From that very first journey home from hospital, all the way to when they're nudging their teens, babies and children need to travel in an appropriate car seat. Initially, this means a seat labelled 'Group 0' or '0+' – usually rear-facing and suitable from birth.
There are three types of seat which work for this newborn phase:
• Group 0 only: from birth up to 9 or 10kg (around nine to 12 months)
• Group 0+: from birth to 13kg (around 12 to 15 months)
• Group 0/1 'combination' seats: used rear-facing from birth to 12 to 15 months and then forward-facing for the Group 1 phase (up to 18kg – age four).
But do you really need one?
The answer is an emphatic yes if you travel by car, even if it's only occasionally – it's the law after all. The only exception for under three-year-olds is if you take a taxi but even then it's still infinitely safer to use a car seat.
What about ISOFIX?
Whilst non-ISOFIX seats attach in the car by wrapping the adult seat belt around them, ISOFIX models instead 'plug' into special fixings, usually via a base at the Group 0/0+ stage. The idea is to create a rigid link between car and child seat and limit the scope for incorrect fitting (which can be dangerous in a collision). All vehicles made after 2006 have ISOFIX fittings at least in the rear seats. If you have an older car, it might still have them, so check in the manual, feel under the rear seat back, or take your vehicle to a shop such as Halfords and ask someone to look for you.
Be aware that the base needed for newborn ISOFIX seats usually costs extra but many parents find this worthwhile both for the extra piece of mind and convenience as you simply click the seat on and off, rather than having to fiddle with wrapping the seat belt round.
ISOFIX seats can also be used with the adult belt too if you'll travel in another car without fixings.
What to look for in a car seat:
A seat which fits in your car properly. Not all do and you'll need to be especially careful if your vehicle has 'bucket seats' ones or shorter than normal seat belts. Before you buy, check with the retailer or call the manufacturer and ask – some c
child car seat companies have a compatible vehicles list on their websites.
A buckle which isn't too tricky to do up. They can be challenging to fasten over wriggly babies. A 'one-pull' harness can be handy too, making it easier to adjust according to the clothes your baby is wearing.
Comfort. Newborns need support and ideally a head hugger (a semi-circular cushion which helps prevent little heads wobbling). Look for lots of padding and soft fabric.
Easy to clean covers. Your baby could leave all sorts of mess on the seat, so ensure covers can be removed for washing or at least wiped down.
Ease of installation. Especially important for car seats which are attached by wrapping the seat belt around them and through guides as this can be a pain to do each and every time you put it in the car. Try a few and compare them. Car seats with bases are generally simple to use as you just click them on and off – if you don't have ISOFIX points, you can still get 'belted bases' for some models which work in a similar way, staying in the car but attached using the seat belt rather than ISOFIX.
Whatever type you buy, don't wait to fit it for the first time until you're in the hospital car park ready to go home, bawling newborn by your side – have a practice at home a week or two before the birth.
Portability. Many parents use the car seat to carry their baby out of the car. Check the handle is comfortable and the seat won't be cumbersome to cart around – anything much over 4kg and you might struggle with a baby in there too.
Travel system compatibility. This means you can take your baby straight out of the car and onto the pushchair without disturbing them (this can be useful if they nod off on the move). Some car seats attach to a choice of pushchairs from different manufacturers, others only fit on one or two made by the same company, a few don't fit on any at all.
The option to lie your baby flat if they'll be in the car seat a lot. Lie-flat car seats are a bit of a trend at the moment, responding to concerns that the more upright position of standard car seats isn't that healthy for newborns to be in for longer periods (it's not great for spine development and breathing according to some experts).