Have you ever felt lost in the car seat aisle? Overwhelmed with all the choices? If you have a newborn or toddler, you’ll need to find a rear facing car seat.A certified child passenger safety technician can help you find the right car seat, but ultimately the decision is up to you.
STEP 1: To start, ask yourself these questions…
What is the child’s age? This will determine if you need a seat that rear faces, forward faces, or a booster. The recommended ages and stages are:
- Rear Facing: From birth until a MINIMUM of age 2, preferably until age 4+ or when they outgrow the limits of their rear facing convertible seat.
- Forward Facing with a harness: From a MINIMUM of age 2 until a MINIMUM of age 5, usually age 6+, when the child is mature enough to sit with the seatbelt correctly 100% of the time, and/or they have maxed out the limits of the forward facing harnessed seat.
- Booster: From a MINIMUM of age 5 until the child fits properly in an adult seat belt, usually around 11 or 12 years old.
What is the child’s weight and height? The child’s weight and height will determine if you need seats with low weight limits and harness height (preemies and small babies), or a large weight or height limit (for tall and/or heavy children).
What is my budget? It is important to know that all seats pass the same safety test and save children’s lives, whether it is a $45 seat, or a $450 seat. More expensive seats may have higher limits and more features (which could make it easier to use).
What kind of car will this go in? Does it need to fit next to other passengers or car seats? The size of the seat is important when it is going in a small car or next to other passengers or car seats.
As CPSTs, we take all of this into account when giving seat recommendations to a parent or caregiver.
STEP 2: If you have determined that you need a REAR FACING car seat (see part 2 for forward facing), you’ll need to determine what type you would like to purchase…
Rear Facing Only Infant Seat: These are generally purchased for small babies. They come with a base that is installed in the car, and the car seat can be easily removed to be carried or placed in a stroller. This car seat will last approximately one year (depending on the size of the child) and then will need to be replaced by a convertible car seat to keep the child rear facing.
Convertible Car Seat: This seat rear faces and forward faces, and potentially lasts from birth until school age, depending on the seat’s limits and the size of the child.
3-in-1 or All-in-One: These seats are a convertible car seat plus booster. Note that some 3-in-1’s DO NOT rear face (i.e. Graco Nautilus), so be cautious that you are buying the correct kind .
STEP 3: Once you have decided what type of seat will work for your lifestyle and will be appropriate for your child, you can start looking at limits and sizes…
Height/Weight limits: This is the best place to start! For a newborn, look carefully at the minimum weight limit. When looking at convertibles and all-in-ones, compare the limits for rear and forward facing (and booster if applicable) INDIVIDUALLY. Some seats may booster to 100lbs, but only harness to 40lbs. Some seats may have the same weight limits, but very different height limits. Take your child’s size and projected growth into account if possible.
Overall size front to back and side to side: Take car size and other car seats into account. If you need to fit other passengers or car seats, pay attention to width. If you have a small back seat or tall front passengers, look for seats that take up less room front to back. These usually have more recline options.
Top and bottom harness height: If you are shopping for a newborn, take special note of how low the harness slots are. Even if the seat has a low weight limit, the lowest harness slot may not be low enough for a newborn (even in “infant seats”). In convertibles and multi-mode seats, compare the highest settings; higher harness slots will usually fit longer.
STEP 4: Now you can focus on the ease of use and bonus safety features. These do not necessarily affect fit, but are personal preference and good to take into consideration when comparing seats…
Infant insert: Do you want/need one? Don’t forget that non-regulated aftermarket inserts are not allowed; only inserts that come with the seat or tightly rolled and properly positioned receiving blankets can be used.
Harness strap covers: Do you want/need them? Non-regulated strap covers are not allowed, so if the seat does not come with them, you cannot safely add aftermarket ones.
Recline settings: How many recline settings are there? Will you need a pool noodle or rolled towel to achieve the correct recline? Do you want more options for seat recline/incline? More options will make it easier to achieve the correct recline on sloped seats.
Recline indicator: Is it a line on the side or a bubble (or something else)? Is it easy to read and understand? Is there a large range of safe recline levels or only one? A large range will allow you to put the seat more upright when the child is older, which will give more room for the front seats to move back.
Lower anchors: Will you be using lower anchors to install the car seat? Are they standard or premium push on anchors? How easy are the anchors to install/uninstall? Push on anchors will be a little easier to use.
Harness threading: Will you need to rethread when you need to raise the harness height? Or is it no rethread, where you can adjust the height by pulling up the headrest.
Lock offs: Is there a built in lock off system for seat belt installation? If you plan to install using a seat belt this may be an important feature for you, especially if your seatbelts do not lock.
Expiration date: How long will the seat last before it expires? If you want to invest in a seat and potentially pass it down to a younger sibling, look at seats with an extended life (8-10 years) as opposed to seats with 6 years until expiration. Be sure it won’t expire before the younger sibling grows out of it.
Safety features: Are there extra safety features such as energy absorbing foam, extra side impact or rollover protection, rear facing tethering or anti-rebound bars, a steel frame, crumple zones, rigid LATCH, a load leg, impact absorbing harness, etc? All seats pass the same safety testing, but extra features are worth taking into account when comparing seats.
STEP 5: After narrowing down your choices, head over to your local baby store and check out the car seats in person.
Try out the buckles, tighten and loosen the harness, and if the store allows you to take the demo seats to your car you can try installing it. Once you are comfortable with your final decision, buy the seat and search for a CPST at cert.safekids.org for a seat check!
Want to know what seats to avoid? Take a look at our NOT recommended list.