Whether you’re a first-time parent or not, it’s always a good idea to know what to look for when it comes to purchasing a car seat for your child. Contrary to popular belief, safety ratings alone are not the end all answer to finding “the best” car seat. In fact, proper fit is the most important factor as well as ease of installation, concise instruction labels and overall use.
To give you an overview of what you should be looking for a in a car seat, I’ve broken down this car seats buying guide into three sections: the basic types of car seats by age, important considerations based on your lifestyle and car seat terminology to help you understand the different features.
Car Seats Guide by Age
Infant Car Seat
Age 0-12 months
Infant car seats are rear-facing only and can be hand-carried or paired with a stroller to make a complete travel system when out of the car with baby.
Convertible Car Seat (Rear-Facing to Forward-Facing)
Age 0-5 years
Convertible car seats are used in the rear-facing position until your child meets the maximum height or weight limitations of that position (usually around age 2 or 3). They may then be turned to the forward-facing position as your toddler grows into a “big kid”.
Harness to Booster Seat
A harness to booster seat is a forward-facing only car seat that keeps children ages 2+ in a 5-point harness restraint for as long as possible before converting to a booster seat that uses your vehicle’s own seat belt system.
A booster seat may be either backless or high back or a combination of both. Booster seats do not have harnesses as they use the vehicle’s own seat belt system.
All One Car Seat
An all one car seat converts from rear-facing to forward-facing to a booster seat, giving you the longest use out of one car seat.
Once your child has reached age 8 and a minimum height of 4’ 9”, they may use the vehicle’s own seat belt system without any type of booster. Children under the age of 13 should continue to ride in the back seat for maximum safety.
Aside from purchasing a car seat that is appropriate for your child’s size, you may wish to take into consideration the following based on your lifestyle.
Car seats can be expensive – especially if you have to buy more than one for separate vehicles. So let’s talk about your budget. The cost of a single car seat can range anywhere from $40 to over $350 depending upon the style and brand. Even so, this is a purchase that is well worth it for the safety of your precious passenger. To help you narrow down your search by budget, here are some popular brands to check out by their overall affordability:
How many car seats do I need?
The number of car seats you will need throughout your child’s youth really depends on the size of your child and your individual lifestyle. If you’re starting from infancy, you will most likely need a minimum of 2. This number can increase depending upon the height and weight limitations of any given car seat.
To get a better idea, watch this 1 minute video.
Additionally, you’ll want to consider the number of vehicles you have. Do you plan to do a lot of switching in and out of different cars? Or does it make more sense just to buy another car seat for that vehicle?
Switching Vehicles Often
If you have additional vehicles, but want to keep the number of car seats you have to purchase to a minimum, you can always switch the car seat in and out. However, there are some things to keep in mind with this.
A 2011 study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that a whopping 46% of car seats and boosters are improperly installed, which in turn reduces the effectiveness of the car seat in the event of a crash. This scary statistic will certainly make you want to consider how easy the car seat you purchase is to install.
If you’re switching your car seat in and out of your spouse’s car often or if anyone else including grandparents, nannies or school carpools will be using it in their own vehicle, be sure they know how to properly install it.
Additionally, you may wish to select a car seat that is more lightweight for switching cars often. Infant car seats and booster seats are generally lightweight, however many convertible and toddler car seats can weigh upwards of 22-25 lbs. This makes for some heavy lifting. Unless you want to add lifting a hefty car seat into your exercise regimen, you might want to go for one of the car seats more in the 15-20 lbs. range.
The size of your vehicle matters when it comes to purchasing a car seat for a couple of reasons. The more obvious being that it might be pretty hard to get a 25 lb. car seat into a 2-door sports car. The thought of this alone is cringe-worthy. But aside from what sounds like an installation nightmare of sweating and swearing, you won’t be left with much more room for additional passengers in your vehicle.
The second scenario is only if you have multiple kids in car seats. For example, if you have 3 kids of your own or need to have 3 car seats in the same row for a carpool, some of the larger convertible and toddler car seats will only fit 2 in the same row. Unless you have a car or van with additional bucket seats, consider how wide the car seat(s) are that you’re purchasing.
Easy to Clean
Vomit. Cheerios. Goldfish crackers. More vomit. Yes, there will inevitably be the need to deep clean your child’s car seat from crumbs, sickness and whatever else their cute, but grubby hands soil it with. The easier it is to take the seat cover and cushions apart, the better. The best way to find out how easy a car seat is to clean is to read reviews posted by other mommies and daddies.
If your child is not comfortable in their car seat, car rides will be unpleasant for everyone. The discomfort will not only be frustrating for your child, but the unnecessary crying and whining from the backseat will also be frustrating and distracting to you as the driver. Of course, there is no way to know if your child will be comfortable in any car seat until they try it. This is why it is important to buy your car seat from a company such as Amazon with a generous 90-Day Returns Policy on baby items, in the event that you need to return it after the fact.
If you’re a family of sky travelers, consider whether you want a car seat that your child can sit in on the plane or one that you’ll simply check as baggage. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recommends that small children be restrained in a hard-back car seat during flight. However, not all car seats are approved for aircraft. Check to make sure the car seat you purchase is government approved and labeled “This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft”. And since you’ll be lugging it all through the airport, you may wish to look for a lightweight travel car seat that is more manageable such as the Evenflo Maestro for ages 2+.
TIP: A Car Seat Travel Cart attaches to your child’s car seat so that she can sit while you roll her effortlessly through the airport.
Car Seat Terminology
Car seats come with their own set of vocabulary, which may be confusing initially to the novice shopper. If you know what these terms mean, not only will you find it easier to navigate through the many car seats on the market, but you’ll have a much better idea of how to install the car seat from the get-go.
LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children)
LATCH is the system of anchors and tethers that secures the car seat in place in your vehicle. If your vehicle was manufactured in the year 2003 or later, it should be equipped with metal rings or bars known as anchors. The lower anchors are hidden between the crevice of the seats and the tether anchors are located behind the seat. Car seats typically come with two adjustable lower hook or push-button style connectors that attach to these anchors as well as a top tether strap on applicable forward-facing car seats.
Before LATCH became standard on car seats in 2002, securing the car seat with your vehicle’s own seat belt was the norm. While you can still do this, the LATCH system offers easier installation for some. Both methods of installation, however, offer equal protection so long as done correctly in accordance with the car seat instructions and your vehicle’s manual.
The car seat tether strap is a long, adjustable strap with a hook on the end that connects from the top of a forward-facing car seat to your vehicle’s tether anchor latch, a metal ring or bar located behind the seat. Depending upon the type of vehicle you have, your anchor latch may be located on the floor, the ceiling, the rear shelf or on the back of the seat itself.
The harness is the restraint belt system contained within the car seat. All car seats that have a harness feature a 5-point harness system, which includes five straps. There are two straps over the child’s shoulders, two at the hips and one at the crotch. The harness buckles in two places including a chest clip at armpit level and a 2-point metal buckle with push button release mechanism at the crotch.
Many car seats have the ability to auto-adjust the harness straps with the push of a button as your child grows. Others may require rethreading of the straps, which means you have to manually pulls the straps out and rethread them through different harness slots for the right fit. This can be an annoying task, and is something to be aware of when searching for a car seat.
Level or Recline Indicator
Rear-facing car seats come with a recline indicator, which lets you know that the car seat has been properly installed at an angle that is safe for your baby. Recline angle is important for infants and babies for head and neck support as well as for keeping their airway clear.
Check For Recalls
Last but not least, this car seats buying guide wouldn’t be complete without a recommendation to check for any car seat recalls before you make a purchase. You can find a list of all car seat recalls within the last 10 years on the NHTSA website here.