Car Seats

How to Choose a Car Seat

April 26, 2018

How to Choose a Car Seat

Want to buy the safest possible car seat for their child? You might be making one crucial mistake.How to Choose a Car Seat

A car seat is one of the few actual must-haves when baby is born. Unless you plan on walking your baby home from the hospital.

But before you add a car seat to your baby registry, you have to decide if you are going to start with an infant car seat (which can only be used rear-facing) or a convertible car seat (which can be used rear-facing for an infant and then forward-facing for a toddler).

There are three main kinds of car seats. Here’s our quick breakdown.

Car seats by age

Infant car seats

An infant car seat is the light, portable kind that easily clips in and out of the car and stroller. It can only be used as a rear-facing car seat, the safest position for baby. The average baby outgrows them between 10-14 months old. (Exactly when depends both on your baby’s size and the height and weight limits on the specific car seat.)

You may be asking yourself, “If I just have to buy a convertible car seat when my baby gets bigger, why buy an infant car seat in the first place?” The main difference is that an infant car seat can be snapped out of the car and brought inside, while a hefty convertible car seat is semi-permanently installed in the car.

Reasons to start with a rear-facing infant car seat

  • Babies under six months can’t sit up on their own, and only a few strollers out there have the ability to fully recline the seat. If you want to stroll with a newborn, you often have to clip in an infant car seat.
  • Although infant car seats do click into bases, you can also install them using just a seat belt, making them easier to use in friend’s cars, cabs and rideshares.
  • You can unclip and move your baby without interrupting a nap.
  • During hot or really cold weather, you can store the infant car seat inside, so it’s always a comfortable temperature.

How do most parents do it? Even though you can skip infant car seat and go right to convertible, more than 80 percent of Babylist parents register for an infant car seat.

Convertible car seats

A convertible car seat can be used as a rear-facing car seat or a forward-facing car seat. (That’s why it’s called convertible.) Most can be used either from birth or from when your baby outgrows the infant car seat. However, it’s too heavy to tote around on an everyday basis and won’t fit in a stroller. Some convertibles are a 3-in-1 or even 4-in1 car seat that convert into a booster or a high-back booster, too.

Reasons to start with a convertible car seat * You’d rather wear your newborn in a carrier than carry a car seat or stroll them. * You want to save money by skipping the infant seat. * You want to limit the number of products you buy (minimalism, environmentalism, frugality or what have you). * You think your baby will be a light sleeper. (Particularly restless babies will wake up when you lift their car seat, even if you don’t take them out of it!) * A rear-facing convertible car seat can be safer than a rear-facing infant seat for babies approaching a year old. Having more head room makes it safer, because it reduces the chance of getting their head bumped.

Booster car seats

A booster car seat is for when your kid outgrows their convertible car seat but isn’t tall enough to use an adult-sized seat belt. You’ll typically transition a kid to their booster car seat when they’re between 40 and 65 pounds, and they’ll stop using it between the ages of 10 and 12.

When does your child legally graduate to a convertible or a booster? Laws vary from state to state so look up your specific regulations, but you don’t have to worry about this for a few years

Car Seats By Age

The safest car seats

One of the most frequent questions we get from parents is: how do I get the safest car seat? Luckily, all new car seats pass strict federal safety regulations, so how you use it matters way more than which one you buy.

So what makes a car seat safe?

It is the right size for your child’s weight, height and age * It is installed tightly in your car (unable to move more than an inch side-to-side or front-to-back). * The harness straps are positioned at or below baby’s shoulders and are tight enough that you can’t pinch the harness. * The car seat is reclined to a safe angle so your baby’s head can’t fall forward. (Car seats have guidelines and adjustments to make sure you get the right incline depending on weight, height and age.)

Simple rules, but sometimes tricky to implement in the field! The best way to make sure your installation is safe is to find a Child Passenger Safety technician to check your work.

Be careful with used car seats. Look for its expiration date on the bottom and make sure it’s never been recalled. When in doubt, go new.

Car seat safety features

Here are three important features to look for when car seat shopping.

A 5-point harness: this is two shoulder straps, two waist straps and a between-the-legs strap that all meet in a middle buckle. Five-point harnesses are safer than three-point harnesses because they spread the crash forces over more areas of the body. They also hold your baby in place, preventing them from wiggling into an unsafe position.

Side-impact protection: In about a quarter of crashes, your car is hit from the side rather than the front. Currently, side impact protection is unregulated, so the National Highway Safety Administration is researching how to test side-impact protection and what laws should be passed. You definitely want something that advertises side-impact protection, but be skeptical of claims that one brand has “more” than another because there’s no objective testing standard yet.

Easy harness adjustment: Having the shoulder harness fit your child perfectly makes the car seat much safer for your child. If the harness is easy to adjust, you’ll probably do it more frequently. Look for a “no-rethread harness” to know that it’s super easy.

Want to know which infant car seats were parent favorites? We cover that in our guide to the Best Infant Car Seats of this year.

Safest placement in your car

Not all car seats fit in all cars, so it’s great to use a retailer that accepts returns or permits you to test-install the car seat. Besides making sure the car physically fits in your back seat, the angle of your seat and the placement of your seat belts can also affect whether your car seat is a good fit for your car. Look in your vehicle’s owner’s manual for any special instructions.

In most cars, the middle of the back seat is the safest spot for your car seat. However, if you’re dealing with two car seats at the same time, there might not be room in the middle. Also some cars only have LATCH on the outside seats, so you have to choose between an easy and tight LATCH install or a middle seat. What’s LATCH? More on that in the next section.

If you have a small car, don’t pick a seat with a large base. When in doubt, measure your car’s back seat and compare it to the measurements of the car seat’s base. (The Chicco KeyFit 30 and the City Go car seat have smaller bases—under 20 inches long—so they’re a good choice for compact cars.)

Easiest-to-use car seats

Ease of installation

Infant car seats can be installed with our without a base, and they can use either the car’s seat belts or the LATCH system. So the answer to the question, “What’s the easiest way to install a car seat?” depends on what method you’ll be using to install it on a regular basis.

If you’re going to be installing your car seat using the LATCH system, many infant car seats all have really great easy-install scores from NHTSA. Some great features to look for in any brand: 1) an easy-to-reach LATCH tightener and 2) bubble level indicators so you can see whether your car seat is level.

If the seat doesn’t have the bubble level indicator, it will have a line on the side of the base, and you have to look and see if the line is level with the ground. As you can imagine, the bubble level indicator is much more convenient and precise.

If you’re mainly going to be using your seat in cabs, rideshares and friend’s cars, there are a few seats that are especially easy to install using the seat belt. Look for a taxi-safe belt path and a built-in lockoff device that clamps the seat belt in place so it can’t loosen.

Ease of adjustment and use

Part of car seat safety is making sure the harness fits your baby’s body just right for every ride. This means changing the harness settings as your baby grows. Although all safety seat harnesses adjust, make sure the adjustments are easy to reach and simple to use. One key phrase to remember is “no-rethread harness.” Lots of parents find those more user-friendly to deal with in general.

In terms of the harness button and buckles, you want something that’s too stiff for a baby or toddler to undo by themselves, but not so stiff that you’re cursing every time you have to use it. If the button is a little uncomfortable on your thumbs, but overall doable, it’s probably about right.

Ease of cleaning

Seats made with smooth and/or water-resistant fabrics will wipe clean more easily than seats with textured or absorbent fabric. For big messes, it’s nice to have a removable, machine washable cover, but sometimes getting a removable cover off can be difficult.

Car seat cleaner

If you opt for an easy-off cover that’s machine washable, consider throwing it in the wash every six months as well as after a particularly big spill. You will have to uninstall and re-install the car seat to wash the cover, so be prepared to dedicate some time to this project. There are also car seat cleaning services for really messy jobs.

Car seat costs

Consumer Reports says that many mid-priced models work as well as or better than pricier ones. So you’re not necessarily going to make your baby safer by spending more.

The infant car seats in our Babylist store range from $130 - $500. The car seats outside of our curated selection? $46 - $700.

Convertible car seats are a little bit pricier on average, but remember you have to get them anyway and they last for longer. Our store’s convertible car seats collection is $200 - $500, and the full range for convertible car seats is more like $40 - $1000.

Car seat and stroller compatibility

Not all infant car seats fit in all strollers. In fact, ensuring that your car seat and your stroller fit together can be rather complicated. A car seat stroller combo is called a travel system. These can be a great way to save some dough and have confidence that they can clip together. However, there is less selection.

If you have your heart set on a certain stroller or car seat that aren’t available as a set, you will need to see if you can get a car seat adapter to make the car seat safely snap into the stroller. Most popular brands like Chicco and Graco have wide adapter availability, but most expensive or niche brands like Uppababy and Nuna have limited adapters.

Car seat brands

Those are the basics, now what about specific car seats? Here’s a rundown of the most popular car seat brands and what to expect.

Chicco car seat

The Chicco KeyFit 30 has excellent safety features and an easy LATCH install. The major drawback: at 9.6 lbs, it’s on the heavier side.

Because it’s so popular, there are a lot of available stroller adapters for it, too. Our full review has details about variations and other things to keep in mind.

Britax car seat

The B-Safe 35 has a deep, narrow seat for great side-impact protection—and makes it a good choice for smaller back seats. However, it’s tough to install without the base, so this isn’t a good option for families who will be in rideshares or friends’ cars often.

Graco infant car seat

Graco’s line of SnugRide Click Connect car seats is a reasonably priced car seat that is also on the lighter side at only 7.5 lbs. However, it’s trickier to install. Graco recently introduce the SnugLock line with easier install, but it comes at a higher price point.

Graco convertible car seat

If you are going straight for a convertible car seat, the 4Ever is a solid option because, well, you can use it practically forever. It can be used from 4 - 120 lbs converting from a rear-facing infant seat into a forward-facing seat then to a highback booster and a backless booster.

Nuna car seat

NUNA, a Dutch baby gear company, offers one of the lightest car seats on the market, the Nuna Pipa Lite LX. At only 5.7 lbs, it is truly lightweight. However, it can only be installed with a car seat base, which is a major drawback.

UppaBaby car seat

UppaBaby is best known for their strollers, the Vista and the Cruz, but their infant car seat, the Mesa, is a great, easy-install option. One of the biggest pros is that it works with the UppaBaby strollers without an adapter.

Car seat accessories

Second car seat base

If you have a second car, skip buying a second infant car seat. You can get a second car seat base for much cheaper and just move the infant bucket back and forth. This can make daycare drop off much easier, too.

Car seat canopy

All infant car seats come with a canopy, but some are better than others.

A few things to consider: How much shade coverage and sun protection does this canopy provide? Does it have a peekaboo window? (That’s a bit more of an optional extra, but it can be nice for checking on baby while strolling.) Is the canopy stable enough to resist the tugging of small hands and feet?

Car seat cover

Car seat covers can be great for giving baby a quiet, cocooned environment to sleep in, or help them stay warm in the winter. New multi-use car seat covers double as nursing covers or triple as grocery cart covers. This is definitely an optional accessory.

Car seat cushion

Most infant car seats come with an infant insert to make the seat safe and cozy for small babies. (Babies start off really small!) Some brands sell additional inserts that are super luxe.

Only use inserts that are made by your car seat manufacturer, like a Chicco insert for a Chicco car seat. Otherwise, there’s no guarantee of their safety because they haven’t been crash tested.

Back seat mirror

Let’s say you’re driving with baby. Baby coughs, and then stops coughing and you can’t see them. This can be a moment of terror for a new parent. Enter the back seat mirror. They tend to be less than $20 and can make driving with baby feel much easier.

Whew, car seats are complicated. You’re well on your way to becoming a car seat expert–congratulations!

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