Seat. There you will discover, as Aliza did, that rear-facing is the safest position for children to ride in a car seat, and that they should ride rear-facing as long as possible — in other words, until they get too big to fit in that position.

Consider your lifestyle. There are “infant” seats designed to be used rear-facing only, and there are “convertible” seats designed to be used rear facing until your baby reaches a specified height and weight. Then you turn the seat around. Which choice is better?

Aliza lived in an apartment building during Ethan’s first 10 months. There was a long hallway to traverse and an elevator to navigate on the way to her car. So she chose a rear-facing infant seat that snaps into a base and also snaps into a stroller frame.

“I could get him ready in the seat in the apartment, snap the seat into the stroller and then easily transfer it to the car,” she told me.

By 10 months, Aliza decided Ethan was ready for a convertible seat even though he still fit in his infant seat.

“The infant seat was more reclining and he didn’t seem comfortable reclined that much,” Aliza said. Also, she noted, Ethan was getting too heavy to easily transfer seat and baby together into the car, and since the family had moved to a house, the long trip to the car is no longer an issue.

Check the seat’s ease of use rating. Aliza was concerned about how well the convertible seat would fit in her compact car. So she started by checkingthe National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s car seat ease of use ratings. Here NHTSA rates all car seats according to four criteria, including installation features.

Make sure the seat fits. The NHTSA site is helpful but it doesn’t tell you how a specific seat will fit in a specific car. So Aliza Googled car seat models she was considering along with the model of her car and found revealing user reviews.

But the foolproof way to find out if a seat fits is to buy one and try it. Shop for the seat a couple of months before the baby arrives and try installing it as soon as you get it. That way you'll have time to exchange it for another model if neccessary. Make sure it's easy enough to get the seat in and out of your car and that a rear-facing installation allows you to move the front seat far enough back for you or your usual passengers to sit comfortably.

David Schiff is a freelance editor and writer who specializes in home safety, home improvement, woodworking, child safety and music.

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