(AKA Baby Boot Camp That Actually Teaches Something… *gigglesnort* Sorry, inside joke.)
There are a million things to learn about babies and only nine months for a lot of women to cram for the biggest test of their lives – the care of a new human life. So, I decided to write some basic guides. If there’s something you’d like me to write about, let me know!
This week, car seats! With the millions of seats out there, this purchase can be incredibly intimidating, but is perhaps the MOST important piece of equipment you will buy. In fact, if I could only buy three things for a baby, it would be clothes, diapers and the best car seat I can buy (which does not always mean the most expensive!). If you find your budget is limited, forget about the swing, the special washcloths, the crib, the mobile… none of those can save your child’s life.
Almost everyone starts out with an infant seat (also known as an infant carrier). You know, the type with a handle that you take in and out of the car, that snaps into strollers and a base which is secured in the vehicle. People with larger newborns can get away with using a convertible seat (one that doesn’t come out of the car and will much later be turned forward-facing) but we’ll go with the basics. Most of these things apply to both types of seats anyway.
Rule #1: Buy your seat based on safety.
I know this seems like common sense, but a lot of people buy a specific seat because “it’s pretty” or they “love the stroller that comes with it.” WRONG. No one gives a crap about the pattern except you, and there’s enough variety in seats that you can choose the pattern you like after you choose the model. There is also decent compatibility between car seats and strollers of different brands that as long as you do a little research, you can usually find a stroller you like that will work with the carseat you choose. When choosing a seat, right now there are a lot of seats that are wastes of money. There are multiple seats that have a weight limit of 30 pounds and up – anything less isn’t worth it. If you happen to have a very small baby or a preemie, the minimum harness height and minimum weight is something you need to consider as well.
Rule #2: Always try it out first.
Before you commit to a seat, try to find it in person. Most Babies R Us stores are fantastic about letting people test out seats in their cars. Some Targets and other stores allow this as well. The particular infant seat I wanted wasn’t in any stores near me, so I made sure I bought it from Target’s website (with free shipping), and called to make sure I could return it to a Target store in person (no return shipping and full refund of purchase price). Good thing I did too, because I did end up needing to return the seat I bought as it was incompatible with my vehicle. No matter what the measurements of a seat are, there’s no way to know how well it will fit in your car without trying it out. No measurements or “Ease of Use” rating will tell you that that seat you’re in love with is incompatible with your car. You may also find that you despise the way the handle or buckle works, and that’s worth knowing.
Rule #3: Always buy new.
If you didn’t already catch it, a car seat is designed to save your child’s life. It is your most important purchase for your child in their entire life. Now is not the time to be frugal. Never buy a car seat from a garage/yard sale or a consignment/thrift store. Car seats not only have expiration dates, but they also have to be treated in a specific way. If you buy used, you have no idea if the seat has been compromised in an accident, if the straps have been thrown in a washing machine (which can cause them to fail in an accident), or anything about the seat. Your frugality can literally be the reason your child dies. The only exception is if you get a seat from a friend who you quite literally trust with your child’s life.
Rule #4: If it didn’t come with your seat, it doesn’t belong on your seat.
Infant inserts! Toy bars! Cozy covers! All trash. All of these creations look pretty and some have great functions, but they’re all against the rules. What rules? Well, a lot of states have a law that forbids anything not specifically written in the manual, so in some states these things are technically illegal. Every single manufacturer says not to use any after-market product (anything that didn’t come in the box with your brand new seat). If you buy these, car seat manufacturers are off the hook for liability if anything in your seat fails. Car insurance companies don’t have to pay to replace your seat and can even refuse treatment of your child. Nothing should ever go between the child and their seat, or between the child and the straps. No shoulder strap covers, no JJ Cole Bundle Me, no infant head positioners, no toy bar across the handle, and absolutely no homemade fabric car seat covers. These can interfere with the function of the seat and cause it to fail and literally injure or kill your child, either on their own or by making the seat fail. They may say they’re “crash tested” but it’s bull. Just don’t buy it. This includes the “Mighty Tight” product that claims to pull the seatbelt tight for a better install – this thing can literally shred your car’s seatbelt and make it break under stress.
Rule #5: RTFM. (Read the #&%@^%# manual)
The majority of people never read their car seat’s manual, and every single person needs to. Every single car seat advocate reads every single page of their manual. Different manufacturers have different rules for their seats, different ways to install the seats, and they also tell you valuable information about how to properly use your seat and adjust the straps, as well as safety information. Almost all car seat use questions can be answered by your manual.
Rule #6: The best install is the safest install.
You’ll hear people tell your that the seat has to be in the middle of the backseat, or it’s safest to use the LATCH system instead of the seatbelt. Thing is, none of that is true. (Well okay, if you CAN put it in the middle safely, you should.) Neither the seatbelt nor LATCH is superior (and no, you absolutely cannot use both). What makes the best, safest installation is the spot and method that gets the seat installed correctly EVERY SINGLE TIME. If your car’s manual (yes, you need to check the manual for your car as well as your car seat) says you can’t use the LATCH system in the middle of the backseat, then you have a choice of using the seatbelt in the middle or the LATCH (usually if your car is older than 2001) on the outside, and that’s your judgement call. It doesn’t do any good to have the seat in the middle if you can’t get it tight enough or at the right angle.
Rule #7: Get help.
Car seats aren’t easy. There is definitely a learning curve. Because this is something that is literally a matter of life or death, it is imperative to do it right. There is no shame in asking for help, but there is shame in risking your kid’s life because you’re too arrogant to admit when you need help. Even the car seat advocates and certified techs I know still get their seats checked out. While most fire houses and some hospitals can do seat checks, the most reliable is a Safe Kids Certified Car Seat Technician. You can find one by calling 1-866-SEAT-CHECK or visiting their website at http://www.safekids.org. You can also call the manufacturer of your carseat (pssst! The number is in the manual!) and they will be more than glad to help you out. In fact, they encourage it, even if your question is something you consider silly.
So, now that we have the seat purchased and installed, next time we’ll talk about actually putting your child in the seat!