This article appeared in NZ Pregnancy Bump & Baby magazine’s Issue 1 Summer 2016:

Baby gear.  It can be an overwhelming tide of anxiety and anticipation that characterises the wait for first-time parents as the arrival of a new baby approaches.  Throw the sometimes agonising choice of cribs, cots, strollers and car seats into the mix, and it’s enough to send an emotional pregnant woman into a tailspin.  And let’s not forget our anxious Dads- after all you guys are meant to just know how all this kit gets puts together and works, right?!

If you find yourself scratching your head facing a row of potential strollers in the baby store, or searching online in bewilderment for just the right kind of car seat, don’t worry: you’re not alone.  Very few new parents enter the game knowing how to deal with the unique specifications of baby gear, and with so many options around these days, it’s easy to get confused.

The most important piece of kit you’ll need once bubs arrives is the infant car seat, or capsule for your vehicle.  In some cases you’ll need to load your precious cargo into this seat and transport them safely just hours after they enter the world, so ensuring you have the right type of seat and you’re confident about how to use it is a crucial preparatory step in the lead-up to arrival day.  Experts recommend you do your research, acquire, fit and practice with the seat at least 4-6 weeks prior to your due date.  (Anecdotally, new parents agree driving about with the capsule staring at you from the back seat is also good mental preparation for the life-changing event ahead.)

So where to start?
The NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) requires all child restraints (including infant baby capsules) conform to one of three approved standards.  The joint New Zealand/Australian Standard AS/NZ 1754 is indicated by a tick mark.  The European Standard ECE 44 is denoted by an ‘E’ mark.  The United States Standard FMVSS 213 is indicated by an ‘S’ mark.  As long as your infant capsule carries one of these three marks you can be confident that you’re complying with the law and providing your baby with the best restraint while in the car.

Right, so your seat conforms- excellent, ready to go.  No, not so fast unfortunately!  Both European and USA standards have requirements for how the restraints are attached, denoted by the terms ‘LATCH’ or ‘ISOFIX’.  LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) is an American system comprising a strap attached to the car seat, or the detachable base of capsules, with a hook on each end.  Isofix is an international standard attachment system which is typically rigid and fixed into the car seat frame.  These attachments are designed to be used as an alternative to a standard fixing system which uses seat belt tethers and/or a locking clip to secure the base or seat.

So which one of these systems is right for your little one?  The first thing you need to know is whether your vehicle is compatible with the LATCH or ISOFIX system.  If it is, then you have the option of choosing capsule or seat using this kind of attachment.  Otherwise, the standard tether system is for you.  It’s very important you don’t try to use both- just stick with one system as per the manufacturer’s instructions.  While the LATCH or ISOFIX systems are not necessarily safer than using a seat belt/locking clip, they do help to reduce the otherwise high occurrence of incorrectly installed child seats.  NZ Child Restraints (NZCR) is an organisation which aims to provide appropriate information for the correct use of child restraints.  NZCR estimates that only one in every five child restraints is being used correctly in NZ, so anything you can do to ensure your baby’s seat is fitted correctly is well worth it.  NZCR’s website is a valuable resource covering the full gamut of car seat topics at http://www.childrestraints.co.nz

If all of this already has you pulling your hair out or collapsing in a sobbing puddle on the garage floor when it comes to the installation of your car seat, you can use the NZTA website to find a child restraint technician to do the hard work for you.   Just go to http://www.nzta.govt.nz/safety/vehicle-safety/safety-belts-and-restraints/find-a-child-restraint-technician/ to find someone in your area.  There’s no shame in it, after all this is your precious bundle of cargo we’re talking about, and once they’ve arrived there’s nothing you won’t do to protect them from the big bad world out there.

Many of these certified technicians are based at the baby supply companies and organisations where you will likely go to buy or hire your infant capsule.  There are two types of appropriate infant car seats- a portable capsule which is a rear-facing bucket seat with a carry handle and base, or a convertible car seat which allows for both rear and forward facing.  The rear facing position- estimated to be 70% safer than forward facing- is the safest for infants up to 24 months of age, and perhaps even older depending on the size of your little one.  This is due to the relative size of a baby’s head as they grow.
At just 2 months of age an infant’s head equates to a quarter of their total body mass.  The seat position protects a baby’s head, neck and spine during an accident.  When rear facing, their body moves into the back of the seat shell during impact, providing better protection and placing less strain on the head and neck than in a forward-facing impact.  Needless to say, you should never place a child restraint into a seat fitted with airbags.  Some parents express concern with a rear facing seat that baby may become distressed not being able to see you.  There are relatively inexpensive rear view mirrors that can be attached to the back seat so you can see each other, or place a photo of yourself on the back seat and talk to your baby to reassure them of your presence.

Hiring an infant capsule costs around $50-$80, usually with an equivalent refundable bond charge at the time of booking.  Hire term is usually around 6 months, and many parents choose this option for their newborn to allow for a transitional period while getting used to their new cargo.  A portable infant capsule allows easy transfer of baby in and out of the car; baby need not be woken up with buckling and re-buckling, and most capsules have a stroller frame option to fit the seat into- a blessing at malls or supermarkets, or even just going for a well-needed walk during those first months!  Do note these frames cost extra- usually the same again on top of the car seat hire fee.

Infant seat rental is currently available through Plunket (although this is due to be phased out by December 2016) and a number of baby retailers including The Baby Factory and Baby On The Move.  Your child has grown out of their infant capsule seat when their head is a minimum of 2.5cm above the top of the seat, or when their weight exceeds the seat manufacturers’ recommendation.  Car seat hire outlets also rent convertible infant seats and booster seats, so if hiring works for your family you can continue with this arrangement right through to their 8th birthday, or when they reach 148cm, whichever comes first.

Alternatively, you may choose to buy a new or second-hand car seat.  Both need to conform to the standards mentioned above, but extra caution is needed with second-hand car seats.  NZCR provides comprehensive advice when looking to buy a second-hand seat.  Their 6-point checklist includes looking at the manufacture date (some seats have a limited life span), looking for a valid standards sticker, an instruction booklet, a complete set of fittings, the known history, and for any obvious damage.  Asking lots of questions can help alleviate any concerns the seat may have a history that’s left it poorly compliant with acceptable standards.

New infant car capsules and fixed convertible car seats are available from all baby retailers both in-store and online, and range in price from about $200 to $700.  Important things to consider when choosing a capsule or seat is the standard the seat conforms to, the type of attachment- particularly what works for the vehicle you plan to use the seat in, and the age/weight range recommended by the manufacturer.  Other features you might want to consider for your family’s needs are the padding inserts around the child as they grow (how many are there, and can they be removed?), the ability to move head supports both horizontally and vertically with baby’s growth, recline positions and other accessories.

There are a few exceptions to infant car seat law in NZ- when traveling in a vintage vehicle (first registered prior to 1955), or when traveling in a passenger service vehicle if no appropriate child restraint is available.  Taxis and shuttles may be able to provide child restraints with 24 hours’ notice, so ensure you plan ahead when using transport alternatives or traveling out of town without your own car.

So, your new seat is chosen and fitted?  Great, now be sure to have a good few practice runs with it.  Use a doll or borrow a willing friend’s little one until you feel confident about how the child fits into the seat and how to fit the straps around them.  The ‘pinch test’ is the currently recommended strategy to ensure a good fit- if you can pinch the harness between two fingers then there is too much slack in the seat and it should be tightened further.  Assure yourself you’ve mastered the art of the car seat well and truly prior to your new baby’s arrival.  That’s one more tick on the list, and one less thing to be anxious about.


© Tiffany Brown 2015

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