Car seats are safest when they're easy to use
Car seats are an essential purchase for any parent to keep their children safe on the road. Infant car seats secure the youngest children -- generally from birth to about a year old -- and must be used rear-facing. Convertible car seats are the next step up. While most convertible car seats can accommodate young babies and sometimes even newborns, they're a more popular pick for toddlers and young preschoolers. You start off using convertible car seats rear-facing, and can then flip them forward-facing once your child reaches the proper age and height recommendations.
All car seats sold in the U.S. must meet the same federal safety standards, so despite the fact that some may have extra safety features, all are perfectly safe for your child. Instead, ease of use is what really sets car seats apart. It's crucial to look for an easy-to-install car seat, since improper installation can make the seat less safe in a crash. Unfortunately, car seat misuse remains a critical issue: A 2011 field study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found nearly half of car seats were installed improperly, while a study of new parents at an Oregon hospital in 2013 and 2014 found that a 93 percent made at least one critical error while securing their babies.
Infant car seats come with a range of height and weight capacities. While some infant car seats allow babies as small as 4 pounds -- an important consideration for parents of premature infants -- most are approved for babies 5 pounds and up. On the upper end, most infant car seats have maximum weight limits of 22, 30 or 35 pounds and height limits from 29 to 32 inches. Higher-capacity seats will have longer lives. Some bigger babies will hit 22 pounds or 29 inches before they're a year old, but very few will hit 35 pounds or 32 inches. That buys parents extra time before they have to think about switching car seats, and it helps ensure babies remain rear-facing.
Infant car seats are designed for use outside of the car, too. Unlike convertible car seats, which stay put in the car, infant car seats are lightweight and portable. Parents can detach the seat from a base they leave in their vehicle and carry it using the attached handle -- convenient for allowing a sleeping baby to continue napping. Infant car seats also have canopies to protect babies from strong sunlight, and many are compatible with strollers or stroller frames -- simply attach the car seat with a strap or special click-in adapter, and you're ready to roll. We recommend strollers in a separate report.
However, some parents say it's a back-breaking task to carry around a bigger baby in an infant car seat, and others say their babies seem uncomfortable in infant car seats as they put on pounds. In those cases, it may make sense for parents to get rid of the infant car seat and start using a rear-facing convertible car seat sooner rather than later. Lower-weight capacity infant car seats are widely available for under $100, while those with higher weight capacities can top $200, depending on extra features.
Today's convertible car seats have higher weight limits than ever. Many convertible car seats can accommodate children up to 40 pounds or more rear-facing and 65 or 70 pounds forward-facing. In theory, this means a convertible car seat should accommodate an average child rear-facing until age 4 and forward-facing until 9 or 10. In practice, that's rare: Most children will outgrow a convertible car seat by height before weight. Height limits vary widely among seats, and there are often additional requirements specified by a seat's manufacturer. Common rules include that rear-facing children have at least an inch of seat shell above their head and that forward-facing children's shoulders be lower than the top slot used for the harness strap. In general, seats with taller shells will have the longest life span, but they'll hog more front-to-back room in a car. In addition, seats that accommodate bigger children are among the most expensive convertibles -- but the investment may pay off if you don't need to buy another seat before your child can use a booster seat, which we cover in a separate report. Expect to pay up to $100 for a basic convertible car seat. If you want extra bells and whistles or higher height and weight limits, you may pay closer to $200 or even $300.
Compact convertible car seats exist, but there are trade-offs. For parents used to infant car seats, the sheer bulk of convertibles can be a shock -- especially when they end up hogging half the backseat. Compact convertible car seats are designed with more narrow frames, which is especially useful if you need to fit two or three car seats in one row. But beware: A seat billed as compact may still take up plenty of room front-to-back when installed rear-facing. Some compact seats may have lower height and weight limits, meaning they won't last as long. They also may feel confining for bigger kids.
Watch for recent recalls. There have been a number of recent high-profile car seat recalls. In August 2015, Britax recalled about 200,000 of its Advocate, Boulevard, and Marathon ClickTight convertible car seats because the harness adjuster was staying in the "release" position, allowing harnesses to loosen over time. In July 2015, Recaro recalled about 173,000 ProRIDE and Performance RIDE convertible seats because of faulty top-tether anchors.
In 2014, Graco recalled 6 million infant and convertible car seats due to overly stiff harness buckles that could pose a safety risk during emergency exits. The recall was initiated at the urging of the NHTSA following reports from a number of parents. After the initial Graco recall, Evenflo recalled more than 1 million seats for a similar reason. Recalls are just one reason you should never buy a used car seat. Buy new and be sure to register it, and you will be notified of any recalls. You can check the current recall status of any car seat at the NHTSA website.
ConsumerSearch has analyzed a wide range of professional tests and expert and owner reviews to evaluate ease of use, safety and lifestyle factors for popular infant and convertible car seats. The result is our picks for the best car seats for your child and your vehicle.