Car seats

Car Seat Buying Guide
Car Seat Buying Guide
Sitting Pretty—and Safe—With the Best Car Seat for Your Child

Of all things you’ll buy for your child, a good car seat is one of the most important. You’ll need a car seat from the moment you take baby home from the hospital until he or she grows up enough to fit into adult seat belts, typically around the age of 8 or later. What’s scary is that nearly 80 percent of child seats are installed incorrectly, and a poorly installed seat leaves a child vulnerable in a crash.

All child seats are required to meet federal safety standards in a 30 mph crash test. We’ve been testing seats for more than 30 years, and we go further—with a simulated 35 mph crash that better represents current vehicle environments. We also test for ease-of-use (how simple it is for the average person to follow instructions or manage buckles and straps) and fit-to-vehicle (how well the child seat fits into five different vehicles with challenging interiors). So, the better a seat does in our tests, the better your chances of getting it right. And, of course, the safest car seat is one that’s installed correctly and securely every time, and fits your child properly.

Throwing money at this problem doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get the best-performing seat. Many mid-priced models work as well as or better than pricier ones. Whatever the cost, a certain seat may simply just not work with your car. This is why we strongly recommend planning ahead. Use our guide to figure out the right seat for your kid and car, and to determine when you’ll need to move your child to the next one.

1

Choose the Right Model

As your child grows, you'll need to transition from one car seat to another. We explain the different types to help you zero in on the right one for your needs. For more information on which cars work best with child seats, see the Driving With Kids sections of our vehicle Road Test reports.

Infant Car Seat

This is the first seat for most new parents. It can only be installed rear-facing, and has a convenient, removable carrier that connects to a base installed in the car.

This provides the best fit for newborns and smaller babies, and can be used for children from 4 lbs. to 40, depending on the model. Note that kids will probably get too tall before they get too heavy for these seats. A child is too tall when the crown of his head is less than one inch from the top of the carrier shell, or they exceed the height limits of the seat. Price range: $60 to $300

Find the top infant car seats
An image of a convertible car seat for children.

Convertible Seat

This is likely the next step after outgrowing an infant seat, to be purchased no later than a child’s first birthday. It can be installed rear- or forward-facing.

The harness system is similar to those in infant seats, but these have a higher rear-facing weight limit. This means kids can ride rear-facing longer, which both Consumer Reports and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend as the safest option.

It must be installed rear-facing for children younger than 1 and weighing less than 20 lbs. These seats can be used rear-facing up to 40-50 lbs, depending on the seat, and we recommend rear-facing until at least age 2, or the rear-facing limits of the seat. In some states, children under 2 must ride this way (CA, NJ, OK). When your child is ready, the seat can be turned around and used forward-facing until time for a booster seat.

They can be installed forward-facing for kids at least 1 year of age, although Consumer Reports recommends waiting until at least age 2.  Many can hold children as heavy as 65 lbs. Although the minimum weight limit allows for newborns and smaller infants, this type of seat often doesn’t provide the best fit for smaller babies or the convenience of a detachable carrier. Price range: $40 to 450

The convertible seats that scored highest

Booster Seat

When your child outgrows the weight and height limit for a forward-facing seat’s harness, it’s time for a booster that uses a car’s own seat belt.

Boosters raise a child up in the car so that the seat belt fits correctly—over the sternum and the center of the collarbone (not the neck) and low across the upper thighs (rather than the abdomen). They come in two main styles, high-back and backless.

Backless versions are quite portable and easy to install, but we recommend high-back models, which better position the shoulder belt and provide some side impact protection.

Many states have booster laws, some of which require children as old as eight and as heavy as 80 lbs to use a booster. Price range: $13 to $300

The best booster seats we tested

All-In-One Car Seats

The provide great value by taking a child from birth to booster. They’re a tempting money-saver, but our tests have found that by trying to do too much they don’t do any single task all that well.

This type of seat accommodates children from 5 to 45 lbs. sitting rear-facing; kids from 20 to 65 lbs. forward-facing in a harness; and kids from 30 to 120 lbs. in booster mode.

All-in-one car seats are often large and heavy, lack the convenience of a detachable carrier, and may not fit smaller babies (or smaller vehicles) well. They could be a good backup seat or for a caregiver who transports a child less often. Price range: $100 to $330

Our top-ranked all-in-ones

Toddler Booster

These can only be used by children who are at the appropriate weight, age, and height limits to sit facing forward.

Designed to be forward-facing only, these have a harness (for use up to a certain height/weight), and then transition to a booster (removing the harness). For children weighing between 20 lbs. and 90 harnessed, and 30 lbs. to 120 in booster mode.

They are a less expensive alternative to convertible seats (if your child meets the forward-facing age and weight requirements), and offer a safe option for an older child not yet ready for a booster or a transition seat. Price range: $55 to $295

How toddler booster seats stacked up
2

Interactive Video Buying Guide

For more, watch our interactive video below. You can skip to different chapters on infant seats, convertibles, boosters, and other must-know topics about car seats.

3

Terms to Learn

Here’s a quick look at the most common features on the different seat types. When installing, be sure to follow the vehicle owner’s manual and seat instructions, and consider having your installation checked by a Child Passenger Safety Technician at a car seat checkup event.

4

What to Know Before You Buy

Know your child: Get used to keeping track of your child’s height and weight (obviously, new parents won’t have this info yet!), which, along with age, can determine seat size and when it’s time to move up to the next level. Any behavioral or health issues will also affect your choice.

Know your stores: Some retailers will let you test-install a seat in your own car, which is great, since we’ve found that cushion angle or seat belt placement can make a car and child seat incompatible. Also a must: a store that accepts returns. Large department stores like Babies ‘R Us, Walmart, and Target offer a limited range of products in stores with a wider selection available online. Online retailers such as Albee Baby, Buy Buy Baby, Diapers.com and Amazon offer an even larger selection of seat brands and models. Many retailers offer free shipping on child seats. Make online purchases only after you’ve seen the models in real life. You can find higher-end models at specialty stores or boutiques.

Know your car: Check out the child safety sections of your vehicle owner’s manual, and study up on relevant features like belts and seats.

 

5

If it's Not Your First Seat...

Even seasoned parents may be fuzzy on the right seat type and when it’s time for a change. Check out our recommendations for the minimum number of seats your child will need before they are ready for just the vehicle seat belt by itself.

• Keep your baby rear-facing until at least 2 years old.

• Until your child outgrows the harness height/weight limits, stick with a forward-facing harness.

• Your child needs a booster seat until he is 57 inches tall, between 8 to 12 years old, and fits the vehicle belts correctly.

• You should replace a seat that’s damaged in any way or that has been in an accident.

• Even after your child is ready to use just the vehicle belt alone, he should ride in the back seat until age 13.

• Seats that have not been in a crash can be re-used, but they do expire. Some have a literal, printed date—usually on the manufacturer's label or molded into the seat, which always includes a production date. Others will expire in a certain number of years, so it's up to you to check the child seat manual and do the math.

Illustration: Chris Philpot
6

Does Your Kid Still Need a Boost?

A child can graduate from a booster seat when you can answer yes to all of these questions:

• Does your child sit all the way back against the vehicle seat?

• Do his knees bend comfortably at the edge of the vehicle seat?

• Does the vehicle belt cross his shoulder evenly between the neck and arm?

• Is the lap belt as low on the abdomen as possible, near the top of the thighs?

• Can your child stay comfortably seated like this for the whole trip?

 

7

5 Ways to Make Sure Your Child is Safe

Studies conducted by NHTSA and in the field indicate that car seat, booster seat, and seat belt misuse rates vary from 74 to 90 percent. You read that right, the vast majority of child seats are not installed correctly. Here’s how to do it properly:

Right seat: Check the seat’s height and weight limits (see our timeline above). Age is also an important factor as it is reflective of your child’s skeletal development.

Seat tight: Once installed, the seat shouldn’t move more than 1 inch side-to-side or front-to-back. Don’t get discouraged—this can be tricky.

Harness height: In rear-facing installation, the harness straps are at or below the baby’s shoulders. For forward-facing, harness straps should be at or above a tot’s shoulders. The chest clip should always be at armpit level.

Harness tight: If your child is secured properly, you shouldn’t be able to pinch any fabric on the straps at the child’s shoulders.

Final Check: Recline right and tether tight. Check the recline angle for rear-facing seats (most have an indicator) to avoid allowing the child’s head to fall forward and obstruct breathing.

For forward-facing seats installed with either LATCH or seat belt, always attach and tighten the top tether to help prevent forward movement, which could cause head injury.

 

More to Know About Car Seats