Guide to baby car seats from birth

Choosing the right baby car seat is one of the most important baby product decisions you'll have to make. The first car seat will ensure your baby's journey through the first nine months of life is a safe and smooth ride, so it's worth making sure you're considering the right things when deciding which make and model to buy...

Safety| Weight categories | Portability | Installation| Comfort | Value for money | Special features | Child car seats and the law

Car seat safety

Your newborn baby needs to travel in a rear-facing car seat (and should not move to a forward-facing one until he weighs at least 9kg (20lb) and can sit up unaided). You need a seat with an E Mark on it, confirming that it conforms to official safety standards. You may also want to consider a car seat that has additional side-impact protection.

We do not ask Mumsnet members who review baby car seats to rate them for safety, as - thank goodness - most people do not get to test this particular feature first-hand. However, we would encourage members to check the latest safety reports and contact the manufacturer direct if they have any specific safety concerns.

Your decision is not just about choosing a safe car seat, it's also about finding a seat that fits safely into your car. You could buy the best car seat in the world and it still might not keep your baby safe in a crash if it's not fixed into your car correctly. And, annoyingly, not all child car seats fit all cars correctly.

Many car-seat manufacturers now provide a list of car models their seats will fit into, but the only sure way to be certain is to try the seat out in your car yourself - as one Mumsnetter recently found out:

"Although we checked with a number of manufacturers first, we were amazed how many seats from the 'OK list' were actually not a great fit for our Nissan Primera. Some of the models were incredibly difficult to install because our seatbelt didn't seem long enough and others, once fitted, wobbled precariously because the shape didn't seem to fit with the shape of our car's seats."

Most retailers should let you try before you buy and the best ones will actually help you put several in your car and advise you which ones fits best. If they won't, insist they allow you to return the car seat if it turns out not to fit.

Weight categories for babies

There are different car seats for differently sized babies but, for some reason known only to nerdy car-seat design engineers, child car-seats are categorised into groups by numbers and symbols, rather than by weight of the baby they should contain.

Your baby's first car seat should be either a Group 0 or a Group 0+. The 0 will fit your baby from birth to 10kg (22lb); the 0+ will be a bit pricier but will fit your baby until he's 13kg (29lb).

You may also see some seats that are classified as Group 0+/1: these are 'combination' seats that can be adapted to change from rear-facing to forward-facing once your baby's bigger, and so fit children from birth to about four years (but, deal-breakingly for some parents, these seats can't be taken out of the car).

Portability

This will be particularly crucial in the early months, when you spend your life lugging the car-seat-plus-baby bundle from car to house (unless you've plumped for a Group 0+/1 combination seat, in which case you'll just be lugging a baby bundle on its own.)

Be warned that however light the seat may seem in the shop, once there's a child in there, it gets heavy - and heavier as the months go on. So, look out not just for a lightweight model but one that's comfy to carry, as well. (It won't matter that it's as light as a feather if you're constantly battering your legs with it.) Look, too, at the handles: some styles have ergonomic handles for easier carrying.

A system called ISOFIX is being introduced in many cars to make fitting car seats safer and easier. These are fixed connection points in a car's structure that specific ISOFIX car seats 'plug' into directly. It is not yet mandatory, but all new vehicles must be fitted with ISOFIX points from November 2014.

Ease of installation

The first time you fix a car seat into your car, you'll probably feel like a contestant in The Krypton Factor. But don't let this put you off.

According to Mumsnet reviewers, some styles are tricky to install at first but "fine with a bit of practice" (check out ease of installation ratings in our baby car seat reviews).

Remember to have a trial run at installing the car seat before the trip home from hospital. It takes a bit of getting used to and can be particularly stressful when you're fumbling with seatbelts and your newborn is howling at being exposed to chilly fresh air for the first time.

Alternatively, you could just smile smugly at the seat-belt-routing strugglers and buy a seat that comes with a special click-on base: once you've got the base fitted in your car, you just click the car seat on to it each time - no belts or buckles to faff with (except the ones around your baby, of course).

Comfort

The car is usually the one place you can rely on your baby sleeping, but some car seats do have the edge in comfort and so may make a good snooze even more likely.

Head support is essential for a newborn, so check your seat has a head hugger/newborn insert, which can be taken out as your baby gets bigger. Some car seats have buttons or levers you can press which allow your baby to lie flat; others offer varying amounts of padding, aprons and padded wings.
 

Value for money

Remember that, depending on the car seat you choose, you could be changing it four times between birth and age 11, so it's worth keeping an eye on value for money.

It's really not wise to buy or accept a second-hand car seat, unless it has an E mark and its original fitting instructions and you're certain it's never been involved in an accident. Any previous accident, however small, could weaken the car seat's effectiveness should you then be involved in an accident yourself.

Obviously, if your sister has a 'from birth' car seat, and you know it's never been in an accident, that's fine, but this is not the sort of item you should be picking up at a car boot sale.

Special features

Baby car seats range from the basic and pared-down to super-duper with (almost) bells on. Think carefully what special features will actually be useful (such as gauges to tell you that you've installed the seat correctly or 'one-pull' harnesses for less fiddly child-insertion) and what are just nice-but-non-essential extras.

Many parents like using their car seat as a baby chair in the house (though babies shouldn't be left in a car seat for hours and hours), in which case it might be worth finding one that will rock - great for soothing a fractious child.

Other car seats come as part of a travel system, clipping neatly onto a pushchair chassis so you can transfer a sleeping baby from car to pram without lots of snooze-disturbing lifting and unstrapping.

Child car seats and the law

According to the car seat law regulations that came into force in 2006, it is the driver's responsibility to check that children travelling in their car are "correctly restrained". You should know that:

  • It is illegal to travel with a child under three in your car unless the child is strapped into car seat that is suitable for their size. The only exception to this rule is travel by taxi or licensed hire car where there is no appropriate child restraint available - in this case, the child must travel in the rear of the car.
  • It is illegal to place the car seat of a child under three on a front passenger seat where there is an active airbag fitted. (If you can deactivate the airbag - and have done so - then that's fine.)

The legal regulations are slightly different for children over the age of three (find them here) but all children must still travel in an appropriate car seat until they are either 1.35m tall or 12 years old.