An Expert Guide to Baby Car Seats
The number of options when it comes to choosing a baby car seat can make it hard to know which one is right for you. Check out this guide to help inform your choice!
The birth of my son was one of the most joyful moments of my life. The car ride from the hospital with our newborn in the back? The most terrifying moment of my life! Luckily, I knew that my son was strapped into a safe and comfortable car seat, giving me reassurance that even in the worst-case scenario, he would be okay. Choosing a car seat for your baby can be quite the ride (pun intended! I am qualified for dad jokes after all). Hopefully, this article will help answer many of the questions you may have as you navigate through finding the best car seat for your child.
Types of Baby Car Seats
One of the best places to start when looking at car seats is to look at them in two main categories: rear-facing infant car seats and convertible or “all-in-one” car seats. There are pros and cons to both, which is part of the reason that I own one of each kind.
Rear-Facing Infant Car Seats
These car seats are typically made for newborn babies all the way until your child reaches somewhere between 25-35lbs or 25-35in tall (depending on the car seat). The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that kids stay rear-facing as long as they still fit within the height and weight limits of a rear-facing seat.
Rear-facing car seats typically have a five-point harness—a two-piece chest clip along with two smaller metal clips that buckle into a unit on a crotch strap between the child’s legs—which is standard in any car seat made for babies or toddlers.
Almost all rear-facing infant car seats also act as a baby carrier, which is incredibly helpful if you find yourself driving lots of places with your baby. In Minnesota, where I live, my wife and I found this aspect of the car seat incredibly helpful as transporting a small child over icy parking lots was made less stressful knowing our kiddo was protected and strapped into his car seat.
Another pro of rear-facing car seats is that many come with a base that is installed in your car. The bases are typically installed using the LATCH system (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) or lap belt and allow for easy insertion and removal of the car seat (and kid) from your vehicle. One of the main perks of the base systems is that the car seat is dropped into the back seat of your car and secured with a reassuring click. Most have a large, easily accessible button or lever that allows for easy removal from the vehicle.
Along with the compatibility with the base, most rear-facing infant car seats are also compatible with strollers. Typically, most car seat manufacturers also make strollers that are compatible with their own products. Many strollers also have adapters to allow for the use of other brands’ car seats with their strollers. These strollers are known as “travel system” strollers and are often sold alongside or as a bundle with rear-facing car seats. My wife and I opted to purchase one of these stroller-compatible systems (Baby Jogger’s City Mini GT2 and City Go 2 Car Seat) as it made for many easy transitions from the car to the stroller.
The main negative of going with a rear-facing infant seat is that your child will outgrow the seat! I know some parents were able to keep their kid in the rear-facing infant seat throughout the first year, whereas we had to move our son out of our seat after eight months due to him exceeding the height limit. However, during the eight months we used the seat, we were very thankful for the countless times we were able to get our kiddo to fall asleep in his car seat while out and about and were able to easily take him from the car to his crib without waking him.
Convertible Forward-Facing Car Seats
The jack-of-all-trades, these car seats are built to change and grow with your child. Depending on the model, many are designed to be able to take your newborn baby home from the hospital to grade-school age when they only need a booster seat. These convertible car seats allow you to buy one seat that can do many things. At some point, your child will be big enough to need a “race-car” looking safety seat, so convertible car seats are a great option since they’re able to be used much longer than a single-use seat.
By removing layers of padding, easy headrest and harness height adjustments, pivoting the large and stable base, and LATCH installation, these car seats have been a breeze to convert as needed when our kiddo grows. When he outgrew his rear-facing seat, we were able to easily flip the convertible seat around to make it a forward-facing car seat.
Some things to consider when getting a convertible car seat are the weight and height restrictions of the seat and the overall weight and dimensions of the seat itself. A three-in-one seat may be cheaper but typically won’t accommodate an infant or booster-seat needing child, whereas a four-in-one seat should be useable in all your child’s car seat-using years. You’ll also want to consider the car seat’s size and your car’s size as these tend to be much larger than the rear-facing infant car seats.
Most convertible seats are built with metal (steel or aluminum) frames, making them much more rigid and safe but heavier than other plastic-based seats. In day-to-day use where the car seat remains in the same car, this isn’t an issue. However, if you plan to travel with your car seat, consider needing to lug a +25lb seat through an airport. Our family opted for a cheaper and lighter option for travel which made our airport experience much more enjoyable. A forward-facing seat on the plane not only allows for a much more hands-free flight but also peace of mind that your child will be safe throughout the flight.
Comfort, Features, and Price Levels
Like any other product, there are different levels or “tiers” of car seats available on the market. Ranging from $50 all the way up to $900 (car seat and stroller sold in a travel system), there is a wide variety of choices that can fit everyone’s budgets and needs.
Cheaper car seats will typically have lower quality fabrics and padding and be made with lighter materials. However, just because they are cheaper doesn’t mean they aren’t safe for your child (for more information, check out the safety section below). Along with being good for your budget, cheaper car seats are an excellent option for traveling.
Adding in more features—such as more plush materials and padding, cup holders or snack trays, extra functionality, and brand adaptability with strollers—can quickly make car seats more expensive.
When selecting our car seats, my wife and I chose to take a cost-benefit analysis approach to determine the “bang for the buck” factor. With our rear-facing car seat, we knew we wanted something that would have a base and not solely rely on the vehicle’s seat belt to constantly install and uninstall the seat, along with looking for something that was stroller compatible. We discovered that most stroller and car seat bundles tend to be discounted when sold together as opposed to buying separately. This led us to choose our stroller before choosing our car seat! The ease of being able to switch from car to stroller along with the car seat being adaptable for a larger height and weight allowed us to justify spending a little more on the system.
Other features to consider when buying a car seat are the weight of the car seat itself (especially with a rear-facing seat that also acts as a carrier), the overall size of the seat or base (to ensure it fits in your car), and the ease of installing the car seat. Many car seat manufacturers list this information on their website along with a copy of their instruction manual, allowing you to have a better understanding of the seat and its features. You can also check out installation videos on YouTube.
Installation and Safety
One thing to note is that all car seats must pass baseline safety tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Every car seat that is available on the market in the United States is built to these safety standards, meaning that your child will be protected in even the cheapest car seat.
All car seats can be considered “good,” but some can be differentiated as “better.” Features such as additional padding or plushier fabric, load legs, or anti-rebound bases can improve the overall ability of a car seat to absorb impact forces and protect your child in the event of an accident. Plus, many of these features make the car seat more comfortable for your kiddo, an added perk if you enjoy peace and quiet on your drives.
However, the only way to ensure your car seat is going to protect your child is that it is installed correctly in your vehicle and your child is buckled in correctly. Most car seat manufacturers provide very clear instructions for installation. In the event you’re unsure if your car seat is installed correctly, you can utilize a certified child passenger safety technician (also known as a certified car seat technician). These technicians will meet up with you to ensure your car seat is installed correctly as well as teach you how to properly buckle in your child with the seat’s harness.
Just as critical is making sure your child is in the correct seat and orientation in the car per their height and weight. The NHTSA has a great website that talks more about the different types of car seats as well as a wonderful web tool to help you decide which type of seat your child should have when traveling in the car. After doing some research, installing a car seat a few times, and potentially leveraging the expertise of a professional, you’ll quickly become a car seat expert yourself!
Car seats are a critical part of your and your child’s lives and can provide peace of mind when selected and installed correctly. Know that there is no one perfect car seat out there, but rather there are many excellent choices for you and your family to fit your specific needs. If you have more questions on car seats and which may be right for you, feel free to reach out to our Baby & Toddler Experts at Curated. Like myself, these folks are real people with real baby experience and can help you navigate the many aspects of car seats as well as other baby gear.
This content is meant to be informative and add to your understanding of this subject, but it is not definitive nor a replacement for your own sensibility. Neither Curated nor any Curated Expert is responsible for any liability resulting from information or advice shared here. Please consult with a medical professional for any health concerns.