An Expert Guide to Baby Car Seats

Published on 03/16/2023 · 15 min readThe 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!
Robbie M, Baby Expert
By Baby Expert Robbie M

When leaving the hospital for the first time with your newborn baby, you are required to have a car seat. This article will help explain the different types of car seats, what to consider when buying a car seat, and help you determine which kind is right for you and your family.

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.

What Is a Car Seat?

Babies and children in general are too small for traditional safety features in vehicles (especially seatbelts) to be effective. A car seat is a child safety seat that utilizes harness straps to keep your child safe and is strapped over existing the vehicle seat, either using the vehicle’s seat belt or LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) belts which provide the proper restraint and padding for the child’s size. Car seats allow your kid from newborn up through when they outgrow the recommended height and weight limits for car seats to ride safely in a car.

What to Consider When Buying a Car Seat

What’s the size range of the seat?

One of the first things to consider when picking a car seat is the height and weight limits of the car seat. Kids grow, and grow, and grow, and a car seat will not always fit your child. Rear-facing infant car seats are typically good for up to 30-35lbs, whereas convertible car seats can be good for your child all the way until they no longer need a car seat. Likewise, there are convertible car seats that are unable to accommodate an infant. Before buying your car seat, ensure it will fit your baby and understand it may not last forever.

What is the size of the car seat?

The physical size of the car seat itself is also an important factor, especially if you own a smaller vehicle. Some convertible car seats are quite large and may not fit in every car. Another consideration is if you plan to use multiple car seats in the back row of a vehicle; some manufacturers make car seats specifically to fit three across in the back seat. Lastly, the weight of a car seat is quite important, especially with rear-facing infant car seats. These will act as your baby carrier, so it’s important to consider how heavy they are, especially if you are a smaller human. When traveling via airplane, both size and weight are important as you will have to carry the seat (sometimes through the airport) and not all car seats are airplane certified.

Is it car-specific or stroller compatible?

Many rear-facing infant car seats are compatible with strollers, allowing you to easily dock them between your car and your stroller. Many brands of car seats have adapters for various strollers; check with a Curated expert or the manufacturer’s website to understand compatibility. Convertible car seats typically don’t interface with a stroller, which is totally okay as long as you’re aware of it!

How much should you spend on a car seat?

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.

How easy is it to install?

Typically, a car seat (or base) only needs to be installed a few times. However, your car seat is only as safe if it’s properly installed. Some car seats have very simple installation steps to make them almost foolproof. Generally, LATCH installation with the tether anchors (and sometimes a top tether strap to the back of the vehicle seat) tends to be the easiest type of car seats to install. Installation also includes the recline angle of the seat, which in many cases is adjustable through the car seat’s base. Many car seats have manufacturer’s instructions on their website, allowing you to have a better understanding of the seat and its features.

Another good place to look is your vehicle owner’s manual to have a good understanding of how to add in a car seat. You can also check out installation videos on YouTube. 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.

That nerve-wracking moment bringing our son home for the first time. Photo courtesy of Robbie Mouton

What Are the Different Types of Car Seats?

Rear-Facing Infant

These infant-only 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) guidance recommends keeping your child 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.

Benefits:

  • Act as an infant carrier
  • Most come with bases for easy in and out of vehicles
  • Most are compatible with strollers

Be Aware:

  • Some models are heavier than others
  • Your child will outgrow their rear-facing infant car seat and need a new seat

Convertible 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 backless 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 high-back booster 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 from the rear-facing position 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 usable 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.

Benefits:

  • Many can act as the only car seat you’ll need (look for 4-in-1)
  • Typically have more features

Be Aware:

  • Typically larger and heavier
  • May not fit in every vehicle
  • Can be more difficult to install

Features to Look for in a Car Seat

Ease of Installation

At the end of the day, a car seat is only safe if properly installed. Many companies have now helped improve the safety of their car seats by adding features making them easier to install. In general, you want to look for LATCH system car seats with easy-to-tighten and easy-to-check indicators (color changing, bubbles, etc) to ensure your car seat is properly installed. You may also want a car seat that can be installed with the seat belt of the car (especially when traveling or using a taxi). At the end of the day, you do not want a car seat that is difficult to install or difficult to check if it’s installed correctly, especially if you will be installing and reinstalling the car seat many times between vehicles.

Range of Use for Child

Depending on what type of car seat you buy (rear-facing infant or convertible), it’s important to consider how long it can be used and by what age or sized child. You should specifically pay attention to this with convertible car seats, as some are 4-in-1, some are 3-in-1, and some are 2-in-1, with the child size range varying between the varying models. One 2-in-1 car seat might be for infants through 50lbs, and another might be 50lbs to 120lbs.

Additional Safety Features

All car seats can be considered “good,” meeting the same federal safety standards, 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.

Padding and Materials

As mentioned above, some car seats will feature softer, plushier, or more expensive materials. At the end of the day, all car seats meet the same basic crash-test standards, so even the cheapest car seats with the cheapest materials are considered safe. However, more expensive car seats tend to feature nicer materials which your child may really enjoy, especially if they will be spending a longer period of time in the seat. Our son definitely prefers his $200 convertible car seat over his $60 travel car seat (which is lighter and has less padding).

Features of a Car Seat You May Not Want

Unless you know where they’re coming from and who owned them before, you will want to stay away from used car seats. Like helmets, car seats are typically only rated for one crash, and even a large drop onto pavement could result in a compromised car seat. Another feature you may not want in a rear-facing infant car seat is a lack of ability to use without a base. For folks who travel a lot, being able to install the car seat with a traditional seat belt is critical and can save you from needing to lug a base with you wherever you go.

Photo by Eric McLean

How to Choose the Best Car Seat for You

With so many options on the market, choosing a car seat can be stressful. Hopefully, the scenarios below will be useful as you may be able to relate to one of these individuals:

Susan: First Baby on a Budget

Susan is having her first child and is on a budget. She knows her baby will outgrow an infant car seat and doesn’t want to have to buy two car seats. She’s getting a stroller secondhand from a friend, plans to carry her baby in a baby carrier, and isn’t concerned about changing the car seat from one car to another.

Features Susan should look for:

  • Convertible car seat rated for infants
  • 3-in-1 or 4-in-1, again ensuring it fits infants
  • Easy to adjust
  • Easy to install

Examples of car seats for Susan: Maxi Cosi Pria, Graco SlimFit 3-in-1, Diono Radian 3RXT Safe+ All in One

David: Two-Car Transfers

David and his wife drive two vehicles and will rotate who picks up their new baby from daycare with a 40min commute. In the short term, David only wants to have one car seat until his child outgrows it, but also wants the ability to transfer the car seat between vehicles easily.

Features David should look for:

  • Rear-facing infant car seat
  • Extra base for the infant car seat for a second vehicle
  • Lightweight
  • More padding in the back of the seat for added comfort for the child as may spend time in the car seat as a carrier or on long commutes
  • Matches stroller (if applicable)

Examples of car seats for David: Maxi Cosi Coral, Nuna Pipa RX, Graco SnugRide SnugFit 35 DLX

Jennifer: Best of the Best Compatability

Jennifer isn’t concerned with budget and wants to buy the best-of-the-best car seat for her child. She’s looking for car seats loaded with the most features that will be compatible with her top-of-the-line stroller.

Features Jennifer should look for:

  • Rear-facing infant car seat (for stroller)
  • Plush materials and extra padding
  • Extra safety features like a rebound bar or load leg
  • Easy installation features like color-changing indicators
  • Multiple color options to coordinate with other baby gear

Examples of car seats for Jennifer: Cybex Aton M, Uppababy Mesa, Nuna Pipa RX

Closing Thoughts on Car Seats

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.

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