Why a convertible car seat may be one of your most important parental purchases
Convertible car seats are infant-to-toddler safety seats with five-point harnesses that can be installed in cars in both rear-facing and front-facing configurations. Generally, these car seats accommodate infants and young toddlers in a rear-facing position from birth until they reach approximately 22 to 35 pounds, at which time the seats can be turned around to face forward until the child has reached 40 to 50 pounds and sometimes as high as 80 pounds.
Unlike infant car seats, which detach from a base installed in your car, allowing you to carry sleeping infants in the seat, convertible car seats are not designed to be taken in and out of the car while the child is in them. For this reason, many parents opt for an infant seat during the child's first 6 to 9 months, and then transition to convertible car seats once their baby outgrows the infant seat's weight rating of about 22 pounds.
Convertible car seats attach to the car either with tethers that connect to the car's built-in LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children) anchors or with the seatbelt. Convertible car seats restrain children in the rear- and forward-facing positions with a five-point safety harness that comes over each shoulder and across both hips, and has one strap between the legs. See our companion report on infant car seats if you want a car seat that doubles as an infant carrier. Also see our report on booster seats for older kids.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently updated their recommendations for car seat safety. The AAP recommends that children remain rear-facing in their car seats until they are 2 years old and/or have reached the maximum weight rating of the seat (usually 35 to 40 pounds) and in forward-facing car seats with five-point harnesses until they are 4 years old and/or have reached the maximum weight rating (40-80 pounds).
Despite the temptation to turn young toddlers around earlier for a better view, or to transition toddlers to a booster seat once they reach the minimum weight requirement, both organizations concur that the increased safety of the rear-facing position and the front-facing five-point harness outweigh other considerations. According to AAP sources, the rear-facing position keeps the vulnerable head, neck and spinal column of children protected by distributing impact across the body in the event of a crash. The five-point harness provides older toddlers with similar protection and reduces the risk of incorrect positioning of the seat belt when used with a booster seat.
The majority of parents will not keep their child rear-facing until the age of 4, but more parents are looking for comfortable ways to carry their children either rear-facing or in a five-point harness for a longer period of time. The car seat industry is beginning to catch up with AAP recommendations by offering their convertible car seats with higher weight ratings in both the rear and forward-facing positions to meet this need.
In the past, the convertible car seat may have seemed like a product to transition from infant seat to booster seat, but it's increasingly viewed as a long-term car seat solution that can carry a child safely from infancy through childhood. For this reason, it is important to consider the child's comfort and positioning within the seat as well as how well the seat fits your car. An uncomfortable child and a frustrated parent are likely to rebel against a seat and potentially choose an option that isn't as safe.
Because of these varied considerations, ConsumerSearch studies expert and user reviews to determine the best convertible car seats in three categories: Best Overall, Best Convertible and Best under $150. Within these categories, we review safety, which includes crash test ratings, side-impact protection, stabilization within the seat and tethers in both rear- and front-facing positions. We also include height and weight ratings, because that affects how long the seat can be used -- an important factor in long-term safety.
Ease of operation, which includes installation and seatbelt latching and harness adjustments, is important because an improperly installed car seat will not protect a child in a crash. Additionally, a seat that is difficult to install can cause a lot of frustration and may be tempting to just ignore. Lifestyle features include price, convenience features such as cup holders, ease of cleaning and the fit of the car seat in the car. Customer service is factored in as well, including recall information.