What’s the best car seat out there? This is a question we get A LOT. But there is not a simple answer. (If there was, we promise we’d tell you!) Think of it like a pair of jeans. There is no single best pair of jeans, but there is a best pair for you based on your preferences and lifestyle. So, when it comes to car seats, you’ve got to consider a whole list of factors to figure out which is the best seat for your child.
No wonder choosing a car seat isn’t easy. Not only are they expensive, but they are responsible for keeping your child safe. There’s a lot of pressure to pick the right one! So, we’ve created a guide to help you select the right seat. Here’s how to choose the best car seat for your child:
How to Choose the Best Car Seat for Your Child
Choosing the best car seat for your kiddo comes down to factors of necessity and preference. But, how do you know what you need and what you like? We’re here to help with that! We’ll walk you through each consideration and help you select the car seat that will work best for your family.
Safety Laws and Best Practice
First up, you’ll need to check the child restraint safety laws in your state. This one doesn’t have to do with personal preference, but instead ensures you’re complying with the laws of your area. Many states require children to be in rear facing seats until 2, though requirements for booster seats and front facing seats vary a lot.
State laws have one thing in common, though: they typically don’t represent true best practice when it comes to car seat safety. They usually just establish a bare minimum. But in line with best practice recommendations from car seat manufacturers and experts like the AAP, we recommend you keep your young passengers rear facing for as long as their car seat allows (but if you really want a number, we like to set a goal of age 4!), keep your child in a harnessed seat until at least five (but often 6-7), and in a booster until they pass the 5-step graduation test. So as you decide what’s best for your family, take into account whether a car seat will allow you to exceed the minimums set out by state law and strive for best practice. (Even better: make sure your choice is within our recommendations!)
This factor is pretty straightforward: what’s your budget? The price tag for a car seat in the US ranges from under $50 to over $700. Most of us find a comfortable point somewhere in the middle. Consider your budget and set a number early in your car seat shopping process. This’ll help you narrow your focus towards car seat options that work for your wallet. From there, you’ll be able to use the rest of our tips to select the one that’ll work for your family too!
Remember, all car seats on the market pass the same strict, federally required testing. So there’s no need to max out that credit card to keep your child safe. Those fancy seats with higher price tags may have additional convenience features or a fancier cover, but don’t feel like those items are must-haves if they’ll put you out of your budget comfort zone.
Age and Size of Your Child
Next, you’ll need to consider the age and size of your child. Car seats list height and weight limits, but the typical progression of a child’s physical development is based on age. So all three factors come into play when you’re making your selection!
Once you’ve narrowed down what type of car seat you’re looking for based on your child’s age and stage, take a look at the height and weight limits as well as your kiddo’s growth percentiles to get an idea of how long a seat might last your family. If you have a big-and-tall toddler, you might need a seat with a 50lb rear facing weight limit to reach your rear facing goals — but a child on the petite side might not reach 50 pounds until age nine. With so many car seats to choose from, these factors can help narrow down your short list!
Body type comes into play as well: some car seats have taller harness heights, making them a better choice for longer-torso’d kids. Some seats have wider interiors and some offer a deeper seat, leading to more support for longer legs. Car seats aren’t a one-size-fits-all product! Matching up all these attributes will ensure your kiddo’s next car seat proves to be a great investment. You don’t want to end up with a seat that’s outgrown too soon.
Not only do you need a car seat that fits your child, but you need one that fits your car! If you have a compact car, the back seat measurements could limit the model of car seat you buy. Read your car’s manual to figure out potential limitations.
For example, most vehicles do not allow car seats to brace against the front seats. This is because the car seat could interfere with advanced airbag sensors during a crash. Not safe at all! So, if you need a rear facing car seat, double check measurements. Confirm it’ll fit safely where it will be installed.
Additionally, some cars have headrests that are not removable. This is a problem for many tall forward facing seats, because it tilts the seat forward and creates a gap between the vehicle seat and car seat. If your vehicle has non-removable headrests that tilt forward, make sure your car seat will either puzzle well with that pesky headrest, or allow any gap that may be created during install.
Finally, do you have other car seats in the back of your car? Two car seats is no problem, but what about three? That’s a lot of seats! In bigger cars, fitting three seats might not be a big deal. But, in many vehicles, you’ll need narrow car seats that can each be safely installed on the bench side-by-side. Look for car seats that are around 17″ wide or specifically designed for 3-across setups, like the Graco Slimfit3 LX or the Clek Fllo.
Length of Use
On the car seat roadmap, there are five stages: infant, convertible, high back booster, no back booster, and seat belt. Car seats come in all sorts of combinations. You can buy a car seat that will work for your child from infancy into elementary school. Or, you can purchase seats that only include one or two of the stages. It all depends on where you are on the roadmap!
For example, if your child has already grown out of the rear facing car seat phase, buying a convertible car seat might not be the most sensible choice. This is because your child can only use one function of the car seat and is quickly outgrowing it! In this instance, buying a combination car seat that goes from front facing to a high back booster to a backless booster would be a much better option.
Another thing to think about when considering the length of use with a car seat is your plan for future children. If you’re only having one child, buying an infant car seat might seem like an unnecessary expense. Instead, you can jump straight to a newborn-friendly convertible seat that will fit as your child grows. But, for others, the convenience of an infant seat makes sense since they’ll use it across multiple kiddos.
One more thing we want to point out:
When it comes to car seats that claim to be the only car seat your kiddo will ever need, proceed with caution. These all-in-one style seats offer rear facing, forward facing, high back booster mode, and sometimes even backless booster mode. We know that a one-and-done car seat purchase sounds great, but in reality most parents find themselves needing another, separate booster seat to finish out their child’s car seat journey. So there’s nothing wrong with choosing an all-in-one car seat if that’s the one that fits your needs best for your child’s current stage, but keep those long-term expectations in check!
Let’s start this section by remembering one important truth: all car seats on the market are crash tested to strict standards to make sure they’ll do their job and keep our kiddos safe! However, as you’re shopping around, you’re sure to notice a few safety buzzwords. These above-and-beyond features claim to improve the car seat’s crash performance. We can’t quantify how much difference these items make, but we’ll go through some of these features and how they work so you can decide if they make your priority list!
This device limits rebound, which is the “bounce-back” motion towards the rear of the vehicle that happens to a rear-facing seat in the moment right after a crash. It may also help with side-to-side rotation in a side impact crash. Also called an anti-rebound panel — they’re the same thing! It’s offered as an add-on on the Britax One4Life and comes standard on the Clek Fllo.
Most car seats have a flexible seatbelt-like strap for their lower anchor connectors. A few offer rigid latch instead — meaning that the lower anchor connectors are a rigid extension of the car seat frame instead of on a strap. This type of latch provides a very secure installation and can limit how much the car seat moves during a crash. It’s offered on some infant car seat bases and in forward facing mode on the Clek Foonf.
This feature is an extendable leg that goes from the car seat down to the floor of the vehicle. It helps limit how far the car seat moves towards the front of the vehicle during the first moments of a crash. And by limiting that first movement, secondary movement like rebound is also reduced! This feature is found on some infant car seat bases and on one convertible car seat, the Cybex Sirona S.
In this sample lesson from our Infant Course, you will learn why car seats and their proper use are so critical to keeping kids safe. Want to learn how to keep your child safe on every ride? Check out our Infant Course or Convertible Course on the how-tos of installation, harnessing, and troubleshooting.
Side impact protection:
Most car seats advertise some form of side impact protection. It may be built into the car seat’s shell or headrest; a pod that manually pops out from the car seat shell; or a separate piece you add to the side of the car seat closest to the vehicle door.
Energy absorption technology:
Many car seats incorporate energy absorbing technology, often similar to the crumple zone of a vehicle. By deforming (“crumpling”) on impact, the car seat absorbs some of the crash forces and may slightly reduce the forces placed on the child’s body. Many different car seat brands have their own names for this feature, but the concept is the same! For example, Britax has SafeCell technology and the Uppababy KNOX features Koroyd technology, just to name a couple.
Extra Bells and Whistles
Now that we’ve covered the most important factors for ensuring a car seat will meet your needs, let’s dive into some fun features that can really make a car seat work for your family! Car seat manufacturers work hard to create a pleasant user experience for parents and kids alike, and these extra bells and whistles may make that difference for your family.
Unique Installation Systems
Car seat safety begins with proper installation. This is difficult with some car seats, but many manufacturers have made it easier to get a safe fit! Britax Boulevard Clicktight has a super easy and secure seat belt installation system. Graco seats with the Snuglock feature are simple too. And, the Chicco NextFit Max Zip Air has a special latch system that makes getting a solid install a breeze!
Is that a real word? We’re not sure, but we know every parent will know what we’re talking about! Car seats get messy, just like everything else when you have kids. But some are easier to clean than others. If you have a car-sick kiddo or if you’re prepping for potty training, consider car seats with zip-off, machine washable padding and removable, dishwasher-safe cup holders like the ones that come with the Chicco NextFit Zip. Graco also offers seats with a Rapid Remove cover feature that relies on velcro and snaps. Some seats even offer water and stain-resistant fabric — the Clek Foonf is in that category.
Does your little one sweat like crazy every time they’re in the car? Try finding a car seat with breathable mesh fabric that keeps them cool while they’re riding on long trips! The Britax One4Life Cool Flow car seat is made exactly for this purpose.
On long car rides, especially with toddlers and older kiddos, it’s nice to have a place to put stuff. Whether it’s a sippy cup or car seat safe toys, a cup holder or built-in snack tray can really come in handy. And, if you’re traveling via plane? Even more so!
All car seats need to meet a flammability standard laid out in federal law. Most car seats meet that standard by adding flame retardant chemicals to the fabric of the car seat, but some manufacturers offer car seats that meet that standard without adding any chemicals. It’s not a priority for everyone, but if it makes your list, the Nuna Exec All-in-One checks that box.
Ease of Use
Once your car seat is installed correctly, you’ll still need to strap your kiddo in every day. Getting kids in and out of a car seat can be really cumbersome. Whether it’s adjusting the harness straps, releasing the crotch buckle, or tightening appropriately, car seat use is just not the easiest.
If ease is a concern, look for car seats with no rethread straps, buckles that are easy to undo, and maybe even a swivel feature. Rotating swivel seats turn the car seat toward you. So, you can buckle your child in safely without contorting yourself into the car while wrestling your toddler.
As a side-note, make sure you know how to buckle your child into their car seat appropriately. If you think you know, double check! There is so little information about safe car seat use out there. We highly recommend getting a car seat consultant that can make sure your seat is installed right. They can also determine if your seat is appropriate for your child and if you know how to buckle your kiddo up correctly!
Lastly, you’ll want to find the right car seat for your lifestyle. If you have multiple cars and will need a seat for each one, a cheaper option might be best. Or, if your family frequently flies, a lightweight seat might be the priority.
Even think about your loved ones that might use the seat. You might not need the swivel feature, but would a babysitting grandparent get use out of this feature?
One more thing to consider will be how frequently you’ll be leaving the house with your child. A parent who plans to stay in most of the time might see little use in an infant car seat with a travel system. But, if you’re out and about a lot with your infant, a removable infant seat is a must!
Picking the best car seat for your family takes a lot of careful consideration and research.
There is no “best” car seat. There are so many car seats out there, because everyone’s needs are a little different. Use this list to help you break down the essential features for your family, and seek a car seat that checks all those boxes!
If you are still lost, we get it. Walk through the 7Cs of car seat selection with me in this YouTube video.
Safe in the Seat has car seat buying kits that make the process even easier! Seriously, using this buying kit will give you all the confidence in the world that you made the right car seat choice. And, make sure to follow us on Insta and head on over to our blog for all the best and trusted information on how to use your seat. Let’s get shopping!
Once you have that perfect car seat nailed down, check our courses, The Infant Course, The Convertible Car Seat Course, or Wheels Up: Airplane Travel Course.
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