Of all the purchases you’ll make for your child, a car seat is one of the most important and you’ll need more than one seat as your child grows to maintain a consistently safe and comfortable fit. Every child’s seat we rate is put through rigorous evaluations for fit and safety. Our guide will arm you with expert knowledge to pick the style and model that’s best for your child.
Whether you have a newborn, a toddler, or a school-aged child, the three most important things to know when selecting the right car seat are your child’s age, weight, and height. You can use our real child seat timeline to help figure out what style and seat direction is best for your child.
Child seats can be purchased at a department store, baby store, or online. Wherever you shop, make sure it takes returns. Some retailers will let you try a seat in your car before buying, which is great, because we found that not every seat fits well in every car. Each child seat and vehicle seat has slight variations in their dimensions. Small details, like the angle of the car’s cushions or placement of the seat belt buckle, can make it difficult to get a secure car seat installation.
To evaluate the potential for each seat to be correctly installed in our fit to vehicle test, we put each seat into every possible location and direction in five hard to fit cars. A child seat is safest when it’s installed properly. Our ease of use evaluation looks at how easy it is to understand the instruction manual and for an average person to understand how to securely and correctly install and adjust the seat. We also look at how easy or hard it is to manage clips, buckles, and installation hardware. The better seat does, the better your chances of getting it right.
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All child seats sold are required to meet federal safety standards in a 30 mile per hour crash test. But our tests go further. Our stimulated 35 mile per hour frontal crash evaluates injury risk, including whether a child’s head will hit the seat in front of him and if the seat will stay intact during the crash.
A rear-facing only infant seat will likely be the first car seat you’ll buy for your child. Always installed rear-facing, these seats have a base that stays installed in your car and a removable carrier that will let you move baby in and out of the car without disturbing her. Many are sold with a compatible stroller system. While some of the other child seat types we’ll talk about can accommodate newborns, infant seats are designed for the youngest babies and typically provide the best fit for them.
Infant seats typically have weight maximums between 22 and 35 pounds. But most have height limits of 32 inches or less so it’s likely that your child will be too tall for his seat before reaching the weight limit. A child is too tall when they exceed the seats height limit or their head is less than one inch from the top of the carrier shell. Infant seats can range from $60 to $300.
A convertible seat is the next step after your child outgrows their infant seat or no later than their first birthday. Convertible seats can be positioned either rear or forward-facing. They have a similar harness system to infant seats but have higher rear-facing weight and height limits. That means toddlers can stay rear-facing longer, which the American Academy of Pediatrics and Centers for Disease Control recommend as always being the safest option. In some states, children under two are required by law to ride rear-facing. When your child meets the requirements for age, weight, and height, a convertible seat can be turned around and installed in the forward-facing direction until a child is ready for a booster. Convertible seats range from $40 to $450.
Another kind of seat, called all-in-ones, can go from birth to booster, which makes them tempting in terms of value, but our testing is found they don’t do any one task especially well. All-in-ones range from $100 to $330.
Toddler boosters, also called combination seats, are designed to be forward-facing only. These seats have a harness and then transition to a booster so they can only be used by older children who are already above the weight, height, and age guidelines to sit forward-facing. Toddler boosters range in price from $55 to $295.
When your child reaches the weight and height limit of their seats harness system, it’s time for a booster seat that uses the car’s own seatbelt system. Boosters come in two main styles: high back and backless. Boosters raise a child up in the car so the seat belt can pass correctly over their sternum and collarbone, not their neck, and low across their upper thigh area, not their abdomen.
Backless are easy to transport and install, but we recommend high back boosters because they better position the shoulder belt and provide some side impact protection in a crash. Many states have booster laws, some of which require children as old as eight and as heavy as 80 pounds to use a booster. Boosters range in price from as low as $13 for backless versions to $300 for the most expensive high back.
Remember, even after your child is ready to use just a seatbelt, all children under 13 should ride only in the back seat of the car. Child seats come with many features. Here’s a quick 360 degree look at the most common. A harness child seat will be equipped with either push on, hook style, or rigid lower anchor latch connectors. These will attach to the lower anchors embedded in the crease of the vehicle seat. All cars built after 2002 have these latch anchors. Latch connectors have a weight limit, so when the weight of your child and their car seat exceeds 65 pounds, their child seat must be installed using the car’s own seatbelts.
Whichever installation method you use, a secure seat should not move more than one inch side to side or front to back. All forward-facing harness seats include a top tether strap that attaches to an anchor on the car. Top tethers keep the shell of the child seat secure to the back of the vehicle seat and significantly reduce the child’s forward motion and potential for head injuries in a crash so we recommend you attach the top tether for all forward-facing harness seats.
All infant, convertible, all-in-one, and toddler booster seats have a built-in adjustable harness system. As your child grows, you’ll need to continually readjust their harness so that the straps are located at the correct position. In rear-facing seats, harness straps should be at or below the baby’s shoulders. In forward-facing seats, straps should be at or above the shoulders.
Many harnesses are adjusted by rethreading the straps through different slots in the fabric and seat shell, while some offer an easier option: a seat with external harness adjustments. In all cases, the chest clip should always be at armpit level. A harness is tight enough when you can’t pinch any fabric at the child’s shoulders. If your child’s seat can be installed rear-facing, a recline indicator will tell you whether or not the seat has been installed with a sufficient reclined angle. We find ball or bubble type indicators are easier to read than a simple level line. Some seats have reclined ranges for children of different ages. They start out more reclined to keep newborns safe and then transition to a more upright position for older children allowing more room for front seat passengers.
And last, many seats come with covers, pads, and cushions to help with fit and give your child a more comfortable ride. Only use accessories that are specifically approved for your car seat by its manufacturer. A frightening fact: nearly 80% of child seats are installed wrong. Without proper installation, even the safest seat can’t fully protect your child in a crash. Always follow your seat’s manual and your vehicle owner’s manual. Also consider having your car installation checked by an expert at a car seat checkup event.