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The Best Convertible Seat
The question child passenger safety experts hear the most is "What is the best seat?" The answer isn't a specific brand or model, but this: The best seat is the one that fits your child, fits your car, and that you will use correctly every time. How do you find that one? By knowing what you're looking for. The following guidelines can help you find that BEST seat for you.

Rear-facing convertible
What is a convertible seat?


Forward-facing convertible

A convertible car seat is a seat that can be used facing the back of the car for infants and young toddlers and facing front of the car for older toddlers. Generally, they are rated for use from 5 to 22-35 lbs in the rear-facing position and 20-22 to 40 lbs in the forward-facing position. There are three types of convertible car seat - Five-point harness, T-shield, and Tray-shield.

What type of seat is the safest?

Safety experts all recommend the five-point harness as the safest type of seat. The five-point harness has five points of contact over the child's strongest body parts, the hips and chest.  One strap goes over each shoulder, a strap over each hip, and they all connect to a crotch strap. The five-point harness gives the securest fit and can be adjusted to snugly fit many different sizes of children. A seat with either a T-Shield or Tray Shield has two shoulder straps that are attached either to the shield itself, or attach to webbing that attaches to the shield. Instead of straps over the hip to provide lower body restraint, the shield is the lower body restraint and the child is supposed to and WILL impact it in a crash. Shield seats do not provide the snug fit that five-point seats do, and they also create the potential for the head, chest, or soft tummy to impact the shield at a high rate of speed and those vulnerable body parts can and have been damaged by contact to the shield.




FITS YOUR CHILD

Many convertible seats have a minimum weight of 5 lbs or "birth". The problem is that most newborns do not fit well in a convertible seat. In order to fit correctly, the child's shoulders must be at or above the lowest set of harness slots. Many parents purchase a convertible seat before their child is born, thinking that it is the ONLY seat they'll ever need. Most babies will need an infant seat, a convertible seat, possibly a combination seat, and a booster seat before they are safe in an adult seat belt. The parent should shop for a convertible seat when the baby is close to outgrowing the infant seat. The infant seat is outgrown when the child hits the upper weight limit, or when the top of the child's head is 1 inch from the top of the seat.

It is strongly recommended that you take your baby with you when shopping for a convertible seat. Sitting the child in the seat will give you an idea of how it fits now and whether it'll last, and also how comfortable it is. Here are some features to look for when searching for a seat that will fit your child:

Five Point Harness As I mentioned already, the five-point harness will fit the child the best. The snuggest fit is going to be the safest fit. The five-point harness style has no "shield" in front of the child, eliminating the possibility of injuries from contact with a shield.

Chest Clip Style – Two-Piece vs. Paperclip Some children like to “play” with their seat and may be likely to push the chest clip out of position, so look for a seat that has a two-piece chest clip. These are a little more sturdy and difficult to move out of position or undo.  A two-piece chest clip also is more durable than the paperclip style.

Padding A seat with minimal padding will make the child uncomfortable and cranky on longer trips. Some seats have the padding in the cover, others have padding underneath. Don't hesitate to take the seat apart and check out the underneath parts to be sure your child's body will be well-supported.

Seat height/Harness height No matter the current size of your child, you'll need to look for a seat that has well-spaced harness slots and a high back. For a rear-facing seat, the harness must come out of the harness slots at or BELOW the child's shoulders, so a high bottom harness slot may not fit your child. Forward-facing, the harness needs to be in the TOP slots, the only slot that is reinforced for forward-facing use on almost ALL seats. If the top slots are low, your child may outgrow the seat before they are mature enough to move on to the next stage, making it necessary to purchase yet ANOTHER seat. You want to find a seat that has one set of low harness slots, middle slots that are an inch to two inches higher, and very HIGH top harness slots. Also, check the height of the seat back. For the growing child, the higher the seat back, the longer they'll fit. The seat back is outgrown rear-facing when there is less than one inch of shell above the top of the child's head. Forward-facing, it is outgrown when the tops of the child's ears are even with the top of the seat.

High Rear-facing weight limit The upper weight limit for rear-facing on convertible seats varies from 22 to 35 lbs. It is CRITICAL that a child remain rear-facing for at least the first year AND 20 lbs.The rear-facing position is the safest, so the LONGER you can keep your child in the rear-facing position, the safer they are. A seat with a higher rear-facing limit or 30 or 35 lbs will fit your child and keep them in the safest position longer.  However, it should be noted that most seats with a 35 lbs limit are generally not TALLER than those with a 30 lbs limit.  Unless your child is unusually heavy, a seat that rear-faces to 35 lbs may not allow your child to rear-face any longer than one with a 30 lbs limit.




FITS YOUR VEHICLE

Many people are not aware that not every seat fits every car. Try before you buy! Places like Toys R Us, Babies R Us and many baby specialty stores will allow you leave a drivers license or other ID and take floor models out to your vehicle to check the fit. Here are some features that make car seats fit in a wider variety of vehicles:

Small footprint or narrow base If you look at the bottom of the seat, you'll notice that some have very wide, flat bottoms. Other are contoured or narrow. The contoured and narrow ones are going to fit in more vehicles and fit better. Wide and/or flat bases make installation difficult because they may not fit the slope of the vehicle seat and they may not fit correctly between the seat belt anchors.

Easy Access Belt Paths The belt path is where the vehicle's seat belt threads through the seat.  Many times to get the seat belt tight, you’ll need to have your hand IN the belt path. If it's hard to get to the belt path, or if your hand doesn't fit through, it will be difficult to get the seat in tightly.




USE CORRECTLY EVERY TIME

This is the biggest issue, especially considering that somewhere between 85-95% of ALL car seats are misused. There are many user-friendly features on seats that will enable you to use it correctly with less effort, but you have to look for them.

Used seats Make sure the safety seat is less than 10 years old (preferably less than six) and has never been used in a crash, even a minor fender-bender. You can't be sure about the history of a used safety seat unless you got it from a friend or relative. You will need the detailed instruction booklet which can be ordered from the manufacturer if it is missing, to check that the safety seat has all of its parts and to find out how to use it correctly. Check for possible damage, such as cracks in the plastic, frayed straps, stiff buckles or harness adjusters. You can follow the USED SEAT CHECKLIST to determine whether your used seat is still safe.

Easy to use belt paths There are a few seats that have a belt path for the rear-facing mode that is actually over the top of the seat. This belt path requires that the parent re-install the seat EACH AND EVERY TIME they use it. If you find this difficult and/or cannot take the time to safely install the seat each and every time you use it, avoid any seat that has a rear-facing belt path that requires re-installation for every ride. A belt path under baby's legs is much easier to use because you install it ONCE and leave it installed.

Built-In Locking clips Manual locking clips are required on any lap shoulder belt that has both a free sliding latchplate and an emergency locking retractor. They are difficult to use and many people do not use them correctly. Misusing a locking clip can put your child and other vehicle occupants in danger. Built-in locking clips or "lock offs" are metal or plastic locks located directly on the car seat. They eliminate the need for regular metal locking clips and are MUCH easier to use.

Wide or thick straps (that won't twist) In general, about 80% of the car seats seen in everyday circumstances have twisted straps. Twisted straps are dangerous and can cut into a child in a crash. The twisted straps will not spread out the force of a crash as well as flat straps. Some manufacturers add the user-friendly SAFETY feature of wider, thicker harness strap material that will not twist and pose a safety problem. When looking at the seats in the store, pay attention to the straps. Are they already twisted? Do they fit nicely through the buckle parts, or are they bunched up in there? Do they lay flat and smooth? Any seat that has the harness already twisted on the store shelf is going to be a nightmare when you're trying to use it on a regular basis.

Easy to use harness adjuster Install the seat in your car and put your child in the seat and be SURE that you can easily tighten and loose the harness. Most of the time, you will need to adjust the harness to fit snugly EVERY SINGLE TIME you use the seat. If the adjustment mechanism is not easy to use, you may not be willing to get the harness snug every use - and a loose harness is not safe. *Note* Some seats have the mechanism down on the "base" of the seat. In the store this will be easy enough to use, but installed rear-facing, the adjuster will not be accessible.

Color coding or intuitive design A seat with color coded belt paths or clearly visible stickers that point out the correct belt paths and harness slots for different modes, such as "Rear-facing belt path" "Forward-Facing belt path", will be more accurately used. Many times a parent will flip through the instruction manual one time and promptly put it in a place where it'll never be looked at again even though it should be stored on the seat and read every time you change ANYTHING about the seat. If the seat is visibly labeled to direct the parent to use the correct belt paths, harness slots, etc., the seat will more likely be used correctly.




EXTRA FEATURES

Although every seat is designed to meet the current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard, not every seat is the same. Some manufacturers add design features or safety features that make the seat easier and safer to use. Here are a few:

EPS Foam EPS stands for Expanded PolyStyrene and this impact absorbing foam is similar to what you find in bicycle helmets. It protects the head from injury. This has been standard on European seats for years, but only a few American seats have it. It is definitely preferable to a seat in which your child's head strikes hard plastic.

Puzzle Buckle To buckle the seat, you must fit each side of the "puzzle" together before buckling it into the latch. A solid "click" tells you it is buckled. The safety aspect of this design eliminates the possibility that you've actually buckled one side, but the other did not "click" into place.

Buckle pad Putting your child in the car seat after it's been sitting in the sun for several hours can be dangerous. Especially when baby is wearing shorts and the hot metal/plastic buckle rests against exposed skin. Several models of seat offer a pad that rests between baby's skin and the buckle, creating a layer of protection.

Multi-position recline For rear-facing young babies, a 45 degree recline is necessary to keep their airway open. However, as babies grow and are able to hold up their head, a more upright rear-facing angle is safer. Seats that offer more than one rear-facing recline position offer that added safety.

Rear-facing tether Only Britax  and Sunshine Kids convertible seats have a tether that can be used in the rear-facing position. A rear-facing tether offers stabilization to the rear-facing seat and also can help achieve the proper angle. It may offer more protection to the rear-facing child in rear-impact, side-impact and rollover crashes.

Reinforced seat back This is offered on several current seat models, including the Britax convertibles, Dorel (Cosco/Safety 1st/Eddie Bauer) "3-in-1" seats, Sunshine Kids Radian and Safeline Sit N Stroll. Most seats require the use of the top slots when forward-facing. A seat that has the entire back reinforced can use ANY set of harness slots in the forward-facing mode, which means less chance for error, such as forgetting to move the harness up when you turn the child forward-facing, AND a better fit by being able to use the set of slots that is closest to AT or ABOVE the child's shoulders.

A Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician This doesn't actually come with the seat. You'll have to go out and find one in your area. Since the misuse rate is about 95% and most parents don't realize that they fall under that misuse rate, it is very important to have a certified child passenger safety expert teach you how to safely use your seat.  Note that a recent survey found that 96% of parents thought they were using their seats correctly and 90% of them were wrong! Motor vehicle crashes are the LEADING cause of death to children under 15, and being in a properly used seat reduces the risk by 71% for infants in the rear-facing position and 54% for toddlers in the forward-facing position. The safer your child is, the better chance they have at surviving a crash, and that's why you're getting the seat in the first place! Let a certified technician teach you how to PROPERLY use your seat.

Finally, don't hesitate to ask for help. There are a lot of seats out there and it can be confusing. We welcome e-mails from people who are searching for a seat.  Please note: due to the large volume of e-mail we receive, it may take 1-2 weeks for us to reply.  If you have a pressing question, we highly recommend you visit the car seat board where many knowledgeable certified technicians are happy to answer your car seat questions.

Good luck! and happy shopping.
 

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