When I was five months pregnant, it seemed like a good idea to replace our 15-year-old car. Price and safety were our number one concerns. I owned my previous car for the majority of my driving years and I planned on owning the next one for just as long.
So I researched (and cried a little under the pressure of making my first major purchase just before having my first child) and I bought my perfect new car, a 2012 Ford Fusion, and I loved it — for four months. Then I had a baby, a chunky baby girl, and the car turned on me.
The safest place for a rear-facing car seat in that sedan, as in most cars, was the middle of the back seat. That’s not an easy space to access, especially if you’re tall. Imagine crawling on your knees into a 3-foot space while holding an awkward 20-pound seat. While the back of your head bangs the roof as you try to secure the seat without waking the baby inside, you have a perfect view of your mid-section rolling over maternity jeans, which you still wear post pregnancy because your "normal" jeans aren’t built for climbing in and out of a 3-foot space. Add direct sunlight hitting you from the slanted back windshield and the sweat that comes along with that and you’ll have a general idea of how it felt getting my baby in and out of the low back seat of that sedan.
When our son was born and we were trying to get two kids into that low back seat, we decided to stop paying for a car that we didn’t love. So we sold our first major purchase after only two years and leased a small sport utility hatchback, a 2015 Mazda CX5. It's a big improvement but for our budget, we still couldn’t get everything we wanted. So I’m sharing insight from owning two different cars while having two little kids. (Can having kids mess up your retirement plans?)
1. Get a comfortable car height
Getting an infant seat in and out of car is a workout. As Goldilocks would tell you, a car that sits low will work your back and a car that sits high will work your shoulders. A car that sits just right will make your life easier.
2. Beware the back windshield
A large slanted back windshield plus a rear-facing car seat equals a baby tanning bed. The light was so bright and hot in the back seat of our sedan, we didn’t arrive anywhere without a red, sweaty baby. Her only options were to stare directly into the sun or stare into the dark under a blanket. The hatchback has worked better with our rear facing car seat because the window doesn’t slant over the baby.
3. Look for air vents
Air conditioning is a given but you need vents in the back seat. You’d be amazed how many cars don’t have them. You will at least need well-placed front vents so air can be felt in the back. And you’re probably going to have to freeze yourself to try to get air to your poor babe in the rear-facing seat. That’s where we are with our sport utility.
I also encourage you to put the AC on full blast and see how loud it is. I can’t hear my toddler talking in the back seat when I have the air on high. I have to turn it down to have a conversation with her. Unfortunately, this wasn’t something I knew to look for.
4. Remember room for a stroller
The trunk or hatch space has to be big enough for a stroller. But if you plan to have more than one kid, it needs to big enough for a double stroller, which is twice as big.
5. Study the middle of the back seat
There are two considerations here. As I mentioned, the safest place for a car seat in most cars is the middle of the back seat. You can check the car’s manual or website to be sure. The middle seat in our sedan has a hump and it made it difficult to get the car seat level and tight enough.
If you plan on more than one child, you’ll want to make sure there is room for someone to sit in the middle of the back seat between two car seats. If we have a friend in town, I have to contort myself to fit between my kids’ car seats. It’s a friendly reminder to exercise more.
6. Test the space between the front & back seats
When my husband drives he likes to have the driver’s seat farther back, but it hits our rear-facing infant car seat, so he drives uncomfortably close to the steering wheel. Infant car seats are designed to give a little and should not be wedged in. Before buying a car, adjust the front seats until they are comfortable for you and then try to fit an infant car seat in the seat behind you. There should be a little wiggle room.
7. Go with keyless entry
Now I only dig in my purse once a day when I have to open the front door to our house, as opposed to needing to find my keys every time I start the car.Also look for the ability to open the hatch or trunk from the driver’s seat. I assumed all cars would have this but I was very wrong. It’s much more convenient when hands are full of kids and bags to have the back already open, but my current car doesn’t have a hatch release inside or on the key. (Just make sure you avoid this dumb mistake with your key.)
8. Avoid cloth seats
I can’t really stress this one enough. When you have a carsick toddler, you’re gong to regret the day you didn’t pay a little more for the leather seats.
9. You need at least four doors
And those doors should have windows as tinted as the law allows so you’re not throwing jackets on your kids’ heads to keep the sun out of their eyes mid-trip. (Learn whether car insurance covers you if you leave your state.)
10. Voice command options and navigation are worth it
It’s more money and may not be possible but if you can, get it. Real-time traffic updates with navigation when children need a bathroom is invaluable. And being able to say, "Play ‘Let It Go’" is safer than searching your phone by hand.
We couldn’t get everything we wanted in a car even after we sold our first mistake and knew what we wanted. I actually encourage you, if you have a safe and reliable car, to try to make it work for at least a little while post-baby. That way you’ll have a chance to judge for yourself what works or doesn’t work for you and your family. Maybe you won’t mind crawling into a 3-foot space as much as I did.
If we had the money for a certain minivan, I would already own it. For our budget, we got a safe car that’s a nice height for getting kids in and out with a hatch back that doesn’t blind my children. I can’t have it all but at least I have a better chance of a car trip that doesn’t result in sunburned babies.
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Image: Sharon McCutcheon
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