Why You Should Buy a Convertible Car Seat Sooner Rather Than Later

    Rear-facing convertible seats provide added protection from head contact compared with infant seats

    Convertible car seat with child and mother Photo: Consumer Reports

    You might be tempted to wait to buy a convertible child seat for your infant, if for no other reason than the convenience of using the detachable carrier. But the results of our crash tests—in addition to safety guidelines and state laws—should encourage you to buy a convertible car seat by the time your child celebrates their first birthday. (Check out CR’s review of the best convertible car seats.)

    Convertible car seat tess
    While many infant seats demonstrated head contact with the simulated front seatback (left), almost all rear-facing convertibles prevented it.

    Photo: Consumer Reports Photo: Consumer Reports

    What We Found

    One of the main objectives of Consumer Reports’ crash test program is to evaluate a better representation of the vehicle’s rear-seat environment, including the potential for head contact, than that used in federal tests. Head injuries to children in crashes are a significant concern for Consumer Reports. Other crash tests, including those used to assess compliance with government standards, do not measure what happens when a child comes into contact with another part of the vehicle. To that end, a key component of our test is the addition of a surface that simulates the interaction the child seat would have with the front seatback in an actual vehicle crash.

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    This interaction provides some key insights into the potential safety benefits of convertible seats for rear-facing kids. For both the convertible and infant seat (those with a detachable carrier) categories, one of our crash tests is conducted with a 22-pound dummy, representing an average 12-month-old child, in the rear-facing orientation. CR’s initial findings a few years ago demonstrated greater incidence of a head strike against the simulated front seatback for the 12-month-old dummy in an infant seat, than in a rear-facing convertible seat.

    The longer shells and shape of the convertible seats provided additional space between the dummy’s head and the simulated seatback preventing direct contact of the head. Those results have been confirmed with each successive batch of tests conducted on convertibles and infant seats.

    Bottom line: Tests show that rear-facing convertibles provide better head protection for children age 1 year and older, compared with rear-facing infant seats.

    Convertible car seat tests from the side
    A 12-month-old child dummy making head contact in a rear-facing infant seat (left); the same dummy is protected in a convertible seat

    Photo: Consumer Reports Photo: Consumer Reports

    What Do Those Results Mean to You?

    • Height matters. Many infant and rear-facing-only seats have weight limits between 30 and 35 pounds, so you may think those seats are adequate until your child reaches that weight—at about 2 years of age. However, your child will more likely grow out of those seats, height-wise, before reaching those weight limits. See the Types and Timeline in our car seats buying guide.
    • You’ll need one anyway. In order to keep your kid rear-facing longer, you’ll still have to buy a convertible model. Not only do Consumer Reports’ child-seat experts encourage this strategy, but the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents keep children rear-facing until they exceed the rear-facing height or weight limit of their convertible or all-in-one car seat. Many state laws require that all children under the age of two be in a rear-facing child seat.
    • Best for your kids. These results show that for kids around age 1 that convertible seats may provide some additional protection over an infant seat in protecting a child’s head.
    • Safety outweighs inconveniences. Yes, moving to a fixed rear-facing seat means you lose the convenience and portability of the infant carrier. But your growing baby’s weight, combined with the portable seat, makes it difficult to lug around a seated child, negating the infant seat’s appeal. Plus, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends moving your sleeping child from their car seat to a safe sleep environment, such as a crib or bassinet, as soon as possible. So don’t worry about waking your baby when taking him out of a rear-facing seat. It’s the safer option.
    • Make the switch now. To take advantage of a convertible seat’s added potential for head protection, we advise that if your child has not already outgrown her infant seat (many will), transition your child to a rear-facing convertible seat no later than age 1.  

    The good thing is that this advice doesn’t change the number of seats you’ll need. It simply suggests making a transition that you already needed to make, just sooner rather than later.

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    Jen Stockburger

    I never anticipated that engineering, the auto industry, and a few hundred tire changes and child seat installations would have brought me here: director of day-to-day operations at Consumer Reports' fabulous 327-acre Auto Test Center. The bonus is that the track's location in rural Connecticut leaves me close enough to home to also enjoy my children and husband while still squeezing in time for gardening, riding horses, and hunting for antiques.