Buying the right car seat for your child is maybe one of the most important decisions you can make as a new parent. How tight is tight enough? Front-facing or rear-facing? And how do you install the thing? To find the best car seats, I spoke to four car-seat safety-installation experts — including Lorrie Walker, the safety and training adviser at Safe Kids Worldwide; pediatrician Ben Hoffman, who helps write official American Academy of Pediatrics policies on child-passenger safety; a dozen parents across the country; Jonathan Gondek, an expert from New York–based crash-testing site Calspan — and pored over a handful of consumer review sites like BabyGearLab and Consumer Reports, which conduct independent crash testing.
Each expert pointed out that every car seat on the market has passed the same rigorous safety-testing standards, so they’re all — at minimum — equipped to protect your child during a crash. Finding your own best seat depends on the model of your car, your child’s age and weight (for more info, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration provides a guide), and which features make the car seats easier to install correctly (and thus safer). “The best car seat for any child and family is the car seat that fits the child, fits the car, and that the family will be able to use correctly every time,” says Hoffman. Though there’s no one-size-fits-all option, we asked experts for car-seat recommendations that would fit a variety of vehicles, plus make installation smoother and safer.
Best everyday infant car seats
Jen Saxton — founder of car-seat cleaning-and-installation service Tot Squad, plus a child-passenger safety technician since 2009 — recommends the Nuna Pipa above and beyond any other infant car seat because it’s lightweight, simple to use, and safe. “Simple in that it’s easy to install because of a rigid latch system that holds the seat in, and safe because of the added load leg.” The load leg is a safety feature exclusive to infant seats that connects down into the floorboards, one that Hoffman and Gondek also recommended as an added feature, since it’s been tested to help prevent forward motion in a crash. “When you use the stability leg, you’re dispersing the crash through the steel frame of the vehicle, and that reduces the forward motion from the crash by 40 percent,” says Saxton.
Another infant car seat that came recommended by parents — like Mei Ling Starkey of the blog Family Entourage — is the Uppababy Mesa. This one has a no-rethread harness, which is a feature that Walker recommended for ease of installation as your child grows up. “The no-rethread harness is a lovely feature because you don’t have to rethread your harness when your child gets bigger. You pull the tabs to tighten it, and the harness slides right down until it’s right over the child’s shoulder. You can put a tall child in it one day and get a perfect fit, or a tiny, tiny child in it the next day.”
And if you want something slightly more affordable in the $200 range, the Chicco KeyFit has excellent reviews, and was also a favorite among the parents I surveyed for its ease of installation. Allyson Downey — who runs a consumer review site for child and baby essentials called WeeSpring — says that for her first child, she bought the Chicco KeyFit after doing extensive research “because it had outstanding reviews.” Lauren Brown, Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital’s lead car-seat safety specialist, says the seat is a popular choice among parents she works with, too, because the brand has a YouTube video that shows parents exactly how to install it in their car.
The only other one Saxton recommends in this category is the Britax B-Safe 35 infant car seat, which has added side impact protection, a steel frame, and a safe center LATCH installation system that uses center-pull straps to securely and easily fasten the seat base into the vehicle seat.
Best everyday convertible car seats
Saxton’s favorite seat in the convertible category (which is the next step up from an infant car seat, that converts from rear-facing to forward-facing mode) is the Diono Radian because of its steel frame: This means it has a longer expiration date of ten years, compared to an average of four or five years for a plastic-molded seat. Since it’s really narrow-bodied, it’s a seat that will make room to fit three in the backseat, if you have a growing family or are carpooling. And because the AAP now recommends that kids be kept rear-facing as long as possible (because research suggests that rear-facing kids are at a lower risk for injury in a crash), Saxton also notes that this car seat has a higher weight limit for its rear-facing mode at 45 pounds.
Within the same price range, we might also suggest the Britax Marathon, which has a ClickTight system that makes it very easy to install in the car. Britax in general was a popular choice among the parents I surveyed for this reason. Kenny Fried, the vice-president of Brotman | Winter | Fried tells me, “I swap my car seats from car to minivan, and the extreme simplicity of the ClickTight system is THE feature. Instead of having to thread the seat belt behind the seat and have a pro install it, you lift the inside seat up (like on a hinge) and then pull the seat belt over and click in the seat belt. Takes about 30 seconds to install.” This one also has the no-rethread harness Walker suggested, to fit your child as they grow. If you wanted even more protection in a crash, you could also invest in an attachable anti-rebound bar from Britax that works with its convertible car seats in rear-facing mode: It’s another feature Hoffman recommended for decreasing rebound movement in crashes.
Best everyday combination car seats
Saxton’s favorite combination car seat (a car seat that goes from forward-facing mode with a five-point harness to a booster seat) is the Britax Pinnacle because of the ClickTight system mentioned earlier. She adds that this seat also has added side impact and safe-cell impact protection, which are honeycomb compression towers in the base of the car seat that lower the center of gravity and reduce forward motion in a crash. It can support kids up to 120 pounds in booster mode, and has a steel frame.
We would also recommend this lightweight Graco car seat that topped Consumer Report’s list for convertible car seats, too, after acing their crash test. It has an easy-adjust harness system and supports kids rear-facing up to 40 pounds.
Best everyday booster seats
Booster seats are the last stage in car seats, which is typically going to start around the ages of 7 to 10 years old, though the weight limit for them is around 110 pounds, so experts say that adults can and should use them if they can. Some booster seats will be high-back-only, backless boosters, or can convert between the two modes: this Clek Oobr one that Saxton recommends is the latter. “What I always recommend is a booster with lower anchors, so it attaches to the car,” says Saxton, which is why she likes this model. It has a rigid latch system, so it’s easy to use, has energy-absorbing foam, and she also calls out the fact that it reclines, so your kid can take a nap. “It’s got some of the best crash-test results and has a high weight limit, too.”
Here’s another booster seat that converts from a high-back seat to a backless booster, with a weight limit of 110 pounds. It has added head and shoulder side-impact protection and an easy latch attachment to secure the seat in your car.
And while the best and safest car seats are typically sturdier, they’re usually not lightweight, which is why many parents end up buying a separate one for traveling in cars and planes. Saxton adds that for car travel, rental car seats are a no-go because you never know their history (if they’re expired, dirty, or damaged). Here, our experts recommend some popular lightweight, portable car seats, most that comply with Federal Aviation Administration standards (and if not, we’ve indicated so).
Best infant car seats for traveling
When it comes to car seats for Ubers and planes, Renee McCabe — the Injury Prevention and Safe Kids coordinator for Safe Kids Greater Augusta, with over 20 years of installation experience — says she looks for lightweight ones with narrow bases (so they can fit on airplane seats, which vary by airline. See Seat Guru for exact widths), and have a clip-in stroller. It’s why she likes this Graco Snugride, which weighs seven pounds, has a narrow base, and a stroller attachment. Rear-facing, it can support babies up to 35 pounds, and it consistently gets good reviews online.
Saxton is still a fan of the Nuna Pipa for traveling, for the same reasons mentioned above, but also because it’s so lightweight at eight pounds, with a removable sun canopy for sunny trips. While you may be tempted to buy Nuna’s even lighter car seat — the Pipa Lite — for traveling, it has to be used with a base, while this one does not.
Another lightweight infant car seat you might want to consider for an all-in-one traveling unit is the Doona infant car seat and stroller. Charlie Stein, brand relations manager at Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, tells me he used the Doona for his firstborn and that it made being a first-time parent much easier. “I have had multiple people ask me what it is, particularly because the Doona fits perfectly in airplane seats, and I say ‘Transformers for adults.’” He adds that for car travel, it’s very easy to install, and clicks to let you know that the car seat is locked in. It does run slightly more expensive at $500 for the seat and stroller, but for the streamlined traveling experience, it could be well worth the investment.
Best convertible car seats for traveling
In the convertible category, both McCabe and Saxton suggested the eight-pound Cosco Scenera, which is easily accessible in most retail stores. “It’s a $40 car seat that you can find at Walmart,” Saxton says, “but it’s easy to install in planes, can be installed upright so babies can have neck control, and comes in a one-piece shell, so there are no extra parts you have to deal with.”
McCabe says this Safety 1st convertible car seat is another popular choice for traveling. It weighs 14 pounds, and has a higher weight limit in rear-facing mode, meaning you can keep your child rear-facing for longer.
McCabe also suggests the Combi Coccoro because it’s “highly rated, is the narrowest one on the market so it will definitely fit in an airplane, and has a stroller attachment as well.” It’s a seat that has a low starting weight at three pounds, so it can support your baby from birth until the booster age range.
Best combination seats for traveling
Immi Go, a direct-to-consumer car-seat brand, is the car seat of choice for Uber — and one that Saxton recommended for car trips (the installation pros at Car Seat Lady are a fan, as well). “The reason Uber uses the Immi Go is that it folds in half. You can use it either with a five-point harness or in booster mode. Drivers can keep it in the trunk of their car and the car seat takes up such a little footprint,” she explains. “My friends are always using it when they go on trips because it’s so lightweight and easy to carry.” Its leatherette material means it’s easy to clean after spills, it weighs only ten pounds, is narrow enough to fit three across, plus it has a six-year expiration date (if you need any more convincing). It’s not FAA certified, so this is one that you’re going to want to use in a car seat rather than an airplane.
Best booster seats for traveling
For something that’s so lightweight, you could keep it in your pocket, both Saxton and McCabe pointed me in the direction of this inflatable Bubblebum travel booster seat, which has a huge following among parents. “This is an inflatable car seat that’s the size of a balloon. A lot of families love these for carpool because it can fit in a backpack,” says Saxton. Boosters are not approved to use in an airplane, but McCabe notes that it’s ideal for hopping in cars or Ubers.
Another foldable booster seat that Saxton recommends is the Mifold. A former Kickstarter project, the Mifold is tiny — “maybe the size of my two hands next to each other, and that width as well” — but don’t let that fool you about its reliability as a booster seat. Instead of lifting up your kid up, it creates a path for the seat belt that hits your child at the right spot, instead: low on the hips and across the shoulders.
If you need a high-back booster, McCabe suggests the Evenflo Amp. It runs about $40 and is only about eight pounds, so it’s very lightweight for travel. This one transitions to a no-back booster seat and has six height settings to adjust to your child, plus a built-in cup holder.
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