I am now a Nationally Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician. I spent 40 hours learning about child safety seats, how to install them correctly, how to select them for each child, etc. I am spending about 5 hours a month every month for the next two years helping families and caregivers provide optimal safety for the passengers in their vehicle. I’m doing this not for money (it is a volunteer position), or fame (how many of you even knew there was such thing as a car seat tech?!), but because I feel it is important.
Higher price tags do not necessarily mean higher safety benefits. It used to be that some of the higher priced seats offered more user friendly features and safety features. That is no longer the case and some of the better seats are less expensive. The best seat is the seat that fits your vehicle, your child and your budget and you can use properly each time. Up to 97% of all carseats are used improperly!
Rearfacing is five times safer than forward facing, and the AAP recommends keeping your child rearfacing to at least two years old or the maximum limit of a convertible car seat. With the seats currently on the market in the US, that is somewhere between 33 and 45 lbs, depending on the seat.
Your child’s seat harness should be snug enough that you cannot pinch the webbing at the shoulder blades, but not so snug your kid can’t breathe. If you need to adjust it to accommodate the child’s outerwear, that outerwear is unsafe to have on in the seat. Outerwear and your child’s harness works like a Spacebag. The jacket will compress in an accident and your child could eject from their harness and no longer have the protection of their seat. Nothing thicker than a sweatshirt or fleece pullover should be worn in the car. If it is cold enough that your child needs more than that, put a thicker coat on backwards *after* you have buckled the harness, or put a blanket over a younger baby. Be sure that the harness straps lie flat against your child’s body and are free of twists. This enables crash forces to be spread over as large an area as possible so that no one area takes too much force. The chest clip needs to be level with the child’s armpits/nipples. For a rear-facing child, the harness straps need to be at or below the child’s shoulders; for a forward facing child, the straps need to be at or above the shoulders.
Rearfacing seats are outgrown by height when there is less than 1 inch of hard plastic shell above the child’s head. Forward facing seats are outgrown when the tops of the ears are above the hard plastic shell or the shoulders are above the highest harness slot.
When choosing and installing a child safety seat, be sure to read both your vehicle manual as well as the seat manual. Front airbags may affect the installation of a rearfacing seat. All vehicles have a LATCH limit of 40 to 60 lbs. Hondas are 40, Subaru is 60, most other manufacturers are 48 lbs. The majority of vehicle manufacturers do not allow the use of lower tether anchors in the center seating position.
For more information on either the seats I list, or your vehicle, feel free to contact me! To see if someone has installed your seat in your vehicle, check www.carseatdata.org . Not all makes, models or years are listed as it is all user submitted.
All-In-One seats seem like a great purchase, but they rarely are. Most AIOs make lousy boosters and lousy infant seats. You can’t be all things to all people. What fits a 100 lb child well will not fit a 5 lb child well and vise versa. Your money would be better spent on other seats.
I will try to get measurements and pictures of the seats I have access to with real kids and babies in them for comparisons.
Here’s my top picks for seats:
Please note that all Evenflo and BabyTrend infant seats must have the handle in the down position when in the vehicle. Evenflo seats also require 1.5 inches of space between the handle and the front vehicle seat.
Your baby’s shoulders need to be at least even with the bottom harness position in any rearfacing seat.
My favorite infant seats are the Safety 1st OnBoard 35 available for about $100 for the standard model and $180 for the Air Protect version, the Chicco (pronounced Key-co) KeyFit available for about $150 for the 30 lb/30 inch model and the Graco SnugRide with a front adjuster available for about $110 for the 22 lb model.
The Safety 1st OnBoard 35 currently has the tallest shell height for an infant-only seat. Combine this with the 35 lb weight limit and you have the longest usable life on an infant seat! It fits tiny newbies well too. Drake fit in this seat still at about 14 months, well after he had outgrown the other “big buckets”.
The Chicco KeyFit30 fits small babies really well and has a 30 inch or 30 lb limit. Most babies will outgrow it by height before weight. Rearfacing seats are outgrown when there is 1 inch of hard plastic shell above the baby’s head. It is also available in a 22 lb model, which has a weight limit of 22 lbs. The shell height is the same for both models, so unless you have short, heavy babies the 22 lb version will likely be sufficient. When this seat shows up at seat check events (and it does frequently!), I love it. It installs easily with LATCH or the vehicle belt, and has built in lock-offs so there’s no fiddling with locking clips or tippy seats.
The Graco SnugRide comes in a two sizes- 22 and 35. Both numbers are a weight limit. Be sure you get a front adjust seat, as the harness adjuster on the back of the seat can be difficult. The SnugRide does not fit small babies well because it has an 8 inch bottom harness position and a 5 inch crotch depth. Your baby’s shoulders need to be at least even with the bottom harness position in a rearfacing seat. Most babies will outgrow this seat by height before weight.
Just to confuse consumers even more, Graco just released the SnugRide 30 ($120-200) at Babies R Us. The rumor I’ve heard is that it fits preemies (down to 4 lbs) and small newbies very well with lower harness slots, a shorter crotch depth, and adjustable crotch buckle and a third set of loops to shorten the straps. The shell measures an inch taller than the SR 22. I have yet to actually get to touch one.
A convertible seat rearfaces, then turns forward facing for an older baby/child. Many convertible seats now offer rearfacing weight limits of up to 45 lbs! Convertible seats may be installed as upright as 30* for babies with head control and it is actually safer to have them more upright as they get larger. Please defer to your seat’s manufacturer directions.
My current favorite convertible seats are the Safety 1st Complete Air and Complete Air 65 available for $180 and up, the Graco MyRide ($130+), and the Radian XTSL ($300).
The Complete Air rearfaces to 40 lbs and 40 inches, then forward faces to 50 lbs: the Complete Air 65 harnesses to 65 lbs forward facing. It has a nice tall shell, so many kids will actually be able to get to the 40 lb reafr facing limit before outgrowing it by height. This is the seat I have for T, and he still has 3 inches and 5 lbs left before he has to be turned forward facing, even at 38 months! He is in the 80-95th percentile for size, so this seat will get most kids to at least 3 or 4 years rearfacing. It offers side impact protection through air-filled head wings. The wings do not go all the way down, so for a smaller baby, they won’t offer a lot of protection for the first few months. This seat does not fit newborns well. Most babies will fit in it around 6 months. The 50 lb forward facing limit is acceptable because most kids are likely to outgrow the seat by height before weight. (Notice a trend?) It may be a bit hard to install at the acceptable 30-45* angle in some vehicles without the use of at least one pool noodle. The chest clip feels a little flimsy, but they are non-load bearing pre-crash positioners so I’m not worried about that. It does require quite a bit of room front to back, due to the tall shell. I have found that a rearfacing installation using LATCH may be difficult in some vehicles. Please note that Dorel, the parent compant for safety 1st insists that 40″ is the maximum height for a rear facing child in this seat. This will leave about five inches of shell above the child’s head. It is up to each parent whether they wish to follow manufacturer guidelines or the industry standard one inch above the head rule. Trevor is currently in his Complete Air rear facing at 41″ and 36.5 lbs.
The Graco MyRide will fit most newborns well as it has an infant insert. It has a fairly tall shell height and a 40 lb rearfacing limit and a 65 lb forward facing limit. Again, most kids will outgrow it by height before weight. T only had about 1/2inch of torso growth left in this seat for rearfacing. You may only use the bottom three harness slots for a rearfacing child. It offers side impact protectoin through deep side wings. This seat does take up quite a bit of room front to back when installed rearfacing. It has dedicated LATCH straps for rear and forward facing installations to eliminate the need to reroute the strap depending on installation.
The Radian XTSL rearfaces to 45 lbs and has a nice tall shell. It fits newborns well and comes with an infant insert. This seat is likely to get most kids to at least 40 lbs rearfacing, and about 65 lbs forward facing. It does have an 80 lb forward facing weight limit though. It has side impact headwings and a steel frame. This is a compact seat ideal for three-across situations, though it is heavy and can be difficult to install with a seatbelt forward facing due to its low-profile. The SL in the name refers to SuperLATCH, which would only be available on vehicles manufactured on or after 9/1/05 (most likely model year 06 and newer). SuperLATCH was tested by Sunshine Kids (the maker of the Radian seats) to be safe to use up to 80 lbs unless otherwise specified by your vehicle manufacturer. This is one of two brands of seats that you may tether rearfacing, which can offer additional safety benefits. (The other company is Britax and I can tell you why they are not listed on here for convertibles if you send me a message.) I just purchased one of these seats for Trevor to move into as he approaches the 40 lb limit of the Complete Air.
A combination seat is a forward facing only seat that converts to a belt positioning booster for older children.
The two combination seats I would recommend are the Britax Frontier ($280) and the Graco Nautilus ($180). I have both, and prefer the Nautilus.
The Britax Frontier is a forward facing only seat that will convert into a very tall booster (I fit in it well at 5’6″!). It has a minimum limit of 2 years and 30 lbs for harnessed mode, and a 40 lb minimum as a booster. The Frontier MUST be top tethered for children over 40 lbs. It harnesses up to 80 lbs, and can be used as a booster up to 100. It has two stowable cupholders and flip-up armrests. It has headwings to provide SIP and support. It can be a beast to install due to the width and funky beltpath. Most seatbelt installations will need a very long belt. It is fairly heavy. You may have up to 20% of the base off the vehicle seat. For booster mode, you may purchase the Secure Guard, which replaces the crotch buckle strap and clips to the vehicle seatbelt lap portion to create a 4-point belt to reduce the chance of a child submarining under the belt in a collision.
Britax just released the updated version, the Frontier 85, which harnesses to 85 lbs, has higher top harness slots and more user-friendly cupholders. They have fixed many of the complaints people had about the original Frontier.
The Graco Nautilus harnesses up to 65 lbs, then converts to a high back booster, and later a no-back booster for kids up to 100 lbs. It installs easily with both seatbelt and LATCH, though it does require the base to be 100% on the vehicle seat. It has a built in cupholder on one armrest and two toy cubbies for small toys. It also has headwings. The top harness height is 1/2″ higher than the Frontier’s, but the top booster height is considerably shorter. It does not require a top tether, though it is recommended for added safety. I would recommend this seat if you do not wish to take advantage of the benefits of extended rearfacing, as it fits smaller children well. Drake actually fit in this seat at 8 months old, though there is NO way that is appropriate.
Belt Positioning Boosters
I haven’t gotten to the point where my kids are in boosters yet, nor have I gotten to play with any that had kids in them, but the BPBs that are frequently recommended on the carseat forum are the Recaro Vivo, the Britax Parkway SG, the Sunshine Kids Monterey and the Graco TurboBooster (just be sure to put the screws in the armrests!)