Choosing the Safest Baby Car Seat | A Complete Guide

Posted by Julie Monson on


This comprehensive guide will help you to ensure that you buy the safest car seat for your baby, that installs well in your car and that suits your budget.

Choosing the right baby car seat

Choosing the right baby car seat before your baby is born is essential in order for you to transport your precious bundle safely home from the hospital. However, without being able to see how your baby fits in the car seat before you buy, can result in some unexpected problems when you strap your little one in for the first time.

This comprehensive guide will help you to ensure that you buy the safest car seat for your baby, that installs well in your car and that suits your budget.

Tip#1 - Choose a car seat suitable for a newborn

Car seats come in varying shapes and sizes and are designed for children at different stages of development from birth to age 10/12.


Multistage car seats cater for children from birth to 25/36Kg. As tempting and economical as a multistage seat may seem, they often do not work well for newborns.


This is because multistage seats are designed to accommodate babies from newborn to age 7 or 12, depending on the model. The postural and safety needs of a newborn are very different from a 12 year old!

Many multistage seats d not recline sufficiently for a newborn and the harness does not reach the baby's shoulders to strap them in securely. Most multistage seats only rear face to 10/kg13kg (approx. 12-18 months) and forward face to 18kg. Although it is legal to forward face a baby from 9kg, this is not safest and it is not recommended.


Choose an Infant Carseat Stroller

Infant seats are often better suited to newborns, as they are generally more reclined which reduces the risk of their heads falling to their chests, which can restrict their breathing.

Infant seats are easier to strap a newborn in safely and securely. Infant seats are also convenient for quick trips to the shop, where you can click the car seat into the pram without having to wake your baby.


It is not safe to leave babies under 4 weeks in car seats for longer than 30 minutes or children under 2 years for longer than 2 hours due to the increased risk of positional asphyxiation. 

Positional asphyxiation occurs when a baby’s head falls forward to their chest, and they do not have sufficient head control to lift their heads back up. This restricts the airway and the lack of oxygen to the brain can result in brain damage and eventual death.

It is also not safe to place a baby in the car seat on the floor/bed/couch/table/shopping trolley for risk of asphyxiation, especially when the harness is loosened, as well as the risk of falling. Read our article about positional asphyxiation for more information. 

Extended Rear Facing Car Seats

If you do decide to buy a multistage seat (which is not recommended), an extended rear-facing seat that can rear face to 18kg is better than a multistage seat that can only rear face to 10 or 13kg. 

A modular car seat would be better than a Multistage seat. Besafe, Maxi Cosi, Recaro and Cybex make modular systems, where one isofix base is used for the infant seat and later the extended rear facing toddler seat. This allows optimal support in an infant seat when your baby is small  and optimal safety later on in an extended rear facing toddler seat too. Rear facing has been scientifically proven to be safer for children less than 4 years, for these 3 critical reasons:


Why Rear Facing is Safer

Underdeveloped musculoskeletal systems

The cartilage in children’s necks only starts to ossify (turn to bone) once they are over 2 years old and is only likely to have completed ossifying by age 7-8 years. This means that their spines are quite elastic and vulnerable to spinal cord injury. 

Body/head disproportion 

Babies’ heads are relatively larger compared with their bodies. A child’s immature spine and weak muscles have to support a much larger proportion of body weight than an adult’s more mature spinal column.

Accident research has shown that rearward facing children’s car seats reduce serious injuries by 92%.”

Crash forces  

During an accident, a child in a forward facing car seat will travel towards the point of impact, putting all the stress on the neck and spine as the head is thrown around violently.

When a child is rear facing, the forces of the crash are distributed more equally along the backrest of the car seat shell, supporting the neck and spine in alignment and limiting movement.

Read more about the facts regarding rear facing car seats HERE

Tip#2 - Don't buy second hand, if possible

Preparing for a baby is an expensive exercise. Buying secondhand cots, compactums and clothes is a great way to save money. A car seat is a life saving device. Of coarse, a second hand car seat is better than no car seat. If at all possible, try to buy a new car seat rather than second hand.


Dangers of Choosing a Second Hand Car Seat INFOGRAPHIC

The main concern with a used car seat is that you cannot be certain of its history unless you buy from someone you know and trust. A car seat that has been in an accident or dropped may not show obvious damage, but its safety may be compromised and it may not protect your baby sufficiently if it were to be involved in another crash.

Photo credit: Goodeggcarsafety

Crash damage is not always visible to the naked eye. There are some scans and X-rays that can find hidden damage, but the cost of these tests is usually greater than the cost of the most expensive new car seat. Without this type of test, no one can inspect your car seat and certify it as safe after a crash."

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)  

Second Hand Car Seat Safety Checklist

  1. Has it been in any crashes or dropped?
  2. When was the seat manufactured? Most infant seats shouldn’t be used for more than 5-7 years.
  3. Are all parts present and intact?
  4. Is a manual available? Many can be found online or you can request it from the distributor.
  5. Are there any signs of white stress marks, damage, rusting or fraying?
  6. Has it been checked for any recalls?
  7. Has it been checked in on an airplane?  If so, was it properly padded AND boxed? Bubble wrap alone will not have protected it during loading
Second Hand Car Seat Checklist Infographics

Tip#3 -  Isofix or belted bases

Car Seats are fastened into a car using one of two methods: 


Isofix refers to connection points manufactured in cars as an alternative to securing a car seat with a seat belt.


To check if your car has ISOFIX, stick your hand in the join between the passenger seat base and the backrest and run your hand along it until you feel two D-shaped metal rings, or check your vehicle manual. 

If your car has ISOFIX this opens more options available for you to consider. ISOFIX bases are more expensive but are easier to install and less prone to human error. 

3 Point Seat Belt

Do not fret if you do not have ISOFIX; most infant car seats can be installed without a base using only the 3-point seatbelt. There are also a few belted bases to choose from in South Africa. 

A car seat installed with the seatbelt is not necessarily less safe than an isofix installation, provided it is installed correctly.


Most isofix bases should not be installed with the seatbelt as well. Refer to your manual on the correct installation method.

Tip#4 - Do your research

Before making a purchase, it is always a good idea to check that a car seat has the required ECE approval and that it is on the NRCS list of car seats approved for sale in South Africa.

If it is not on the NRCS homologated list, it may be a fake or illegal car seat. The ECE results are not published so the public has no way of knowing how these car seats fared during crash testing.

Some seats are selected for additional independent crash testing in Europe. These testing conditions are more stringent and at higher speeds. The results are published.

For more on Crash Testing and the criteria used to judge a car seat, check out our blog article: Crash Test Ratings and Reviews Explained

Independent Crash Testing

Not all car seats have been  independently crash tested, and in these cases there is no way of knowing if they offer a good level of safety or not.

Read through all the safety reviews, which can be found on  Car Seat Support South Africa. These are all the available safety reviews of the car seats sold legally in South Africa.

If the seat you are looking for is not in the album, it’s fairly certain that it has not been independently crash tested. Narrow your list down to 2-3 high scoring car seats that fit your budget.

Tip#5 -  Fit a few car seats to compare

It is best to test a few car seats before buying. Not all car seats fit all cars optimally. You should check if your vehicle is on the manufacturer's approved fit list.

Once you have fitted a few car seats, you will be able to compare their features and which installs most securely in your particular vehicle/s.

Whichever car seat installs most securely, is the best car seat for your family.


Unfortunately, many car seat salesmen are not adequately trained and do not know how to install car seats properly. 

Be sure to read the manuals and watch the online installation videos, so that you have a good idea of the correct installation. 

Key points to check for a safe car seat installation: 

Car Seat Safety Checklist Infographics

CHECK 1  Appropriate for age, weight and height. For an infant, the seat must be Group 0 (from birth to 9/10kg) or preferably Group 0+ (from birth to 13kg)

CHECK 2  There should not be more than an inch of movement when shaken  at the belt path/isofix points with your non-dominant hand. A loose installation cannot offer optimal protection in a crash.

CHECK 3  The seatbelt should be long enough to route around the car seat  as per the manual, OR the isofix points reach the isofix brackets to secure the car seat

CHECK 4  There must be a sufficient recline angle. For a newborn, this should be 45’ and for an older baby with head control (6 months+) it should be 37’. 

The recline angle is influenced by the angle of your vehicle seat. 

A car seat that does not recline sufficiently can cause head slump and resultant positional asphyxiation.

CHECK 5  There should be no buckle crunch. This is when the seatbelt buckle goes into the beltpath of the car seat. In a crash, this can put tremendous strain on the buckle and cause it to break.

CHECK 6  There should not be too much overhang. Each car seat has its own rules as to what is allowed. In most cases, it is not permitted for more than a 1/3 of the base to hang over the vehicle seat, if there is a load leg on the base. Please refer to the manual or contact the manufacturer to check how much overhang is permitted for a particular model.

CHECK 7  There must be enough space for the front passenger to travel safely. In most cases, you should be able to fit your hand between the front seat and the car seat. Please refer to your manual. 

For the person in front's safety, their knees should not be touching the dashboard, and the driver should be arms length away from the steering wheel and/or airbag.

CHECK 8 If the car seat uses a base, check that all the indicators are green.

Professional Fittings and Advice

If you are in Gauteng and are looking for expert advice based on European best practice guidelines, you are welcome to come to Precious Cargo for a professional  consultation and fitting. If you are unable to come for a fitting, please contact us to arrange a video consult, to go through our comprehensive checklists to help you select the best car seat for your car.

If you are looking for online assistance join our Facebook group  Car Seat Support South Africa where we offer free advice!

Tip#6 - Don’t use aftermarket accessories

It is not recommended that you use any additional accessories that are not made by your car seat’s manufacturer. These items include infant head or body pillows and supports, padded harness covers, pool noodles (unless explicitly approved by your manufacturer), custom made covers, chest clips, sleeping bags or car seat blankets.

Photo credit: The Car Seat Lady

Don't Use After Market Accessories

These products will not have been crash tested with your particular car seat and may interfere with the car seat’s harness or your seatbelt, and can cause the car seat to fail in a crash. It is also not safe to use any hard toys, tablets or DVD players, as they may become projectiles in a crash and cause severe injuries.

baby mirror that has been crash tested and that can be strapped securely to the headrest is a good investment, as you will be able to check on your baby to ensure he/she is ok. Many crashes have occurred when parents look back at their children while driving, so only check the mirror when you are stationery and it is safe to do so.

Tip#7 - Familiarise yourself with your car seat

Read your car seat manual from cover to cover. It has a wealth of important information that you need to be aware of in order for the car seat to perform optimally in a crash. Practice strapping a doll or a teddy before your baby is born, so that you know how to tighten and loosen the harness. It is a good idea for your spouse or partner to know how to install the car seat and tighten the harness, as you may be a bit immobile straight after giving birth.

Tip#8 - Fit your baby in the car seat

Before you are due to be discharged from hospital, fit your baby in the car seat to ensure you can strap your precious bundle in safely. Loosen the harness, place your baby’s bottom to the back of the car seat and then fasten the buckle. Pull the slack out at the hips if you have a 5-point harness, so that the harness fits snuggly over the thighs/hips.

correct infant car seat use

 Then tighten the harness and repeat, until you cannot fit more than one finger between the harness and your baby’s collarbone. A loose harness can cause a baby to be ejected out the car seat in a crash.

If your baby has too much space in the car seat and requires additional postural support, you can roll 2 receiving blankets and position them on either side of your baby, AFTER you’ve strapped him/her in securely. 

Position the handle in the upright position as per the manual, as this acts as a roll bar in a crash. Click it into the base or route the seatbelt around the car seat, depending on your model. 

If you have a base, check that all the indicators are green.


Choosing the best car seat can be overwhelming. If you follow these guidelines, we hope that you will be empowered and equipped with the correct information to choose the most suitable car seat for your family.

best infant car seat

At Precious Cargo, we only sell car seats that have been independently crash tested and receive the highest safety ratings. We provide expert advice based on European best practice guidelines and the latest research. 

We offer a thorough assessment and professional installations at our showroom or via video consultations, to help you choose the safest seat for your child’s age, weight and height and that installs most securely in your particular vehicle.

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