Safe in the Seat

How to Choose a Car Seat for Your Toddler

As your child outgrows the height or weight limit on their infant car seat, the thought of going car seat shopping again can give you some real anxiety. You know by now that the process of buying a car seat isn’t as simple as just “running to the store.” Every seat is different and meets a unique set of needs. 

Since your child will be in a seat until they’re ten to twelve years old, it’s important to have a good understanding of what you’re looking for in your seat. Whether it’s your traveling lifestyle or your vehicle type, your car seat selection may differ from the mom next door. Though each seat is totally safe, each one provides different features and fits your child uniquely. 

Today, we’re sharing some tips on how to choose the right car seat for your toddler! If by the end of the article, you’re still overwhelmed on what seat to pick, check out our courses or buying kits for car seats.

How to Choose a Car Seat For Your Toddler

Car seats are vital for safety and are among the most expensive pieces of gear your family will purchase for your kiddo. Because of both‌ things, you must use care when choosing your car seat. Here are our best tips to guide you to the perfect car seat for your precious cargo!

Refresh on Safety Requirements

If it’s been a while since you’ve looked up the most recent car seat safety requirements, ensure that you review those safety updates with the National Highway and Traffic Safety Association. They’re continuing to perform more studies and collect data. So things might have already changed even in the last nine months since you last searched the recommendations!

You can also contact a child passenger safety technician if you want extra confirmation or are struggling to find the answers you’re looking for. They’re trained in all things car seats and can deliver all the necessary information! You can use one of our consultations or find one in your local area

Consider Whether New Or Used is Right for You

There are so many things out there for your child that you can get second-hand. I am sure you’ve already saved a ton by buying hand-me-down clothes or gear off-market. You can totally get lucky on Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp, Ebay, and even Craigslist. When it comes to car seats and booster seats, though, know you’re taking a risk when buying used. 

All car seat manufacturers have expiration dates on their seats. If you are thinking about buying a used car seat, ensure your prospective car seat is not expired or expiring soon! Obviously, do not use your car seat if it’s past its expiration. 

Many seats convert all the way to a booster seat that can be used with harness straps or the shoulder belt, but you might not reach that stage if the car seat soon expires. If you’re wondering more about why car seats expire, check out our post on that! 

Many car seats also cannot be used if they’ve been in anything more than a “minor” car crash according to the NHTSA car seat guidelines. If you’re buying from a stranger, beware! There is no way of knowing for sure it wasn’t in crash. 

Because of that, we recommend only buying from a trusted family member or friend after you’ve checked the expiration dates. If buying used is something you’re leaning toward, read this post. Specifically, the section on choosing a new vs used car seat. 

Review Your Car Model and Available Space

When squeezing into a tight parking spot, I’m sure you’ve noticed that not all vehicles are the same size and shape. You’ll probably realize early ‌in your car seat shopping journey that car seats also don’t come in just one shape and size. 

Before you look at car seats, consider what type of car you have. A compact car might pose several problems. If the seats are fairly narrow, you’ll have to look at slimmer-fitting car seats. If the person on the passenger or driver’s side sits with their seat too far back, not all seats will fit in their rear-facing position. Smaller cars could also make challenges for installation when trying to get the correct recline angle. 

Another huge factor with vehicle compatibility is the headrests. Some headrests are removable and some are not. If they are angled forward and not removable this could limit your car seat fit in forward-facing mode!

Just remember, take measurements, read your vehicle’s manual, and make sure your seat will work not just for baby, but for you and your car! 

Always Prioritize Features over Aesthetics 

It gets really easy to start scrolling through car seats and favoring all the beautiful and sleek designs. Remember, though, you should always consider features first. These features may include features for safety, convenience, or even fun.

Some fun features include cup holders or a kid’s compartment. Convenience features could include easy cleaning or no-rethread straps! Most importantly, advanced safety features you may want are anti-rebound bars or a load leg that will provide additional protection to your child beyond the NHSTA requirements. 

Since children should stay rear-facing until they reach the limits of their car seat (goal: age 4!), many car seats now include an extended foot panel that keeps your child comfortably rear-facing as they get taller. This keeps your child safer in a collision and happier with every ride! 

Consider what features are important to you to give sanity, peace of mind, and the ultimate comfort for your precious cargo. 

Give Thought to Cleaning the Seat

Toddlers are messy, but we don’t have to tell you that. Remember that you’ll be cleaning blowouts, crushed puffs, and spilled milk out of these seats. So you want something that is easy to clean and not too difficult to reassemble once you’re done! 

If you’re looking for tips on how to clean your car seat, take a look at this post

Weigh the Length of Usefulness vs Convenience

There are tons of car seat options out there from rear-facing seats to 4-in-1 to swivel seats to boosters! It can all be very confusing, but a key component to consider in all the car seat options is the convenience it provides over your length of use. 

For instance, if you go for the popular new swivel seat, it’s very convenient and provides super-easy access to any user! The downside is they’re pricey and are usually rather large which may limit the other vehicle seating positions available for car seats or passengers.

Additionally, a 4-in-1 car seat is marketed to work for your child at potentially every stage of their car seat journey. Unfortunately, these car seats often overinflate their limits and you may end up purchasing a dedicated high back or no back booster when the time comes. Pay special attention to the limits of the car seat and how your child’s particular body will fit. We help you with what to look for in our buying kits! Every car seat has give and take, so just take some time to consider what is and is not important to you! 

Consider the Direction of Your Child’s Current Seat

Maybe there are a few of you out there in the market for a new car seat. Now that you are better educated on car seat safety, age will be an important consideration!

If your child is already forward-facing, choosing a combination seat that will work for this current stage and the next stage/stages will make more sense for you over a swivel seat or a 4-in-1 that will have modes and features you no longer need. 

Contemplate Your Lifestyle 

The last factor to consider when purchasing a car seat is your lifestyle! Your family is unique, so think through your day-to-day and try to picture the process of unloading and loading your child into their seat as well as other passengers.

If you and your kiddos are out and about often, then a swivel seat might be a must-have convenience item for you! Additionally, if you have older family members or differently-abled caretakers that will be assisting with transportation responsibilities, that swivel will be a worthy feature. 

On the other hand, if you travel by plane often, you’ll need your seat to go with you. So choosing something lightweight might be a good call. If you’re someone who moves the car seat between vehicles often, then ease of installation will be an important feature.

Finally, if you’re on a really tight budget, considering inexpensive or trusted used car seats will still keep your child protected. Purchasing a convertible seat and then dealing with purchasing a booster later is totally doable! 

Take a moment and map out your day. Map out all the ways you use your infant seat and consider all the factors on this list before making your final choice. 

The Best Car Seats for Toddlers

Here are a few choices for the best toddler car seats! Remember, everyone will have a different view of “the perfect seat,” so review the features, cost, and limitations and ensure it’s the right pick for you. 

Britax Boulevard ClickTight Anti-Rebound Bar Convertible Car Seat

Britax offers a convertible car seat for the rear-facing and forward-facing stages up to 65 pounds. It offers key safety features like the anti-rebound bar and impact-absorbing base. It’s also got our favorite no-rethreading straps!

What We Like:

  • Anti-Rebound Bar
  • No-Rethread harness
  • Energy-absorbing base 
  • Easy to Install
  • Tall harness heights 
  • Multiple high-performing fabric options 
  • Lots of recline settings to choose from
  • 40lb rear-facing weight limit lasts small to average-sized kids a long time

What We Don’t Like:

  • Heavy and no fun to physically move 
  • Some fabric options don’t include an anti-rebound bar (ARB can be purchased separately) 
  • Recline adjustment can be “sticky”
Evenflo Gold Revolve360 All-in-One Car Seat 

This car seat is a stellar swivel seat choice! It has 360 rotation to make loading up the kids a breeze! With an anti-rebound base design and a top tether that’s used forward-facing and, uniquely, rear-facing, this seat offers stellar safety performance as well.

What We Like:

  • Swivels with one hand 
  • Rear Facing – High Back Booster
  • Cup Holders  
  • Tether360 used both rear and forward-facing
  • Anti-rebound design 
  • LockStrong arm for easy install 
  • Budget-friendly swivel option 
  • Tall harness heights 
  • No-rethread harness

What We Don’t Like:

  • Bulky for Smaller Cars 
  • Booster mode is hard to buckle 
  • Not FAA approved 
  • Harness covers are permanently attached 
  • Some Complaints About Belts Twisting
  • 40” rear-facing height limit may not last very long for tall toddlers 
  • Swivel feature can get stuck if used in the wrong recline setting 
  • Very wide, and cannot swivel if installed directly next to another car seat
Graco Extend2Fit

This car seat from a trusted brand has the highest rear-facing limits available and it comes at a friendly price point, making it an excellent choice for families who want to keep their big kids rear-facing as long as possible.

What We Like: 

  • Extended Foot Panel for Comfy Rear Facing
  • Adjustable Recline 
  • No-rethread harness
  • Roomy interior for bigger rear-facing kids
  • Cup Holders
  • Can be compact (front to back) for older rear-facing kids 
  • Price

What We Don’t Like: 

  • Install challenges when used forward-facing for kids who weigh less than 40lbs
  • Very wide (side to side)
  • Can have a large front to back footprint when an extension panel is used 
  • Cup holders can’t be removed once they are correctly installed
Nuna Exec

This premium car seat comes with a hefty price tag, but the features quickly explain why! With a great fit for rear-facing babies all the way up through independent, booster using grade-schoolers, it’s a long-lasting seat that just might be worth the investment!

What We Like:

  • Very easy install with True Tension doors 
  • Anti-rebound panel: extends for extra rear-facing legroom, and becomes a unique leg rest in forward-facing mode 
  • Slip cover for easy cleaning 
  • Premium fabrics with extra inserts included 
  • Easy to buckle in booster mode 
  • Can be fairly compact (front to back) when rear-facing 
  • 50lb rear-facing weight limit

What We Don’t Like:

  • Very Pricey
  • Cup holders are small, flimsy, and hard for smaller kids to reach 
  • Booster mode is not very tall, so it can be outgrown quickly 
  • Bulky harness padding is required for rear-facing
Clek Foonf Car Seat

The Clek Foonf is one of those seats that seem to do it all! It’s slim for small vehicles or side-by-side car seat needs. It comes with advanced safety features like the anti-rebound bar and a rigid latch for an extra-secure fit.

What We Like:

  • Anti-Rebound Bar
  • Rigid-Latch for forward-facing 
  • Narrow (side to side)
  • Adjustable Recline
  • Adjustable Headrest
  • Optional Q-tether for rear-facing 
  • Great newborn fit with added Infant Thingy insert 
  • 50lb rear-facing weight limit 
  • Smooth harness tightening mechanism

What We Don’t Like:

  • Pricey
  • Difficult to Clean
  • Cup Holders, Infant Inserts, and Other Accessories Sold Separately 
  • Rethread harness 
  • Large front to back footprint 
  • 43” rear-facing height limit 
  • Sits high in the vehicle, sometimes causing a blind spot
Chicco NextFit Max Zip Air Convertible Car Seat 

This seat thinks of the total car seat experience from the perspective of the child and the parent! It features a zip-off cover, which makes it super easy to clean! This seat is also easy to install with advanced tightening and connection tech, and the car seat has extended rear-facing capabilities!

What We Like: 

  • Zip-Off Cover for Easy Washing
  • Extended leg room for Rear Facing 
  • Adjustable Headrests
  • Breathable Mesh on “air” models 
  • Easy to Install, especially with lower anchor connectors 
  • Adjustable Recline
  • No-Rethread Harness
  • Smooth harness tightening mechanism

What We Don’t Like: 

  • Heavy, wide, and hard to physically move 
  • Bulky for Smaller Cars or Plane Travel
  • No anti-rebound bar 
  • Separate cup holder can fall off easily 
  • Large front to back footprint 
  • Deeper sides may make it hard to lift a rear-facing toddler into the seat
Graco Slimfit3 LX

If you have a vehicle with limited room due to narrow seats or other car seats, this is a great choice for you. This sleek seat from Graco is the narrowest convertible car seat currently available, and it’s great for small spaces where other seats just don’t fit!

What We Like:

  • Narrow profile (side to side)
  • Compact footprint (front to back)  
  • Optional, detachable cup holders  
  • 3 Modes – Rear Facing – High Back Booster
  • Designed to Be Side-by-Side with Other Seats
  • Cover snaps off for easy cleaning 
  • Seatbelt lock-off for easy forward-facing installation

What We Don’t Like:

  • Lacks rear-facing lock-off for easiest installation 
  • Often too upright when rear-facing to fit newborns well 
  • Booster mode is short and outgrown quickly
Safety First Jive 

This simple, lightweight car seat is a great option for travel, weighing in at only about 8lbs. It’s also an excellent option for families on a budget, with a great price point for a fairly long-lasting seat!

What We Like: 

  • Lightweight
  • Inexpensive
  • Harness is tall enough to last many kids aged 5-6 
  • Two recline lines; can be more upright and compact for older rear-facing kids
  • 40lb, 40” rear-facing limits last small to average kids to age 3-4 
  • One-piece cover is simple to remove and wash

What We Don’t Like:

  • Lowest harness height is too high for newborns 
  • 40lb, 40” rear-facing limits can be outgrown quickly for larger toddlers 
  • Can be a challenging install in some vehicles 
  • Lacks harness covers 
  • Rethread harness
Choosing the right car seat for your child is a big decision, so it’s important to consider your vehicle, your lifestyle, your goals, your budget, and anything else that might affect your car seat choice. 

We hope this helps you narrow down at least your most important features and the type of car seat you’re looking for. Coming up with your deal-breakers and must-haves will help you determine which seat is best for you and best for the safety and comfort of your toddler. 

Remember, if you’d like us to take care of the research and take the stress of car seat selection off your hands, check out our car seat buying kits! And do you have an infant too, or maybe one on the way? Check out our tips on how to choose the best infant car seat for your growing family. 

Affiliate links are included above. Safe in the Seat earns a small commission when you purchase through these links at no cost to you. We so appreciate your support.