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The job of protecting your baby in your family vehicle begins even before your child is born. Parents need a good car safety seat to bring their newborn home from the hospital.

But if you don’t select the appropriate safety seat for your child and learn how to install it properly, you can put your baby at risk.

Selecting the right seat

Infants should only ride in rear-facing car safety seats. There are two types: Infant-only seats and convertible seats. Your child should ride in a rear-facing seat at least until he or she is one year old and weighs 20 pounds, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Infant-only seats are used for babies up to 22 to 35 pounds, depending on the particular model. They are small and have carrying handles, and sometimes come as a detachable part of a stroller. They may have a base you can leave in the car. You can simply click the carrier part of the seat into place each time you use it. Some models allow you to buy additional bases if you are using the seat in more than one vehicle. When your baby reaches the highest weight or height specified by the manufacturer, she can continue to ride facing the rear in a convertible seat.

Convertible seats are for children weighing up 35 pounds who are one year old, depending on the model. They’re called convertible because they can be used as rear-facing seats for smaller babies, and switched to a forward-facing seat when your child is big enough for one.

These seats are bulkier, however, and don’t have the handles or separate bases offered with infant-only seats. Keep your child facing toward the back until he outgrows the seat’s weight or height limits. If your baby is under a year old but weighs more than 20 pounds, use a rear-facing seat that will bear higher weights as long as possible into his second year.

Make sure the seat is installed correctly

You also should read the child safety seat instructions, as well as your vehicle owner’s manual instructions regarding seat belts. The NHTSA has estimated that close to three out of four parents do not properly use child safety restraints.

Be sure the seat is installed tightly. If you can move the seat at the belt path more than an inch either side-to-side or front-to-back, it is not tight enough.

Children in rear-facing child seats should never be placed in the front seat of vehicles with active airbags. The impact of a deploying air bag would strike the back of the seat – exactly where your baby’s head is. Even a low-speed crash can deploy the airbag and cause serious injury.

Determine whether your vehicle has a LATCH system, short for “Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. Nearly all passenger vehicles and all car safety seats made on or after Sept. 1, 2002 come with LATCH. Both the vehicle and the seat must have the anchor system for you to use it.

Both the AAP and NHTSA can provide more details on seat selection and installation. The NHTSA also offers ease-of-use ratings for various brands and models of safety seats, as well as LATCH instructional videos.

And if you aren’t sure whether you are installing the seat correctly, the NHTSA provides a state-by-state list of child safety seat inspection stations. Certified technicians will inspect your safety seat and show you how to correctly install and use it.

Used seats

Don’t use a second-hand safety seat if you don’t know its history. It may have cracks or other problems or may even have been damaged in a car accident. You should also be sure to get the instructions with it. A safety seat’s plastic can weaken with age, so don’t use a seat that is past its expiration date. The expiration date can usually be found on the bottom of the seat.

Car seat safety is not as simple as one might expect. But with some work and research, you can greatly improve the protection your provide your baby.

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