Finding the best car seat for your little one can be beyond overwhelming. We all want our precious kiddos to be safe and comfy during every ride, but with so many options, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and unsure about which one to pick. Been there, done that!
Here at Safe in the Seat, we’re not just a team of nationally certified child passenger safety technicians – we’re moms, too! We’ve personally experienced the struggles of finding the ideal car seat that fits your child, vehicle, budget, and lifestyle. Over the years, we’ve assisted thousands of parents like you through our Car Seat Buying Kits, online courses, and personalized consultations.
Car Seat Buying Process
Now, let’s be real – if there were a magical “one-size-fits-all” car seat that was the absolute safest and best, we’d shout it from the rooftops! But the reality is that every family is unique, and there are countless car seat options out there. It’s like a treasure hunt to find the perfect one for you!
But don’t worry, that’s where our 7Cs of Car Seat Selection come to the rescue! It’s like our secret map for choosing a car seat confidently! We’ll walk you through the process below, and you’ll learn the right questions to ask and the critical factors to consider before you make that “add to cart” decision.
So, let’s embark on this car seat adventure together! We’ll guide you through the process to help you create your shortlist of car seats that fit your family’s needs like a glove, keeping your little one safe and comfy on every journey now and as they grow!
Car seat prices can vary depending on their features. Infant seats typically cost between $70 and $700, convertible seats between $60 and $750, forward-facing car seats between $60 and $500, and booster seats between $17 and $400.
When choosing a car seat, it’s crucial to consider not only the price but also your budget and the number of seats you need. If you have multiple children or frequently transport other kids, you likely need more than one seat and must budget accordingly!
All car seats and booster seats manufactured in the United States must meet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) federal motor vehicle safety standards. In other words, all car seats are safe when used correctly! Additional ease-of-use features, advanced crash and safety features, and even fabrics can contribute to the wide range of prices.
2. Child Fit
Child fit is one of the most important factors when choosing a car seat. The goal is to choose a car seat that will last. Matching up your child’s growth trajectory with the specifications of various car seats will ensure you get the most bang for your buck. Is your child taller than average, or do they have a tall torso, or maybe they are a little higher percentile in weight? Or perhaps the opposite is true? Some seats will work better and last longer than others based on this information. Our recommended car seats vary depending on the child’s size. When choosing a car seat, it’s critical to consider not just the age, weight, height, and stage your child is in now, but also as they grow. And, since children sit in car seats, this is a crucial factor in determining the seat’s longevity.
If you don’t already know where your child falls on a growth chart, check out this site and find your child’s height and weight percentiles.
Considering child fit is much easier in the infant car seat stage as most of them will work for your newborn as long as you are not expecting a premature or smaller-than-average baby.
While most parents start with an infant car seat, some use a convertible car seat from the get-go. If you haven’t decided which type of car seat you prefer, check out this blog post. If you land on starting with a convertible car seat, proceed with caution. Some convertible, 3-in-1, and all-in-one car seats claim to fit even the smallest of newborns, yet they don’t! Not to worry, we’ve compiled a list of our top convertible car seat choices that fit newborn babies well here.
If you decide to use an infant car seat, most children will safely fit in them for 6-18 months, depending on child size, car seat size, and parent preference! Once this type of seat is outgrown, you will need a convertible car seat to rear face as long as possible.
Some of our top recommended infant car seats can be found here.
Convertible Car Seats
If your child has outgrown their infant seat or it’s just gotten too darn heavy, then it’s time for a convertible car seat. Children are often in convertible car seats from when they graduate from their infant car seat until 6-7 years of age! This is why considering their body type and growth is critical to purchasing a car seat that fits them now and for many years ahead. In addition, the recommendation is to rear face as long as possible, so considering their height and weight growth trajectory is really important!
Check out our blog post about the best convertible car seats thoughtfully categorized based on your child’s height and weight percentiles. In that blog post, we also highlighted which seats are narrow enough for 3 across situations if that applies to your family.
Forward-Facing Car Seats
Many parents use convertible car seats in the forward-facing position until their child is ready for a booster seat. However, if your family is growing it may make sense to purchase a new seat for your already forward-facing rider and pass their convertible seat down.
Several forward-facing-only seats also have high-back booster mode. If your child is riding in the seat in harness mode, pay close attention to the weight and height limits so that the shoulder harness straps can still come out just above your child’s shoulders. When exploring the seat for booster mode, the height of the seat belt guide is the best indicator of how long the seat will last for your specific child.
We share our top choices based on child fit in this blog post.
Children should ride in harnessed seats until they are at least 5 years old, but most kids will be even older before they can consistently sit properly in a booster seat. This stage requires maturity and a lot of practice. We highly recommend starting with a high-back booster and having your child use it until they reach the maximum weight or height limit before moving to a backless booster.
Check out the comprehensive guide to the best booster seats that gives insights into the top options that cater to varying height and weight requirements. The goal is to choose one that will last until the child can fit into the adult seat belt.
3. Car Compatibility
While most car seats fit in most cars, specific vehicle features, such as inflatable seat belts, nonremovable headrests, underfloor storage compartments, and top tether anchor positions, can make installation difficult or even incompatible in some situations. It’s essential to consider those factors before buying a car seat.
For vehicles equipped with inflatable seat belts, not all car seats can be installed using this type of belt; Clek and Graco seats are recommended options. These seat belts are typically found in the 2nd-row outboard seats, so if you do have nonremovable headrests, consider installing them in the center seating position or 3rd row. Alternatively, you can use lower anchors, but ensure your chosen car seat has a high lower anchor limit.
Some vehicles have headrests that cannot be removed. If your vehicle has non-removable headrests, car seats that are rear-facing pose no issues, but forward-facing seats can be challenging to install. Consider Nuna, Clek, or Evenflo car seats. Use caution with rotating car seats, as many tend to be incompatible with headrests that can’t be removed and tilt forward.
Vehicles with underfloor storage compartments or stow-and-go seats may limit the use of car seats with load legs, so consult your vehicle owner’s manual for compatibility.
Limited back seat space, whether due to small dimensions or tall front passengers, calls for a compact car seat choice when shopping for rear-facing seats.
Lastly, forward-facing harnessed seats strongly recommend the use of the top tether. A top tether is a long strap on the back of a convertible, 3-in-1, or all-in-one car seat. The top tether strap on the car seat connects to a designated top tether anchor in the vehicle. Be aware of your vehicle’s top tether anchor positions to ensure proper installation of car seats in those locations.
Every family’s needs are unique. So, while you’re on the hunt for that ideal car seat, it’s essential to consider your lifestyle, the type of vehicle you own, and what your current and future car seat needs might be. And, don’t forget about the other passengers or animals or cargo who might join in on your rides too and how everyone can fit safely and comfortably.
One of the most common circumstances families must consider is if they have a vehicle with a bench seat, and car seats must be positioned side by side. To accommodate three people in one row, opt for narrow car seats (17.5″ or less in width).
Other circumstances to consider could be airplane use, international travel, and ease of use installation features if you have to switch the case seat between vehicles, to name a few.
5. Crash Features
While all car seats have to pass national crash test standards, some have extra safety features that you might want to consider, like anti-rebound bars, load legs, rear-facing tethers, or rigid lower anchors. These advanced safety features could serve as added protection in a car crash. They also may contribute to the cost and complexity of installation.
An anti-rebound bar enhances stability for rear-facing car seats, limiting the amount of rebound the car seat experiences in a crash. While it usually doesn’t affect seating position, it may increase front-to-back space requirements during installation.
A load leg extends from the rear-facing car seat to the vehicle floor, reducing crash forces and protecting your child’s head, neck, and spine. Load legs sometimes impact where in the car you’ll install the seat. Check your vehicle manual and be on the lookout for things like hollow floorboards or humps that would affect the functionality of the load leg or the ability to use it at all.
A rear-facing tether is a strap that routes around and behind the car seat and anchors to a designated tether position on the vehicle seatback. Rear-facing tethers limit car seat rotation during rebound, just like a load leg. Though less common in the U.S., some car seats feature this option for added safety during installation, whether using a seat belt or lower anchor connectors.
rigid lower anchors
Unlike flexible lower anchors on the end of a strap, rigid lower anchors are steel bars that protrude out directly from the steel frame of the car seat and attach directly to your vehicle’s lower anchors. This connection style is generally considered a user-friendly install. It creates an extremely tight connection between the car seat and the vehicle, which is critical to child passenger safety. A car seat with rigid lower anchors must be in a vehicle seating position with designated lower anchor connectors (if you intend to use them–which you should!). This typically means a car seat with rigid lower anchors will be placed behind the driver or passenger seat.
6. Convenience Features
When selecting a car seat, it’s essential to consider convenience features that can make installing and using the car seat easier!
Features like buckle tongue holders, which keep the harness out of the way during loading and unloading, machine washable covers, which simplify cleaning, and cupholders for your kids to store their trinkets and maybe cups, too, may be important to you.
Some car seats offer a swivel function, making it more accessible to get your child in and out. Additionally, check the harness adjustment type – whether it’s rethread or no-rethread – to determine how hassle-free it is to accommodate your child’s growth.
What’s important to you may not be to another family. Write down these types of features that you’d really like to have as you narrow down your options.
7. (Additional) Considerations
As you navigate the world of car seat options, there are some additional factors to consider based on your unique needs and priorities.
For example, you may want to look into the manufacturer’s crash replacement policy, which varies from replacing after any crash (even with no vehicle damage) to calling the manufacturer to discuss. Consider checking for extended warranties that can offer extra protection and support. If using a vehicle seat protector is important to you, choose a car seat that allows for its use. Lastly, for those concerned about chemical exposure, inquire about fabric options that are flame-retardant-free. While these factors may not be universal must-haves, they are worth considering to tailor your car seat choice to your specific preferences and concerns.
Finalize your top choices and get shopping!
Now that you know what to consider when choosing a car seat, you’re ready to get to researching, comparing, and nailing down your shortlist of the best car seats for your child and family.
If you’re ready to start shopping, a complete list of our recommended car seats can be found here.
If you’re currently creating a Google sheet to map it all out, we suggest that you pause and check out our Car Seat Buying Kits.
The kits are designed specifically for moms like you who want to save time and money and avoid feeling overwhelmed when choosing a car seat. You’ll know the right questions to ask and have all the answers at your fingertips. After taking a short quiz, we will give you access to our entire database, comparing all of the factors we outlined in the 7Cs of Car Seat Selection above! In 30 minutes, your research will be done, and you’ll be ready to shop!
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