We can all agree that car seats are a must-have. The thing is, that’s just the headline. While experts have done a great job of sensitizing parents on their importance, hardly ever do you get any real tips on how to choose a car seat.
So, when it’s finally time to go shopping, where do you even begin? How come no one ever says there is more than one type of car seat?
If these questions have been keeping you up at night, let’s put an end to that, shall we? Here is a parent-friendly car seat buying guide.
There are 3 main types of car seats:
- Infant car seats
- Convertible car seats
- Booster seats
The main difference between these car seat options is that they are recommended for use at different stages. Let’s dive right into that.
As the name suggests, this type of car seat is indeed recommended for infants. It is ideally the first car seat you should buy for your child.
Infant car seats are designed to be rear-facing. This improves the safety of your child against impact and inertia during car crashes. In terms of installation, the seat is installed on a base and secured using Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children also known as the LATCH system.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you use an infant car seat until your child reaches its indicated weight and height limit. The longer you can keep them in the rear-facing position, the safer they are.
So, there’s one tip on how to choose an infant car seat; find one with a slightly higher weight and height limit.
Insider Parenting tip (wink): if you feel a little anxious not knowing how your infant is faring in a rear-facing position, you could install a rear-facing car seat mirror. They give you a full view of your child at all times.
A convertible car can be used as a rear-facing seat while your child is in the infant stage. As they transition into the toddler phase and become heavier and taller, it can be converted into a front-facing toddler car seat.
Depending on what position they are being used in, they can be secured using either the LATCH system or a seatbelt. Cool, right?
The probably not-so-cool part of convertible car seats is that they are somewhat bulky and heavy. They are built to do more and therefore, it is understandable that the multiple features would make them heavier.
I would recommend a convertible car seat if you prefer a one-off purchase that will serve you up to the toddler stage. However, if you need a car seat that you can fit onto a stroller or switch from car to car on occasion, this would not be an ideal choice. An ordinary infant seat may offer you way more flexibility.
In a nutshell: The difference between a convertible car seat and an infant car seat is in their functionality. A convertible car seat can be used for both infants and toddlers in rear and front-facing positions respectively.
On the other hand, an infant car seat can only be used up to ages 2-3 in a rear-facing position.
Booster car seats are recommended for toddlers who weigh at least 40 pounds. This would ideally be around the age of 4, give or take a year.
This type of car seat props your child up so that the seat belt fits them right for maximum safety. It also protects them from crash impact and enhances their comfort during car rides.
There are high-back and backless booster car seats. When transitioning your child from an infant seat, consider a high-back booster; it offers more support and protective features. Later when they are about 8 and old enough to sit up as they boss you around, you can get them a backless booster seat.
Insider parenting tip: Consider 2-in-1 booster seats that can be used as high-back boosters and, later, as backless booster car seats. They might be worth considering for their transitional value.
Now that you know what car seat will work for your little one at different growth stages, let’s talk about choosing the car seat. Say, for instance, you are buying an infant car seat. What features and brands should you look out for?
Here are some factors to consider when choosing a car seat.
Every car seat has an age limit. You will, nevertheless, notice that it is provided in a range of ages as opposed to a fixed age. Along with this, they also have a weight and height limit.
When buying a car seat, by all means, consider the age limit. However, as you transition from rear-facing to front-facing, wait until your baby has reached the maximum weight and height limits of the car seat before switching.
This is because each child, in all their wisdom and adorableness, grows at their own pace. So, while one child may weigh 40 pounds at age 4 another may not weigh that much until they are 5.
The general design of car seats is the same but dimensions and some structural features differ. This is, therefore, a factor you want to consider because if your back seat is not compatible with the base of the car seat, it will be a lot like trying to stick a square peg into a round hole.
As you compare car seat brands, check for their seat base dimensions in their product description section. Use this information to compare them to the dimensions of your car.
If you know as little as I do about the size details of your back seat, consult your car manual or even your local dealership.
The first time I bought a car seat, I reckoned it would be a fun adventure to figure out how to install a car seat on my own. Supermom can do it all, right? Wrong. It turned out to be much harder than I thought and when I did figure it out, I realized it was a good fit for my car but not my partner’s.
The moral of the story here is, of course, let your partner do the heavy lifting. Okay, maybe not. Perhaps just aim for a stroller that is easy to install, to begin with. Get a test installation at the store to find out.
The first couple of times you use a car seat will give you a good idea of whether it is the right fit for you. In the event that it has defects or does not work as you expected, it would be a great reprieve to be able to return It.
Therein lies the importance of where you choose to make your purchase. Aim for retailers that offer such accommodative provisions and always remember to read the fine print of their terms of sale.
In my experience, direct purchases from brands are safer options. They responded to my inquiries and even offered to replace the car seat I had bought with a new one when the LATCH system turned out to be defective.
Granted, all brands are not the same but I find that most retailers are not as accommodating.
Let’s face it, buying baby stuff is a costly affair. Children also outgrow things like car seats in only a matter of years. It is totally understandable if you choose to buy a pre-loved or, should I say, used car seat. Still, ensure:
- That it is in good condition; consider getting it inspected by relevant local authorities to ascertain this.
- That it has not exceeded its stipulated expiry date.
One of the interesting dilemmas of parenting is that it is imperative that you keep your child’s items clean but children are inherently messy.
I would recommend choosing a car seat that has an easy-to-clean fabric. This would make it easy to wipe down any spills that occur and keep the car seat in good condition.
Barring that, opt for a design that allows you to remove the cover and for a quick clean in the washing machine. For a quick overview of car seat cleaning, take a look at our How to Clean A Car Seat guide.
Brands are based largely on personal preferences. Don’t believe me? Try and ask 5 sets of parents for a car seat brand recommendation, the odds are, you will end up with 5 or more answers.
To save you the trouble of finding 5 sets of parents to interrogate, here are some top brands in the market that are worth checking out.
- Graco – for quality and multi-functional car seats like convertibles.
- Evenflo – they offer a wide range and are affordable.
- Peg Perego – if you are looking for a quality luxury car seat with bells and whistles, this is your best bet.
Infants sleep a lot so they may not be too fussy once they are strapped into the car seat. That might change though when they are 3 going 13 and are more aware of their comfort.
So, try and invest in a car seat that is cozy and well-padded for extra comfort. Adjustability in areas like the neck-rest and the seat belt positioner is equally very important.
If you travel a lot or will need to move the car seat between different cars, aim for a lightweight model. This may as well be a deciding factor if you are torn between an infant seat vs a convertible seat as the latter is often heavier.
Shopping can be therapeutic but car seat shopping can be rife with uncertainty because, well, your child’s safety depends on your choice. Lucky for you, I have been through the motions, so let me share some of the car seat shopping tips I learned.
Granted, the decision on when to buy a car seat is based on many personal factors like schedules and finances. That said, I would not recommend last-minute shopping.
Last-minute here ranges from the last month of pregnancy to planning to pick up the car seat on the week of your due date. You will likely be in a rush and not have enough time to weigh your options.
A bit earlier in the last trimester might be better timing to go shopping.
When you have a set of twins, triplets, or more, shopping can be a bit more challenging. At the bare minimum, you could go for identical car seats.
One of the best car seats for multiple kids is the Costco Finale DX 2-in-1 Combination Booster car seat. It is designed such that multiple units can be fitted next to each other. This means that your babies can all comfortably sit together albeit in different seats.
Do you fancy going on walks with your baby or find yourself on the go often? Then you might want to choose a car seat that can be secured onto your stroller.
After my first car seat, which ended up being a poor fit, I chose to buy a travel system which is a set of a stroller and a detachable car seat. They are built to fit onto each other so I have never experienced any compatibility issues.
If, however, you buy a stroller and a car seat from different brands, you will need an adapter. It is a universal plug system that makes it possible to secure different strollers and car seats.
Whenever you are looking to upgrade or replace a car seat, look out for sales and discounts. Sales seasons like Black Friday are sometimes the best time to buy a car seat.
Brands that were beyond your budget might be a bit more affordable at such times. Discounts are more common when a car seat brand launches a newer model. If you were looking to upgrade to the previous one, that would be a good time to get it.
Car seat documentation includes:
- A user manual
- Certification from regulatory authorities (in some instances)
Remember to not just collect them as you make your purchase but ensure to store them safe too. You may need them if you choose to return the car seat, or for malfunction disputes. The manual should guide you through the installation process.
If you choose to shop in person, salespeople will likely try to upsell you based on the variety of features that a car seat has to offer. However, not all fancy features are necessary. Especially considering that the more the features, the higher the price you are likely to pay.
My take? Before you run your card, take a moment to consider if your child really needs those features.
How many car seats do I need?
The answer to this rests on 2 factors: how many children do you have and what type of car seat do you prefer?
If you are a parent to multiples, you will need more than one car seat. Separate car seats are much safer, just ensure that they fit well when placed next to each other.
If you prefer an infant car seat vs a convertible car seat, it means you will have to upgrade to a booster car seat when your child outgrows the infant seat. In that case, you will need 2 car seats before your child is old enough not to need one.
Lastly, if you buy a convertible car seat, you may not need to buy any other car seat. This is because it can be positioned to fit an infant and, later, a toddler.
Are Expensive Car Seats Safer?
All car seats undergo quality and safety inspections from regulatory authorities like the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Safety ratings from such organizations might be a more reliable indicator of safety than price.
A significant part of child safety is equally dependent on how well you install the car seat. If you have a hard time or are uncertain about how to install a car seat, seek help at your local hospital or the fire station.
Do I need a car seat if I am riding with my baby in the back seat of a car?
Yes. It is, in fact, against the law to have an unrestrained baby in the car in most jurisdictions. Anytime a child is unsecured by a seat belt or a car seat, it leaves them extremely vulnerable while in transit.
They may be hurled out of the car during a crash which is not just unfortunate, it would likely be fatal.
What are some of the best car seats to buy?
As I earlier mentioned, choices and preferences vary from one person to another, but here are some of my top picks for different types of car seats.
- Chicco KeyFit 30 Infant Car Seat – a great combination of comfort, safety, and a pleasant user experience all in one infant car seat.
- Evenflo Everyday DLZ 3-in-1– a convertible car seat that can be used as a rear-facing and front-facing car seat.
- Graco Nautilus 65 LX 3-in-1– this is a booster seat that can be used as both a high-back and backless booster seat.
If I had to give you one piece of advice to sum this car seat buying guide all up, I’d say, make a list of your needs. They will guide you best on what to look for in a car seat.
If you opt for an infant seat, check out our best infant car seat review.
For a booster seat, consider reading our best booster seat list of top picks.
Finally, if you’d prefer an all-in-one convertible seat, our Best Convertible Seat Review might be a good place to start.
Do chime in and let me know your thoughts and experiences on buying a car seat – we’d love to hear from you!