So, you're about to take bub home from the hospital and you can't believe this tiny little person is yours to protect. The first step is getting them home, and chances are you're going to be in a car. So how do you make sure this first trip (and every trip after that one!) is as safe as possible for your little girl or guy?

Car accidents are the leading cause of death of kids under 14 and there's a raft of legal obligations when it comes to littlies in the car, so keep reading and we'll help you get it right.

Ready to buy? Our car seat review reveals which brands are best and easiest to use.

Types of child car restraints

A baby/infant capsule or carrier is rearward-facing. These should be used for babies up to about six months of age. The capsule itself is held in place by a seatbelt (or ISOFIX anchorage point) and the top tether strap with the baby facing the rear of the vehicle. All have an inbuilt harness system. Some can convert into a front-facing child restraint when your bub outgrows the capsule.

A forward-facing restraint has its own inbuilt six-point harness for your child. The restraint is held in place by a seatbelt (or ISOFIX anchorage point) and the top tether strap. This should be used until your child is at least four years old, but can be used for longer. It is safer for kids to stay in a harness for as long as they can fit in it.

A booster seat is also forward-facing, but is used with an adult seatbelt and top tether strap. It's designed for children aged from four to around eight years old. Modern-day versions have high backs and sides to provide side-impact protection and support for sleeping children. We strongly advise against using a booster cushion (with no back or side protection). They won't provide additional cushioning in the case of a crash and have been deleted from the most recent 2010 and 2013 standards, so it's rare to find them on sale. However, it's not illegal to use one that met Australian standards at the time it was manufactured.

Convertible restraints are compatible with two or more of the above categories. For example, a forward-facing seat that uses a harness can later be converted to one that uses the adult seat belt.

Car considerations

Before you buy your car seat (well, preferably before you buy your car!) consider the following potential issues:

Space

Is the back seat of your car easy to get to? (Fitting and securing your child can be awkward in a two-door car, for example.)

Will the front passenger be able to move their seat back enough so both the child and the front passenger have enough legroom?

If you're planning on expanding your family, is there enough space to have more than one restraint?

Anchor points

This is the bolt in your car that you attach the restraint tether strap to. This strap prevents the restraint from tipping forward or moving sideways in an accident or during hard braking. Does your car have enough anchor points if you have more than one seat or capsule?

Seatbelts

Are the seatbelts long enough to thread through the restraint in the reclined position?

What to look for in a child car restraint

Standards certified

Check there's a tag on the seat showing certification to the Australian standard.

Weight

A heavy restraint will be difficult to carry if you need to move it from one car to another.

Shoulder height markings

Restraints manufactured to the latest standard have approximate markings that indicate when your child is too big or small for the restraint.

Clip for buckle tongues

This holds the buckles apart so you can easily put your child into the seat without all the buckles getting in the way.

What's ISOFIX?

ISOFIX is an established car seat installation system that's been around in Europe and North America for well over a decade. It involves clipping the car seat into anchorage points manufactured into cars, providing it's used in conjunction with Australia's top tether restraints. ISOFIX's incorporation into the 2013 Australian standard provides greater choice for parents and is usually easier to install than the older system, but both methods are safe when installed correctly.

Cars are readily available in Australia with provisions for ISOFIX, and the current mandatory child car restraint standard was finally approved in 2014 to include ISOFIX-compatible seats. We've only assessed car seats that have been reviewed by CREP (Child Restraint Evaluation Program), which doesn't currently include any ISOFIX models.

ISOFIX models in Australia vary from overseas models because of requirements such as the top tether strap. Despite the temptation to buy or import a cheaper ISOFIX car restraint from overseas, it's illegal to use one as it won't meet AS/ANZ 1754.

Child Restraint Evaluation Program (CREP)

While all car seats we assess are standards-certified, the Child Restraint Evaluation Program (CREP) puts the seats through a range of additional tests to see if they offer protection beyond standard requirements. A star rating (out of five) is then applied to all tested seats. CREP tests include:

  • a frontal impact test
  • a side impact test
  • an oblique impact test.

For more information, including crash protection star ratings, see CREP's testing explained page.

Child car seats and safety

Research funded by NSW Roads and Maritime Services has found that about 70% of children are incorrectly restrained in their seat. This can seriously reduce the restraint's ability to protect your child in a crash, so proper installation is crucial to getting the best crash protection.

  • Authorised fitting stations can help you install a car seat properly and we recommend using one, particularly if you're new to car seats. For more information, see your state's road traffic authority.
  • Carefully read and follow the instructions if you're installing the restraint yourself, especially the sections on common mistakes and useful travelling safety tips.
  • The safest position for a child restraint or capsule is the centre position of the rear seat, because it'll offer better protection in a side-impact crash.

You may need extensions for your seat's tether strap depending on the position of the anchor point – mainly for rear-facing restraints. Use the minimum number of extension straps.

What's the law?

Babies under six months

  • Children must be seated in a rearward-facing car seat or infant capsule.
  • A new standard has allowed for testing of child restraints that are suitable for babies of low birth weight or who are premature.

Six months to four years old

  • Children are to use a rear- or forward-facing car restraint with an inbuilt harness.
  • Children under four years old can't travel in the front seat of a vehicle with two or more rows (but can, for example, in a one-row ute).
  • A new category of (optional) restraint introduced in the updated Australian standard allows for most children to stay rear-facing up to approximately two to three years of age.

Kids aged 4–8

  • Children up to the age of seven are to use a forward-facing restraint or booster seat.
  • A new category of child restraint with an in-built harness for children from approximately six months up to approximately eight years of age has been introduced. Previously restraints with an inbuilt harness have only been available for children up to approximately four years of age.

Other rules

  • If all back seats are occupied by children under seven, a child aged between four and seven can occupy the front seat in a forward-facing restraint or booster seat.
  • If your child is too tall or heavy for their age group's restraint, you can move them to the next size seat.
  • Taxis are exempt from these laws, but parents are encouraged to bring their own car restraint when using one.
  • There is now a standard for child restraints suitable for aircraft travel.
  • Children should remain in a harness for as long as they can fit into it.

Don't buy a child car seat or capsule second-hand!

There's little to recommend buying a baby seat second-hand. No baby seat should ever be re-used if it's been in a car accident; restraint design improves over the years so older models may not comply with current standards; and manufacturers generally advise against using a seat that's more than six to ten years old. So unless you know its complete history and there isn't any wear, fraying or cracking, give any second-hand baby seat a miss.