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.
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.