Working out which type of child car seat will keep your brood safest on the road is more bewildering than ever, thanks to a raft of product innovations and some new regulations. If you don't know your impact shield from your top tether, or what i-Size is all about, let us help cut through the confusion.
So what's the law now and what's changing?
The law requires all children to travel in an appropriate child restraint until they reach 135cm tall or their 12th birthday – whichever comes first. It's the driver's responsibility to ensure this is the case (so if you give someone else's offspring a lift in your car and there's no child seat, you can't blame their parents!) There are very few exceptions to when a car seat needs to be used. You can find out more information on UK car seat laws here.
It's important to be aware of the definition of 'appropriate' child restraint - this has so far meant the correct group for a child's weight (although this is changing - see below). At the time of writing, this was as follows:
Car Seat Groups:
Faces: Group 0+ Rear
Weight range: Birth to 13kg
Approx. age guide*: birth to approx. 15 months
Faces: Group 1 Usually forward (can be rear)
Weight range: 9kg to 18kg
Approx. age guide*: 9 months to approx. 4 years
Faces: Group 2/3 Forward
Weight range: 15kg to 36kg
Approx. age guide*: 3 years to 12 years
*Experts have largely advised that when you should move your child up to the next stage depends more on weight than age.
So what's changing?
Under the existing laws, parents could switch their baby from their rear-facing Group 0/0+ seat into a forward-facing one when they reached 9kg - (around nine months old).
When the new regulations, called i-Size come fully into force, parents will have to keep their baby in a rear-facing seat until they are 15 months. The move will be based on a baby's length/child's height not weight.
Note there will be no change to the overall law about child seats being compulsory to the age of 12 or 135cm tall.
When is this happening?
Without wanting to sound confusing: both soon and not that soon! The i-Size rules will be phased in over five years, running in parallel with the old regulations for some time, so if you've got, say, a 12-month-old baby now and have already moved them to a forward facing seat, don't panic! They will only apply to ISOFIX seats sold and belted ones will not be covered by the new rules.
i-Size seats will start to hit the shops though in the coming months and it might well be worth choosing one if you're purchasing the next stage seat and do have ISOFIX (all i-Size seats use ISOFIX), as it will have been more rigorously tested (see below).
In the meantime, if you're off shopping for a new car seat before then, or don't have ISOFIX fixings in your vehicle, you should still look for a seat approved under the old regulation (ECER44/04) - this should be mentioned in the marketing and labelling.
Why is this i-Size regulation happening?
Largely because too many parents are switching to forward facing too soon and many are left confused by the existing guidelines on moving to the next type of seat based on weight. It's also about encouraging the use of ISOFIX seats which are easier to fit correctly and safely than those secured with the car seatbelt.
So why should babies be kept rear-facing for longer?
Most parents are keen to move their child into a forward-facing car seat as soon as possible, many switching when their baby reaches the minimum weight for a Group 1 seat (i.e. 9kg), rather than when he or she has actually outgrown the rear-facing one and are close to or have passed its maximum weight (13kg).
Understandably, parents think their baby will be happier facing forward and getting a better view of the world. Usually this is indeed true but those happy front-facing babies don't understand that they're much safer facing rearwards in the event of a collision.
The most dangerous collisions tend to be front on and a child in a forward facing seat will be flung more forcefully forwards. Additionally the load will be concentrated on the harness or impact shield (see below) area, whereas in a rearfacing seat the load of deceleration is spread across the shell of the car seat, so it's less concentrated. Their head movement will be much less, so the risk of serious injury to their head and neck will be much reduced (this is a particular issue for babies as their heads are larger relative to their bodies than those of older children and adults).
So much research evidence has built up on this from crash testing that the EU is introducing this new regulation to keep babies rearfacing until 15 months.
Until rearfacing becomes compulsory to 15 months for all types of seats, when should you change to forward-facing?
We recommend you keep your baby rear-facing as long as possible.
Here are some guidelines on switching:
* Don't do it just because your baby's feet are pushed against the car's back seat.
* Wait until he/ she has been sitting up for a minimum of three months, as this indicates he or she is better able physically to deal with the extra stresses of a collision in a front-facing seat.
* Wait until your baby is closer to, or ideally at, the maximum weight (13kg) for her rear-facing seat than the minimum weight (9kg) for the front facing seat.
* BUT do move her if her head is protruding over the top of the Group 0/0+ seat. If she outgrows the seat in height but has not reached the minimum weight for a group 1 seat, your only option will be to invest in a you'll have no choice but to get a combination group 0/1 seat. Not an ideal scenario but the only safe one.
* All other things being equal, children are undoubtedly safer rear facing for longer, so don't see switching forward as a milestone and consider safety.
What about those 'extended rear facing Group 1 seats'?
In Scandinavia, children remain in rear facing seats even beyond 15 months, all the way to age four or five. Deaths and serious injuries of child car passengers in the relevant age group there are notably lower than in the UK. You can now buy Group 1 rear-facing car seats in the UK from several of the leading manufacturers but are they always safer than forward-facing equivalents?
Victoria Pearson, car seat expert at Which, the consumer organisation which carries out car seat safety testing, says: "As with most things car seats-related it is not cut and dried - not all rear-facing car seats are equally good - and not all cars are suitable for extended rear-facing seats. In general rear-facing is a great idea, but the protection achieved will depend on how well the seat is installed."
Which's testing has found that many rear facing Group 1 seats are especially difficult to install and if installation is done incorrectly, this will reduce safety. If you do want to buy a rear-facing Group 1 seat, it's especially important to check compatibility with your vehicle and ideally get the seat professionally fitted by staff from the retailer.
Our best buy rear facing Group 1 seat: Recaro Polaric (£230)
OK so I'm ready to buy a Group 1 seat and want a forward facing one - what are my options? Are the newer style impact shield seats better than those with harnesses?
Whereas traditionally Group 1 seats have used a harness to keep their little occupant safely in place, a few companies, notably Kiddy and Cybex, now use a specially designed shield that sits across the child's lap. This is often called an impact shield. Some of these seats spread the load of a collision better than those with a harness and can reduce strain on a child's head and neck.
Another upside of this style of seat is that once your child reaches the Group 2/3 stage (at around age four), you won't need to buy another – simply remove the impact shield and you have a highback booster seat which you use with the adult seat belt. That said, they are quite expensive to start with, so this won't save you much money overall compared to buying two separate seats.
Note though that not all toddlers like having the shield across them – it can feel quite constraining it seems, although others find it handy for putting their toys on! It's worth sitting your child in this sort of seat at a retailer or in a friend's if you know someone who has one, before buying to see how they react to it, otherwise you risk an expensive mistake and a lot of tears every time you put them in the car.
Our best buy impact shield seats: Cybex Pallas 2-Fix (£270) and Kiddy PhoenixFix Pro (RRP £200)
And what about ISOFIX - I've seen seats with three instead of two fixing points?
ISOFIX, if you aren't already familiar with it, is a system that allows car seats to be 'plugged' into sockets on a car's chassis, creating a more rigid attachment than with a seat held in place by the seat belt. The system also helps reduce installation errors which can compromise a seat's protection - one study quoted by car seat brand Maxi-Cosi showed as many as half of child seats attached with a seat belt were fitted incorrectly in some way, with 27% having an error that would a have significant impact on safety. ISOFIX makes correct fitting much easier - you just click the seat into the sockets, with no faffing about routing the seat belt webbing around the seat.
Cars made since 2006 have mostly had two ISOFIX fixing points which the bottom of the car seat (or any associated base) plugs into.
Newer cars must now also have a third fixing point which attaches to the top of the child seat too, preventing it from tipping forward if there's a collision - this is called a top tether and is sometimes referred to as an ISOFIX+ system. To use the car's top tether though, you need a compatible top tether car seat - there aren't yet lots of these about and they aren't cheap.
If you do want this feature, check whether your car has the third point – look in the manual's section on child seats or check behind the rear seat back. Bear in mind if you buy one of these seats and it will be used in an older second or grandparents' car, you'll need to ensure it can also be fitted without the top tether, either with standard two point ISOFIX fixings or with the adult seat belt, depending on what's available in the vehicle concerned.
Our best buy three point ISOFIX seat: Britax Trifix (£285).
Liat Hughes Joshi is author of What to Buy for Your Baby, which includes buying guides for all stages of child car seat, and New Old-fashioned Parenting. Follow Liat on Twitter: @liathughesjoshi
The information in this feature was correct at the time of writing (March 2014).