The best Car Seat has:
- Adequate height and weight limits. Basic convertible car seats will have at least 40-pound, 40-inch weight and height limits both rear- and forward-facing, but a seat with higher limits might be worth the investment. It's safer to keep your child rear-facing for as long as possible, according to CarSeatsForTheLittles.org, and even once they're forward facing, most kids aren't ready to graduate to a booster until 5 at the youngest.
- LATCH system for easy installation. LATCH, or Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, is intended to streamline car seat installation; push-button or rigid connectors will be easier to use than older hook-style LATCH connectors. Note that LATCH use does have a weight limit that varies by car seat, so you may have to reinstall the car seat with a seat belt for older or heavier kids.
- Adjustable harness heights. All convertible 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. Some rear-facing convertibles must be reclined at an angle specified by the seat's manual, while others allow any angle within a specific range; manufacturers may also include multiple recline settings for forward-facing children, too.
- A reasonable return policy. Certain car seats simply might not fit well in certain vehicles, especially when it comes to bulky, heavy convertibles. Check your store or manufacturer's return policy before you buy.
Know before you go
Will the car seat be for everyday or occasional use? A less expensive convertible car seat with thinner padding might be perfectly fine for a grandparent's car or 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. If you'll have to move the seat from car to car, look for one that is lightweight and easy to install.
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 convertibles are as slim as 16 to 18 inches across. Also consider that car seats with taller shells can hog front-to-back space, so be sure the person sitting in front of the installed car seat still has enough legroom. CarSeatBlog.com compares popular convertibles.
Do you want to use the seat for more than one child? All 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.
Is the seat fabric easy to remove and clean? Convertible car seats may absorb spilled juice, crushed goldfish, and potty-training accidents. Despite this, a surprising number have covers that are 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 a convertible seat from birth? Many convertible car seats will accommodate babies from birth, eliminating the need for a separate infant car seat. Be sure to check minimum weight limits, harness tightness, and whether the seat comes with adequate padding to support a small infant, advises Car Seats For The Littles. If you decide to use a convertible right away, you won't have the convenience of being able to detach the seat from a base that stays in the car, as with infant car seats.
How long do you plan to keep your child rear-facing in their convertible seat? Infant seats are simple in this regard -- you must always use them rear-facing. However, convertible seats can be rear- or forward-facing. Laws vary from state to state, but the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping children rear-facing until at least age 2 or they outgrow the rear-facing limits of their seats – the later, the better. While most convertible car seats can accommodate smaller children rear-facing until or beyond 2, parents may have to flip taller or heavier children forward-facing sooner than they would like. Unfortunately, looking at a seat's rear-facing weight and height limits may not tell you the whole story. Many manufacturers require you to turn your child when their head is an inch from the top of the seat's shell, which may be at a height below the stated rear-facing limit. Car Seat Blog recommends several convertible car seats that are most likely to get tall and heavy children rear-facing beyond the age of 2.