BABIES!  How exciting!  But, with these tiny lives come incredible expenses, and most are unavoidable.  Let’s work on getting the best for baby without breaking the bank.

One of the first items of baby gear you’re going to choose is a car seat.  Car seats are the most highly regulated and rated piece of equipment for your baby, and their safety should be your top priority when choosing one, too.  Aside from their security, the best piece of advice that I can offer for picking a seat, since they’ll be with you everywhere for the next 8-10 years, is to know what suits your needs.  How many vehicles will your baby be riding in regularly?  Are you able to purchase more than one seat for each car?  Do you want to replace the seat when your child reaches the height and weight requirements?  Research is the key to getting the best bargain in the short and long term.

For starters, let’s try to understand a few common laws.  These will vary from state to state, so please research your state’s laws carefully!  In Pennsylvania, kids from birth through two years old – or longer as able based on the seat manufacturer’s recommendations – are required to be rear-facing and use the five-point harness system.  Once your child is transitioned to forward-facing, he or she must remain in the five-point harness until graduating from the recommended height and weight restrictions.  After they’ve outgrown the harness, they’ll move onto a booster seat, and should remain in one until the seat belt fits them properly.  All children should remain secured in the back seat until they are 13 years old.

“Right Seat – Right Time – Right Use” — courtesy of PennDOT
(Always double-check your own state laws for car seats)

When starting out, some of us favored the convenience of an infant carrier with a base that stayed secured within the vehicle and part of a travel system.  With these models, extra bases are available to purchase for families with multiple cars, as well as attach to the accompanying stroller for ease of mobility.  The stroller grows with the child, and it is able to be used through the years your little one requires it.  There are many accessories for these particular designs, like a portable swing frame that the carrier will attach to, an abundance of sensory toys (bright, textured and musical dangling pieces) that attach to the carrying arm.  Once my children reached the maximum length and weight recommended for the carrier, though, it became necessary to purchase a convertible seat that would accommodate their growth and transition from rear to front-facing, and again when they graduated to high-back and independent boosters.

Others opt for a convertible car seat that is designed to adapt to growing little ones from newborn to 40 pounds or more.  These models are generally stationary within the vehicle (especially once baby gets heavier and it becomes such a chore to transfer with them still in it).  The perks, however, are that you’re buying ONE seat that will last for the better part of four years, or more, depending on the model you choose.

Either seat is made with the proper padding and reinforcement to support your child’s head and neck while riding in the seat and in the event there is an accident.  We set our budget on the high side to make sure that the higher crash test ratings were options.  I really can’t put a price on keeping my little ones safe.

The last model of car seat used, the booster, is usually significantly less expensive and easier to transfer.  Most of these models are secured with the seat belt after the kiddo is in the seat. Children in booster seats are usually of preschool age, require little to no support of their head and neck, and are enjoying their “independence” from the five-point harness.

Now, where and when to get the best deals on your most-used piece of baby gear?  I found that looking online for honest reviews was useful, but when it came down to it, I needed to see what I was looking at in person.  When you’re buckling and unbuckling, carrying, installing, and cleaning one piece of equipment for so long, you really want to know what you’ll be working with.  Do your research and narrow down some options, find out what retailers carry your preferred brand, and do some footwork to take a look.  I also referenced Consumer Reports for brands with known recalls, and it never hurts to ask experienced parents what they liked and disliked about their choices.

Once you’ve decided what you do and don’t want, set your budget and make it a firm goal not to go above that.  Visit the manufacturer’s website and sign up for their emails.  Most of these offer exclusive coupons or rebates.  (Also, most obstetricians will hand out a packet of new parent consumer cards at the first visit – search those for potential discounts, too!)  Watch store flyers and online ads for their sales.  Several large retailers used to run month-long special “Baby Days” featuring exclusive deals on baby gear, but I called two today and both said their chains do not participate in these anymore.  I was able to spend about 30% less on a travel system by shopping during those events and using coupons, so check into your stores and look for the savings!

Say you’re ready to upgrade?  Another large toy chain that deals with baby gear offers a trade-in event several times through the year.  By returning your used seat, you’re given credit of about 25% toward the purchase of the new one.

If it’s almost time to bring Baby home, but you want to be EXTRA sure the seat is installed correctly, contact your nearest state police barracks offer inspections in your vehicle free of charge.  Just call, and they’ll offer a time.

Pro Tips:
For the safety of your child, please do not purchase a used car seat unless you can be 100% guaranteed that it has not been exposed to extreme temperatures that would weaken the frame material.  Also, car seats have expiration dates, usually five years from the date of manufacture, and should be heeded for similar reason.

Babies will be babies, and kids will be kids.  Accidents will happen, and their seat will need to be cleaned.  I can promise you that nobody has invented a car seat within the last 15 years that makes this easy.  Things will drip or fall through the padding down to the frame. It will get messy, and there will be some frustrating moments during tear down and reassembly.  A friend said she puts a puppy training pad on the seat under the baby to absorb any accidents or spills!  This is a pretty neat idea, but of course babies wiggle and it is not a fool-proof plan. To protect the seats in your car or SUV, buy a seat protector that is waterproof and will fit over your existing car seats.  Dog owners and cat rescuers love these, and they work great for kids too. Any spilled drinks or snacks clean right up!

I never bought a car seat online and had it shipped to my home.  We did purchase one on the website of a local store, and thoroughly inspected it when we picked it up there to make sure everything was intact and in working order.  This gave me peace of mind that a brand new replacement would be given with no questions asked if there had been an issue. It wasn’t necessary, and there are thousands bought online every day, but I needed that reassurance.

Others who like to shop online have discovered an easy way to save a few bucks on a car seat:  There are price differences based purely on the color of the same car seat!  For example, in the link below, the car seat with pink accents costs less than another that is a darker shade (at press date).  The prices and colors vary, so be sure to look at all options to see the price and go with whatever is lower.