With the millions of infant car seats out there, this purchase can be incredibly intimidating -- but it's 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 available (which does not always mean the most expensive!).
If you find your budget is limited, forget about the swing, the special washcloths, the fancy crib, or the decorative mobile. None of those can save your child's life. Get a good car seat ... and here are the 7 rules to follow when buying one.
1. Buy your seat based on safety, not pretty colors or the stroller it comes with.
You may be in love with a design, but if your baby doesn't fit in it, it's a worthless deathtrap. As far as travel systems go, a lot of seats can fit with strollers of different brands. Consider these separate purchases, even though you do need to consider compatibility. Alternatively, you can buy a sling or wrap and not worry about putting your car seat on a stroller.
2. Always try the seat out before you buy, or make sure you can return it.
There is absolutely no way to know if a seat will fit into your car unless you try it. Call ahead to stores and make sure they'll let you test seats out in your car. Target and Babies "R" Us will usually either hold your driver's license as collateral or send an employee out with you. If you buy online, make sure you won't get burned by the return policy or return shipping.
3. Always buy new.
Imagine boarding a plane and hearing the pilot announce, "We bought all of our parachutes off Craigslist -- the guy said they were safe, they're not recalled, and I don't think they're expired yet." Would you feel very safe? Same with car seats. You have no idea how they've been treated, and your child's life isn't worth the gamble. Only buy used if you literally trust the seller with your child's life.
4. Anything that didn't come with your seat is worthless.
All the cutesy toy or comfort pillow add-ons you see in stores are not only potentially deadly, but alleviate car insurers and the car seat company of any liability even if your seat fails. They can even be considered illegal in most states because states generally require that you follow the manual to a T -- and all manuals say these are no-nos. Don't waste your money.
5. RTFM. (Read the #^&*%#! manual.)
Up to 99.9 percent of questions are answered in your seat's manual, and since every seat and manufacturer has different rules, this booklet is as good as gold. Check it out before you buy, and keep it handy for the install and as long as you have that car seat. If you lose it, call the company and order a new one or pull up the PDF online.
6. The best install is the safest install.
Neither the seatbelt nor LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren) is safer than the other (and no, you can't use both). The middle of the backseat is safer than the side. However, the deciding factor in any of these is where and how you get the best installation. If it's the side with the seatbelt, or the middle with LATCH, that's what's best in your car.
7. Get help.
Get a Safe Kids certified technician by calling 1-866-SEAT-CHECK or visiting the website, SafeKids.org. You also can call the manufacturer of your car seat (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. There's no shame in asking for help, but there is shame in risking your kiddo's life because you didn't want to damage your ego.
Image via Melanie Lousie Hanzlik