I'm a lot better with the written word than the spoken word. I'm perfectly articulate, but I stutter a bit more than I probably should, and I'm not great at confrontation.
Yesterday I "practiced" speaking up about incorrect carseat use in a situation where it wasn't incredibly important and there was very little room for offense. I told a couple that the handle on their Graco SnugRide infant seat was supposed to either be all the way up, or all the way down, according to the manual. Actually, the manual indicates that of the 5 positions for the handle, 3 of them are acceptable for driving--positions, A, D, and E. But I didn't want to get into that much detail and I didn't have the manual with me.
Correct carseat use is something I've taken up at least as a personal cause for my own children. Here are some of the most basic ideas, grounded in current research and proper use. This is neither the maximum nor the bare minimum.
Please use the buckles correctly. They should not be twisted, and they should be tight enough so that you are unable to pinch the slack in them. The straps should go over the shoulders, between the neck and shoulders, like a backpack. The chest clip should be at the chest, not at the belly. If there are shoulder pads, they should go on the child's shoulder's, not the chest.
As a corollary to "please use the buckles correctly," please don't put children in heavy coats in the car. If you have to adjust the tightness of the buckles to a different setting than it would be without the coat, the child isn't really safe, because heavy coats and snowsuits can compress in an accident, allowing the child to fly right the heck through. Fleece sweatshirts and even thin fleece snowsuits will keep the child warm and still allow him/her to fit in the seat.
The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that children ride rear-facing in car until age 2, at least, with there being plenty of room for rear-facing for longer due to higher weight and height allowances in seats. The current minimum is 1 year AND 20 pounds to turn a child forward-facing in the car. Compare the appearance of a 1 year old to that of a 2 or 3 year old. The 1 year old is still all head, and in a crash, a 1 year old is far more at risk of spinal cord injury if forward-facing. Please keep your child rear-facing until at LEAST age 2, if not longer, and don't worry about the legs being crowded. Kids like to sit with their legs folded/cross-legged and find it perfectly comfortable. And most seats allow for rear-facing to 40 pounds and are taller than they used to be.
And, as a corollary to "please keep your kids rear-facing longer," there's also, please keep your kids in 5-point harnesses until they can sit up properly in the car every time. 4 years old and 40 pounds are the minimums for riding in a booster seat that uses the seatbelt, in many states. Other states don't specify and only say that children need to be in a restraint to a certain age or a certain weight or height. But the minimum may not be enough. Many children who are old enough to be in boosters are too small. Other children who are the right size don't sit properly while riding and need the stability of the 5-point harness a little longer. My 4.5 year old has ridden in a booster but is not yet ready to do so all the time without having someone sitting next to him (as we did on our vacation). Wait until at least age 5 or 6 for full-time boostering. If your kid goes to preschool, chances are, they'd be better off in a 5-point harness.
This is a major piece of misinformation that needs to be cleared up--YOU as the parents are responsible for installing your child's seat properly. There's a lot to this statement.
Many people go to the fire station or police station to get seats installed, thinking they are doing the safest thing for their child. Not every firefighter or police officer knows about carseats or is a certified CPST (child passenger safety technician). Some of them are, and they can be very helpful. Others have even given out bad advice such as, a child is 10 months old and 20 pounds, therefore he can ride forward-facing. Unless a firefighter or police officer is actually certified to deal with carseats, don't go to them for advice. However, if they help you get a safe seat for your child, that's great.
Also, whether you take your seat to a police/fire station or to a carseat technician at an event, or even if you know someone who is a carseat technician, that person should NOT be installing your seat for you, unless you are in a position where you really can't do it yourself (heavily pregnant, severely arthritic, that sort of thing). That person should show you how to install the seat correctly in that car, but you should be the person doing the installation, so that when you need to move the seat, or take it out to clean it up, you can replace the seat correctly and not have to worry about having it checked by a technician every time. Carseats are designed to be installed by parents.
Read the manual. Seriously. It will save you a lot of aggravation. You will know from the manual how long you can use the LATCH system, how to adjust a convertible seat to go from rear-facing to forward-facing (you need to switch the LATCH belt direction and change the recline). You will know what to do if you need to recline the seat more or less. You'll know how to wash the carseat cover properly. And you'll know how long the seat lasts until expiration.
Car seats expire. They are made out of material that can degrade and break down over time. A simple demonstration of this: leave a plastic toy shovel out in the sun for awhile. Although people drive their cars and use their seats in different conditions, the expiration date was designed so that even a carseat under extreme conditions would be able to make it.
Is it a waste if your carseat isn't under these conditions? Maybe. I'm pretty sure that our carseats would last past their dates. We don't live in extreme climates, and most of the time, the seats are in the garage. The reason why I don't plan to use a seat past its date, despite the fact that it may have maintained its structural integrity, is because if heaven forbid we were in an accident, I wouldn't want anything less than proper insurance coverage should anything happen. And of course I want the kids to be safe. The company may decide that carseat misuse, which includes using a seat past its date, means less coverage.
So. I'm not a carseat tech. Or a police officer. I'm just a mom who knows to RTFM. Look it up. I'm not spelling it out because this is a family-friendly blog.
Carseat recommendations? The seat that fits in your car and is installed and used properly everytime. So that may be different for your kids.
I can tell you that you want to go from an infant seat to a rear-facing convertible seat, if you don't just start with the convertible, so don't worry about getting the maximum out of your infant seats. Spend under $100 on the infant seat. And pass it around, from trusted friend to trusted friend.
Convertible seats come in all different styles. You either want a convertible seat that lasts long rear and front facing, OR you get a convertible that will last long rear-facing and then get a good combination (harness to booster) seat.
Do NOT get a 3 in 1 (rear, front harness, booster) seat and think it will actually do all those things. Chances are, it won't, and you'll have spent more money than you meant to. Usually they make lousy boosters and are outgrown as boosters when they are outgrown as harnessing seats.
Carseat safety beyond the minimum and on the cheap? Cosco Scenera convertible followed by either the Evenflo Maestro, Evenflo SecureKid, or Graco Nautilus if it is on sale. All perfectly good seats. All seats have to pass the same tests.
This was far more wordy than I wanted. If you got this far, please share this information. Keep kids safe in the car.