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Do's and don'ts for making sure you're comfortable with your children's car seats

Picking the right ones for your family isn't always easy. Claire Spreadbury looks at the do's and don'ts for parents

The world of kids' car seats is pretty unfathomable. There are so many different types, designs and styles, it's hard to know where to start. And then there was all that confusion over new rulings last year, which didn't actually change anything for parents, but we all thought we'd never be allowed to use a booster again.

With the eclectic array now on the market, we can choose car seats that can be used from birth to teen, or opt for a different seat per age stage (baby, toddler and child). But if you're still confused, here's some expert advice ...

What are the rules around car seats?

"By law, children must be in a car seat until they are 135cm tall or 12 years old - whichever comes first. From 22kg (around the age of four), children can be moved to a booster seat used with an adult seat belt," says Britax Romer's car seat safety expert, Mark Bennett.

"It is vital that parents adhere to these rules no matter how short the car journey, as it's the only way to ensure children are safe in the event of a collision."

While booster cushions have not been banned completely, most companies who sell car seats urge parents to use a high-back booster seat instead, which offers much more protection from the side wings and head support.

Amiad Raviv, from Simple Parenting, the brand behind the Doona car seat, adds: "All car seats used in the UK must meet the relevant European regulation - ECE R44 or R129, in addition to meeting local regulations, such as enhanced fire-retardant requirements. Newborn babies must travel in rear-facing car seats, while older children can travel in front-facing varieties."

How do you decide on a seat?

When you first buy a car seat, the weight of it is really important, because parents spend a lot of time carrying newborns to and from the car - and some of them are really heavy. However, there are lots of other aspects you should think about, too.

"It's not just your child's age that you have to consider when choosing a car seat; you should think about their weight and height, as well as the best fit for your car," notes Halfords' child car seat expert, Emily Moulder. "Also think about whether your child will be making long or short journeys, and if you'll need to transfer the seat from one car to another. Comfort is a factor too, so bring your child with you when choosing, to try the car seat out in store."

"Something which is crucially important but often overlooked, is the car seat being properly installed," says Raviv. "Research shows that around 80% of parents do not install car seats properly, and even the best seats on the market are much less effective when not installed correctly."

It's a good idea to go into a shop to get savvy on installation. You can also check videos on the brands' websites and YouTube. And Raviv advises opting for seats with additional safety designs, such as anti-rebound protection, enhanced side-impact protection and a five-point harness (vs three-point).

How long should it last?

In theory, you can now buy one car seat that will take you all the way from leaving the hospital with a newborn, to age 12 (though do check the manufacturer's guidelines, as some should be replaced after six or seven years). Financially, it makes a lot of sense to make a seat last for as long as possible, because they aren't especially cheap.

However, when you think about this practically, and envisage how many times a baby might be sick in a car seat, how much mud a toddler might ingrain into the fabric, how many times the velcro from tiny shoes will get caught on the base, and the number of sticky-finger swipes it's going to face, you might feel happier getting rid of an older model to replace it with a lovely, new, clean one.

Should you buy second hand?

"We wouldn't recommend buying second-hand car seats," states Moulder. "Unfortunately, there is no way to tell - just by looking - if a car seat has been in an accident, collision, dropped or damaged, all of which can affect performance. There are lots of baby products that deliver great results second hand, car seats aren't one of them."

If there is no other option for you, however, Audrey Mizrahi, the UK distributor for grab-and-go car booster mifold, says you must ensure you have the answers to these questions:

  • Has this car seat ever been in a crash?
  • Are all the parts and pieces still attached to the car seat?
  • Are all the labels for proper use still affixed to the car seat?
  • Has this car seat ever been recalled?

If you cannot find the answer to these questions, or if the seat should fail in any of these areas, she recommends not making the purchase.

Top tips for buying a car seat

"Use each stage of seat for as long as possible and don't be tempted to move to the next stage too soon," recommends Bennett. "Rear-facing is the safest option, ideally to at least 15 months, but many seats allow you to do this for four to six years, depending on the model. And if your car has Isofix (a car seat fitting system), then choose this over a belted option, as it's easier to fit and provides better crash protection."

"If you're buying a car seat for your third child, make sure it fits in the back seat with the two other children, who might still be in car seats themselves," says Raviv.

Fran Vaughan, founder of Ickle Bubba, the brand behind the Solar car seat, suggests monitoring the weight and height of your child regularly, to ensure you're using the correct car seat.

"Check that the seat meets ECE safety standards, too," he adds. "A sticker is normally located on the car seat to indicate this. Also, make sure the car seat is compatible with your vehicle."

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