The best infant car seat has

  • Adequate height and weight limits. Basic infant car seats will likely have at least 22-pound, 29-inch weight and height limits, but a higher-capacity seat might be worth the investment if you want to wait as long as possible to switch to a convertible car seat.
  • LATCH system for easy installation. LATCH, or Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, is intended to streamline car-seat installation; push-button connectors will be easier to use than older hook-style LATCH connectors.
  • Adjustable harness heights. All infant seats should have a five-point harness with several slots that can accommodate a growing child, but a seat with a no-rethread harness that is adjustable from the front will be easiest to use.
  • An adjustable-recline base. Bases with an adjustable recline will help parents install the car seat at the proper angle without resorting to bolsters such as rolled towels or pool noodles.
  • A reasonable return policy. Certain car seats may not fit well in certain vehicles -- be sure to check your store or manufacturer's return policy before you buy.

Know before you go

Will the seat be for everyday or occasional use? A less expensive infant car seat with thinner padding might be perfectly fine for a grandparent's car or a sparsely used second vehicle -- all car seats on the U.S. market must pass the same federal safety tests. But if you know the seat will receive heavy use, you may want a comfier seat with more side-impact protection.

Do you want to use your infant car seat with a stroller system? Some common models such as the Graco SnugRide are compatible with several types of strollers and stroller frames. Others may be limited to strollers made by their manufacturers. Also make sure the seat's canopy offers adequate sun protection if you'll be out strolling on sunny days.

Will you carry the infant seat a lot? If you don't want to disturb your snoozing baby, chances are you'll be toting around your car seat. Many seats weigh roughly 9 to 10 pounds -- baby not included -- but some are as lightweight as 7 pounds and others as heavy as 13 pounds, a significant difference. Also be sure the handle is comfortable to grip. Some manufacturers offer triangular or zigzag handles for easy carrying, while others offer a straight handle with ergonomic padding. Test what feels best to you before you buy.

Is space tight in your vehicle? You may have a smaller vehicle with a cramped back seat, or perhaps you need to fit three car seats in one row. Look for a narrow car seat to maximize space -- some are as slim as 15 to 16 inches across, while others close in on 20 inches. Also consider that infant seats with taller seat shells can hog front-to-back space, so be sure the person sitting in front of the installed car seat still has enough legroom. Car Seats for the Littles compares several popular models in a compact car.

Is the seat fabric easy to remove and clean? Infant car seats are subject to copious spit-up and diaper blowouts, but a surprising number of manufacturers make padding that's hand-wash or spot-clean only. Machine-washable fabric will make your life easier. Note that car-seat straps should never be submerged in water or anything else -- it can weaken them and remove fire retardants.

Do you want to use the seat for more than one child? Like all car seats, infant car seats expire. But manufacturers are rolling out seats with higher height and weight limits, meaning your child might be in the seat longer. This makes it especially crucial to know the expiration date if you hope to use it again, especially several years down the road. Many models expire six years after they're manufactured, but a few have longer shelf lives -- check before you buy.

What's to come

Many parents get tired of lugging their babies in infant car seats well before they reach their seats' weight limits, and babies often outgrow their seats by height before weight anyway. But that hasn't stopped Graco from rolling out the SnugRide Click Connect 40, rated for use up to a whopping 40 pounds. Graco markets the seat as a simple way for parents to comply with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that children stay rear-facing until at least age 2. Surprisingly, many children may actually make it to age 2 using the seat, experts at CarSeatBlog demonstrate. Still, there is a 35-inch standing height limit that some taller toddlers may blow past before 2. And while you won't want to tote a 40-pound toddler into the house in this seat, experts say it's a good option for parents who may otherwise move their babies to forward-facing seats too soon.

Infant Car Seats Runners Up:

Graco SnugRide 35 Est. $140

9 picks including: About.com, Amazon.com…

Maxi-Cosi Mico Est. $150

5 picks including: Amazon.com, Good Housekeeping…

Britax B-SAFE Est. $135

5 picks including: Amazon.com, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration…

Evenflo Embrace 35 Est. $80

3 picks including: Amazon.com, Baby Bargains…

Graco SnugRide 30 Est. $90

2 picks including: Amazon.com, Baby Bargains…

Cosco Comfy Carry Est. $60

2 picks including: Amazon.com, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration…

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Graco SnugRide Click Connect 35 Car Seat, Tangerine
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from Amazon.com
New: $149.99 $137.02   
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Maxi-Cosi Mico AP Infant Car Seat - Devoted Black
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from Amazon.com
New: $199.99   
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Britax B-Safe Infant Car Seat, Black
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from Amazon.com
New: $179.99 $140.00   
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Average Customer Review:  
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Evenflo Embrace 35 Infant Car Seat, Breakout
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from Amazon.com
New: $99.99   
Average Customer Review:  
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Cosco Juvenile Comfy Carry Infant Seat, Jungle Parade II
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from Amazon.com
New: $94.32   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  

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