Born to ride

One of the most important pieces of baby gear that you’ll need for your newborn is a car seat. Tiffany Brown explains what you need to know about car seat safety.

Baby gear. It can be an overwhelming tide of anxiety and anticipation that characterises the wait for first-time parents as the arrival of a new baby approaches. Throw the sometimes agonising choice of cribs, cots, strollers, and car seats into the mix, and it’s enough to send an emotional pregnant woman into a tailspin. And let’s not forget our anxious dads-to-be – after all, you guys are meant to know how all this kit gets put together and works, right?

If you find yourself scratching your head while facing a row of potential strollers in the baby store, or searching online in bewilderment for just the right kind of car seat, don’t worry: You’re not alone. Very few new parents enter the game knowing how to deal with the unique speci cations of baby gear, and with so many options around these days, it’s easy to get confused.

The most important piece of kit you’ll need once your baby arrives is the infant car seat, or capsule, for your vehicle.

In some cases, you’ll need to load your precious cargo into this seat and transport them safely only hours after they enter the world, so ensuring you have the right type of seat and you’re con dent about how to use it is a crucial preparatory step in the lead-up to arrival day. Experts recommend you do your research, acquire, fit, and practise with the seat at least four to six weeks prior to your due date. (Anecdotally, new parents agree that driving about with the capsule staring at you from the back seat is also good mental preparation for the life-changing event ahead.)

So where to start? 

The NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) requires that all child restraints (including infant capsules) conform to one of three approved standards. The joint New Zealand/Australian Standard AS/NZ1754 is indicated by a tick mark. The European Standard ECE 44 is denoted by an “E” mark. The United States Standard FMVSS 213 is indicated by an “S” mark. As long as your infant capsule carries one of these three marks, you can be confident that you’re complying with the law and providing your baby with the best restraint while in the car. 

Both European and USA standards have requirements for how the restraints are attached, denoted by the terms “LATCH” or “ISOFIX”. LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) is an American system comprising of a strap attached to the car seat, or the detachable base of capsules, with a hook on each end. ISOFIX is an international standard attachment system which is typically rigid and xed into the car seat frame. These attachments are designed to be used as an alternative to a standard xing system, which uses seatbelt tethers and/or a locking clip to secure the base or seat.

So which one of these systems is right for your little one? 

The first thing you need to know is if your vehicle is compatible with the LATCH or ISOFIX system. If it is, then you have the option of choosing a capsule or seat using this kind of attachment. Otherwise, the standard tether system is for you. It’s very important you don’t try to use both – just stick with one system, as per the manufacturer’s instructions. While the LATCH or ISOFIX systems are not necessarily safer than using a seat belt/locking clip, they do help to reduce the otherwise high occurrence of incorrectly installed child seats.

NZ Child Restraints (NZCR) is an organisation which aims to provide appropriate information for the correct use of child restraints. NZCR estimates that only one in every ve child restraints is being used correctly in NZ, so anything you can do to ensure your baby’s seat is fitted correctly is well worth it. NZCR’s website is a valuable resource.

If all of this already has you pulling your hair out or collapsing in a sobbing puddle on the garage floor, when it comes to the installation of your car seat, you can use the NZTA website to find a child restraint technician to do the hard work for you. There’s no shame in it: After all, this is your precious cargo we’re talking about, and once they’ve arrived, there’s nothing you won’t do to protect them. 

There are two types of appropriate infant car seats – a portable capsule which is a rear-facing bucket seat with a carry handle and base, or a convertible car seat which allows for both rear- and forward- facing. The rear-facing position – estimated to be 70% safer than forward-facing – is the safest for infants up to 24 months of age, and perhaps even older depending on the size of your little one. This is due to the relative size of a baby’s head as it grows.

At just two months of age, an infant’s head equates to a quarter of their total body mass. The seat position protects a baby’s head, neck and spine during an accident. When rear-facing, their body moves into the back of the seat shell during impact, providing better protection and placing less strain on the head and neck than in a forward-facing impact.

Needless to say, you should never place a child restraint into a seat fitted with airbags. Some parents express concern with a rear-facing seat that baby may become distressed not being able to see you. There are relatively inexpensive rearview mirrors that can be attached to the back seat so you can see each other, or place a photo of yourself on the back seat and talk to your baby to reassure them of your presence.

How much will it cost?

Hiring an infant capsule costs around $50-$80, usually with an equivalent refundable bond at the time of booking. Hire term is usually around six months, and many parents choose this option for their newborn to allow for a transitional period while getting used to their new cargo. A portable infant capsule allows easy transfer of your baby in and out of the car; your baby need not be woken up with buckling and re-buckling, and most capsules have a stroller frame option to fit the seat into – a blessing at malls or supermarkets, or even just going for a much-needed walk during those first months. Note that these frames cost extra, usually the same again on top of the car seat hire fee. Infant seat rental is currently available through a number of baby retailers including The Baby Factory and Baby On The Move. Your child has grown out of their infant capsule seat when their head is a minimum of 2.5cm above the top of the seat, or when their weight exceeds the seat manufacturer’s recommendation.

Car seat hire outlets also rent out convertible infant seats and booster seats, so if hiring works for your family, you may be able to continue with this arrangement right through to your child’s eighth birthday, or when they reach 148cm in height, whichever comes first.

Alternatively, you may choose to buy a new or secondhand car seat. Both need to conform to the standards mentioned above, but extra caution is needed with secondhand car seats. NZCR provides comprehensive advice when looking to buy a second-hand seat. Their six-point checklist includes looking at the manufacture date (some seats have a limited life span), looking for a valid standards sticker, an instruction booklet, a complete set of ttings, the known history, and for any obvious damage. Asking lots of questions can help alleviate any concerns the seat may have a history that’s left it poorly compliant with acceptable standards.

New infant car capsules and xed convertible car seats are available from many baby retailers both in-store and online, and range in price from about $200 to $700. Important things to consider when choosing a new capsule or seat are the standard the seat conforms to, the type of attachment – particularly what works for the vehicle you plan to use the seat in, and the age/weight range recommended by the manufacturer.

What else to consider?

Other features you might want to consider for your family’s needs are how long the seat can be used for (is it able to be used from birth or will you need to invest in a capsule until your child is big enough to safely use the car seat?), the padding inserts around the child as they grow (how many are there, and can they be removed?), the ability to move head supports both horizontally and vertically with baby’s growth, recline positions, and other accessories.

There are a few exceptions to infant car seat law in NZ – when travelling in a vintage vehicle ( first registered prior to 1955), or when travelling in a passenger service vehicle if no appropriate child restraint is available.

Taxis and shuttles may be able to provide child restraints with 24 hours’ notice, so ensure you plan ahead when using transport alternatives or travelling out of town without your own car.

So, your new seat is chosen and fitted? Great! Now be sure to have a good few practice runs with it. Use a doll or borrow a willing friend’s little one until you feel con dent about how the child ts into the seat and how to t the straps around them. The “pinch test” is currently the recommended strategy to ensure a good t – if you can pinch the harness between two fingers, then there is too much slack in the seat’s straps and they should be tightened further.

Assure yourself you’ve well and truly mastered the art of the car seat prior to your new baby’s arrival. That’s one more tick on the list, and one less thing to be anxious about.

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