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The Best Combination 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.
A combination seat is used as a harnessed seat facing the front of the car for a child up to 40 lbs and as a belt positioning booster with the vehicle's lap/shoulder belt for older children up to 80-100 lbs. Generally, they are rated for use from 20-22 to 40-50 lbs in the harnessed mode and 30-33 to 80-100 lbs in the belt positioning mode. All combination seats have a five point harness.
FITS YOUR CHILD
Many combination seats have a minimum harnessed weight of 20-22 lbs and "at least 1 year". However, a combination seat should not be the next purchase when the child outgrows an infant seat. A child is safest if they remain rear-facing as long as possible and a convertible seat should be purchased after the infant seat and used rear-facing until the child reaches the rear-facing maximum weight or height. A combination seat is normally for use after the child has grown too tall for a forward-facing convertible, but is not yet heavy enough (40 lbs) to move into a booster. The harnessed mode is used until the child weighs 40 lbs (or 50 lbs for the Car Seat Specialty Airway), then the seat is converted to booster mode.
I strongly recommend that you take your child with you when shopping for a combination seat. Sitting the child in the seat will give you an idea of how it fits now and will fit several years down the road, how comfortable it is, and whether your child likes it. Here are some features to look for when searching for a seat that will fit your child:
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. All the harness slots on a combination seat are reinforced for forward-facing use (unlike most convertibles, where the top slots must be used). You should always use the set of harness slots that are closest to AT or ABOVE your child's shoulders. If the top slots are low, your child may outgrow the seat before they are mature enough to move on to a booster, making it necessary to purchase yet ANOTHER seat. You want to find a seat that has at least 3 sets of 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 when the tops of the child's ears are even with the top of the seat.
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.
Compatible Belt Paths The belt path is where the vehicle's seat belt threads through the seat. Some belt paths are very high on the seat or follow an odd path, making it difficult to secure the seat to the vehicle. Try the seat out in vehicle before you buy to be sure that the belt path is compatible with your vehicle's seat belt.
Easy Access Belt Paths 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. Some seats offer a front-access panel to the belt path, allowing for easier installation. Be careful when selecting - some of these also allow the vehicle buckle to end up directly behind the child's back, which can cause bruising and discomfort.
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.
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.
Open Belt Guides There are several different types of "guides" that position the shoulder belt when the seat is in booster mode. Some of these guides can allow the child to lean forward and introduce slack into the shoulder portion of the belt, but when they lean back, the belt cannot retract. This can put the child at risk, as the upper body protection has been compromised. Try the seat out in your vehicle in booster mode and be sure that the shoulder portion of the belt can move freely through the belt guide.
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.
Recline For younger children that still sleep in the car, a combination seat can sit very upright. Several seats offer a reclined mode that offers a more comfortable ride for younger kids.
Accessories None of the "extra" accessories offered on combination seats are really necessary, but may be useful or attractive to your children. Some of the accessories include cup holders, toy nets, head pillows and snack cups.
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 anyway! Let a certified technician teach you how to PROPERLY install and 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.