Your guide to a better future
Buckle up: Here's your guide to choosing the best car seat for your child.
Alex is a journalist and father of two based in Los Angeles with a passion for cars, history, and the arts. He was a staff writer for Motor Trend for 10 years, and in that time also contributed to Automobile, Super Street, Truck Trend, Four Wheeler, and other publications. When he's not chasing his kids around or testing the latest parenting gadgets, he's restoring an E30-generation BMW 325is, which he's owned (and neglected) since college.
From the moment you become a parent, your top priority is keeping your child safe. In that regard, a car seat is one of the most important purchases you'll make.
Finding the best car seat will depend on your baby's size and needs. There are dozens to choose from and a handful of different types -- infant, convertible, slim-fit, all-in-one, booster and beyond. Where do you even start?
Though the abundance of choices for a car seat can feel dizzying at first, just remember that there's one for practically every need. Once you get an idea of what's available and narrow down what you want, you'll be able to choose the perfect seat for your little one. To help you on your car seat journey, I rotated my kids' butts through eight of the best seats available today. Keep reading to find out which ones should be on your radar.
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Chicco is one of the big players in the car seat and stroller business. The baby products giant has a full portfolio of car seats, including the new KeyFit 35 ClearTex infant car seat.
The ClearTex part of its name means this seat uses fire-resistant fabrics that haven't been treated with chemicals, giving you peace of mind and your baby a lower risk of skin reactions. The KeyFit 35 features a base with a anti-rebound bar that braces against the vehicle seat back for a more stable fit. The base cinches down easily enough using the LATCH (short for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) belt. Once that's done, you can click the seat in or unfasten it to transfer to a compatible Chicco stroller.
Why spend $270 on the KeyFit 35 when the KeyFit 30 is $50 cheaper? The KeyFit 35 has a higher weight limit of 35 pounds, compared to 30 pounds with the KeyFit 30. You also get an extra 2 inches of height with the KeyFit 35, and that anti-rebound bar is a nice feature.
Car seat companies are constantly innovating and finding new ways to add versatility to something as seemingly basic as a seat. Most infant car seats are made up of a base and the seat itself, which can detach easily for use as a carrier or click into a compatible stroller. But the Maxi-Cosi Coral XP one-ups the competition with the ability to separate a third way for an even lighter wearable carrier.
The upholstered and cushioned portion of the Coral XP's seat can be detached with the push of a button and lifted out of the outer carrier shell by the large straps on the sides. A heavy-duty shoulder belt with quick release clips is included and is intended to be worn cross-body. The inner carrier weighs about 5 pounds, so carrying your baby this way is pretty comfortable. This method is best used for newborns, but I was able to carry my 1-year-old daughter for a few minutes before my back and shoulder started aching. This feature definitely would have come in handy when she was younger, especially for the frequent visits to her doctor on the second floor of an elevator-less medical building.
When combined with the outer carrier shell, the seat is compatible with all Maxi-Cosi strollers, along with some premium strollers like the Uppababy Vista once adapters are installed. The Coral XP's base is on the long side, so it might not be ideal for cars with shallow rear seat cushions.
At its $300 list price, the Coral XP is on the pricier end of the spectrum. But its solid build quality and unique carrier feature help justify the cost. (However, it can at times be had at significant discounts, so keep an eye out.)
No one enjoys interrupting their baby's precious sleep, which is why travel systems that let you transfer a car seat to a stroller exist. The Doona infant car seat stroller takes that concept a step further by building a compact stroller into the car seat itself.
Like other infant car seats, the Doona is most convenient when used with the base it comes with. That base is easy to install using the LATCH hooks, which tighten with a turn of a knob. Once the base is secured, you can click the car seat in place and buckle your child in. You then have more options when taking baby out of the car. If they fall asleep, you can take the seat out of the car and convert it to stroller mode in just a few simple steps. With practice, you'll be able to do it without your baby even flinching.
Having the ability to take my daughter out of the car and instantly roll her into a store for a quick errand was a game-changer. I was able to stealthily hoist the seat out of the car, transform it into a stroller, and venture into the store without her waking up. Pressing my luck, I drove to another store and did it again, turning what would have been a 10-minute nap into a 45-minute one. This is nothing new if you have an infant car seat and compatible stroller, but not having to dig the rolling portion of the travel system out of the trunk each time saves you a lot of trouble (not to mention your back). I could see the Doona being a lifesaver for parents with small cars and/or limited cargo space.
Though the Doona has a weight limit of 35 pounds, picking it up with a child over 20 pounds will feel like powerlifting. The car seat-stroller hybrid weighs almost 17 pounds by itself, so plan your upper body workouts accordingly.
Launched in early 2021, Century is a newcomer to the baby gear game. A sister brand to Graco, Century offers easy-to-use products made from sustainable materials at an affordable price. Century's convertible car seat, the DriveOn Three-in-One, certainly meets that last criteria. Priced around $160, the DriveOn Three-in-One offers a lot of value for the money.
The convertible seat accommodates children ranging in weight from 5 pounds all the way up to 100 pounds through its three convertible modes: rear-facing, forward-facing and high-back booster mode. The DriveOn Three-in-One's LATCH system straps are nothing fancy, with simple clip-style hooks instead of button-release connectors, but they work. The lower anchor strap is easy to tighten and the low profile of the buckle on the tether strap makes it easy to pass underneath a headrest and secure it to the tether anchor.
The headrest is easily adjustable via an easy-to-find yellow lever on the top. Meanwhile, the seat feels well padded with soft, breathable fabrics, which are said to use recycled materials. The upholstery removes easily and is machine washable.
The fact that a functional car seat priced around $60 exists is a praise-worthy accomplishment in itself. Its usability is limited compared to other seats, but the Cosco Scenera Next is an inexpensive option that will do the job just fine so long as you're not expecting any bells or whistles. This no-frills convertible car seat fits infants as small as 5 pounds and can continue to be used until they reach 40 pounds. The seat can be installed either rear- or forward-facing and comes with infant padding inserts for newborns.
This seat is by far the lightest I tested and is easily moved with one hand. A pair of simple LATCH hooks makes installation in either the forward facing seat- or rear facing seat position quick and painless. In forward-facing position, the feet dig into the seat cushion more than other car seats I've tried, leaving noticeable impressions in the upholstery. The harness straps also had a tendency to bind when loosening or tightening. Being mostly made of plastic, the seat doesn't feel very well padded, though my son never complained.
The Scenera Next would be great as a seat for the grandparents' car or as a backup that you can easily throw in any car when needed. Its ultralightweight construction would also make it a good choice for air travel.
Fun fact: Safety 1st invented the "Baby On Board" sign in 1984. Since then, the brand has introduced a wide range of competitively priced baby products. One of those products is the Grow and Go All-in-One car seat.
As its name implies, the Grow and Go All-in-One grows with your child, going from rear-facing to forward-facing to a belt-positioning booster seat. The seat is relatively light and installs easily using clip-style LATCH hooks. The LATCH belt cinches down with little effort, providing a tight fit to the seat cushions. The seat fabric is breathable and is quick to remove for easy cleaning. The cup holders are also easy to keep clean, unscrewing with a quarter twist so you can wash out all the juice and milk residue that will inevitably build up.
The Safety 1st is a good buy at its full retail price of $180, but it's an even better one if you can find it for less. It can sometimes be found at a significant discount. As a primary or second seat, the Safety 1st Grow and Go is a fine choice.
With a history in the baby products industry that dates back to 1942, Graco is another major player when it comes to car seats and strollers. Shopping within the Graco brand alone can feel overwhelming. Here's an example: In the all-in-one category, Graco offers more than 20 different options. That's a huge lineup, so I picked its most popular model to test.
The Graco 4Ever DLX Four-in-One is an all-in-one convertible car seat that has four different use modes. Naturally, you have front- and rear-facing configurations. Then you have a high-back booster and backless booster for later in your kids' life. The DLX part of the name means this seat comes with more safety features over the regular 4Ever model. The 4Ever is designed to last up to 10 years, covering you from the day you bring them home from the hospital to the last day they ever ride in a booster seat (I'm not crying, you're crying!).
My son is 3, so luckily I have some time before we retire his 4Ever DLX. Living with it has been pretty stress-free. Using the LATCH connectors is straight-forward, and the straps tighten easily once you lean your knee into the seat to take out the slack. The fabric upholstery is easy to remove and, thankfully, is machine-washable, as my son wasn't feeling well one day and lost his animal crackers all over himself and the seat. Cleaning the inside of the seat's shell was less of a hassle than I expected, with all the nooks and crannies surprisingly accessible.
Usually priced around $300, the Graco 4Ever DLX Four-in-One is high on value, especially if you plan on using it from infancy to grade school.
Conventional car seats require some unnatural twisting and stretching to get a child's butt into them. Your body gets used to this awkward motion over time, but what if it didn't have to? The Evenflo Gold Revolve 360 takes the strain out of child restraint with a seat that swivels 90 degrees, allowing you to easily plop your little one in, fasten their harness, then rotate and lock the seat into position.
The Revolve 360 has a base that installs with built-in push-button LATCH hooks or your vehicle's seat belt. Whichever method you choose, you only have to install the base once. True to its name, the Revolve 360's seat rotates a full 360 degrees, so when you're ready to graduate your child from rear-facing to forward-facing you only need to pull a lever and spin it around. One thing to note, however, is that the rear-facing position is fixed at roughly a 45-degree angle, and there's no way to adjust the recline setting for an older child. So if you plan on keeping your little one facing rearward into toddlerhood, this seat might not be for you.
With its fancy rotating mechanism, the Revolve 360 is heavy. But unless you need to move it from car to car, you only have to carry it one time. The seat portion also separates from the base to make transporting it a bit easier and to allow access to the harness belts for adjustment. Indicators on either side of the base let you know when the seat is properly locked in position. Though the seat locks securely in place every time, I noticed a faint rattle when going over bumps and rough patches of road.
Priced at $380, the Revolve 360 isn't cheap, but the convenience it offers could be worth it in the long run.
UppaBaby is one of the most popular brands in the premium car seat category, and the Mesa has been the company's infant car seat option since 2013. The Mesa has received numerous updates over the years, but the biggest change arrives in early 2022 with the Mesa V2. The new model features more padding than the original as well as a larger sun shade and a handle that doubles as an anti-rebound bar. Just as before, the Mesa works best when paired with the UppaBaby Vista and Cruz strollers, which accept the car seat without any adapters.
Britax's ClickTight series of convertible car seats features an innovative installation system. The ClickTight feature is a special belt path that allows you to lift up the bottom of the seat like a Transformer and pass the vehicle seat belt underneath. The system makes it easy to install the car seat using the seat belt, requiring no awkward routing of the seat belt retractor or fumbling with excess webbing. You simply pass the belt through the appropriate slots for rear- or forward-facing orientation, buckle the belt in, and lower the seat cushion until it clicks. That's it! Britax's Marathon, Boulevard and Advocate all use the ClickTight system.
The Nuna Pipa is another popular premium infant car seat. The Pipa is compatible with a long list of strollers, including the many stylish offerings from Nuna. The seat itself uses flame resistant materials without added fire-retardant chemicals. There's also a two-position canopy with a "Dream Drape" that pulls out and attaches to the bottom of the seat with magnets for full baby coverage.
The Nuna Rava is a chic convertible car seat available in a wide range of colors and patterns. In addition to being easy on the eyes, the Rava features a number of handy features. Similar to Britax's ClickTight system, the Rava has a True Tension Door that makes installation with the vehicle seat belt much easier (though only in forward-facing position). The seat also has retractable side impact protection pods, designed to absorb more energy in a crash.
After researching the best child car seats on the market, I reached out to companies to request review samples. Many were able to provide samples, but others could not due to the current global supply chain and shipping crisis. The ones I did receive I tested for at least a week each, installed in both rear- and forward-facing positions where possible.
When evaluating a seat, I considered the following:
It's important to know that all car seats sold in the US must pass rigorous crash-safety tests administered by the NHTSA. There is currently no rating system for child safety seats, but all models that pass the NHTSA's tests are deemed safe. That is, provided you install them correctly.
That last bit is key, because an improperly installed car seat can't do its job correctly. Child safety advocacy group Safe Kids Worldwide estimates that fewer than half of all car seats in the US are installed correctly. To make sure your car seat is installed properly, thoroughly read the instruction manual. Once you think you've got it in right, book an appointment with a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician through NHTSA or Safe Kids Worldwide to double-check your work.
Cass Herring, a CPST instructor and program manager for Safe Kids Worldwide, has seen all kinds of mistakes when it comes to installing car seats.
"A few commonly seen errors are incorrect use of the seat belt or lower anchor connectors and not using the tether anchor connector for forward-facing car seats," she says. "Another one is incorrect use or poor fit of the harness -- it shouldn't be too loose, twisted, too high or too low."
These are all easy enough errors to miss that can lead to major problems in a crash, which is why it's important to have an expert examine your car seat and go over basic safety practices.
There are four main categories of child car seats: infant, convertible, all-in-one and booster. An infant car seat is rear-facing only and is suitable for your baby until they reach the height or weight limit of the seat. Infant car seats have the advantage of being able to be removed from their base and transferred to a stroller. They offer more versatility than a typical convertible car seat and also tend to fit smaller babies better.
"Families may choose to purchase a rear-facing-only car seat along with multiple bases to make transferring the car seat between vehicles easier," says Herring. "Many families want a travel system, and the infant car seats are compatible with the strollers in those systems."
Then you have convertible car seats, which can be used in rear- or forward-facing orientation and have weight ranges accommodating newborns all the way up to kindergartners. An all-in-one seat is a convertible seat with added functionality. Most turn into a high-back booster car seat, but others can be stripped down further to a backless booster for maximum service life.
"Families may also choose to start with a convertible car seat or all-in-one car seat," says Herring. "This gives the families more longevity in the seat as far as height and weight limits."
The last phase of the car seat circle of life is the booster. The NHTSA recommends children 8 to 12 years old use a booster until they can properly fit in a vehicle seat belt, meaning the belt naturally crosses their waist, not their stomach. This can be super-embarrassing for a tween nipping at the heels of adolescence, which is why stealthy low-profile booster seats like the Safety 1st Incognito and Graco RightGuide exist.
If you take one thing away from this best car seats article, let it be this: Choose a car seat that fits your specific needs and budget. Cass Herring further recommends that you look for a seat that fits your child. "All car seats have height and weight limits, but beyond that, parents should consider the harness height and features on a seat such as how many crotch buckle positions the seat has or how the seat works to adjust the harness straps," she says.
It should also fit the vehicles you plan to use it in. "Car seats have different designs and footprints and may not be compatible with every vehicle or fit with other car seats or occupants that currently ride in the vehicle," says Herring. "When shopping for a car seat, all occupants that ride in the vehicle should be considered."
"Spacing in a vehicle can also be an issue," she continues. "If the space in the back seat is limited, parents may have difficulty achieving the recommended installation angle or the vehicle seat in front may interfere with the installation. If the seat is too short for the recommended amount of a car seat's footprint to sit according to the manufacturer's instructions, then you will need to look for a seat that is compatible with the vehicle."
Another important thing to consider, according to Herring, is to make sure the caregiver can use it correctly every time.
"There are a range of seats and no two are the same," she says. "We all have the challenge of learning to use something new correctly, but it is important for parents to feel confident in how their seats operate. If there is a lot of frustration or confusion with certain aspects of the car seat, it may be beneficial to look for a system that the caregivers feel more confident in using. Reading the car seat owner's manual and referring to the manufacturer for resources is a great start. Caregivers can also find a certified CPST to help them navigate how their car seat operates."
My biggest piece of advice for new parents shopping for a car seat is to not get caught up in the minutia of features when comparing car seat models. But if bells and whistles really speak to you, it's worth noting that some features do add an extra layer of safety.
"There are many aspects of a car seat system that relate to safety," says Herring. "The cover or padding on a car seat must meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that relate to flame retardancy. This means it is important to follow the manufacturer's recommendations for cleaning. A load leg limits the downward rotation in a collision and acts to help the car seat absorb crash impacts to reduce the forces that the child might experience in a crash. An anti-rebound bar is also a feature on some car seats that acts to help reduce motion of a rear-facing seat in a crash."
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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.