Buying Guide: Car Seats
Unless you plan to walk or take public transportation everywhere, you are going to need to have a car seat for your child — from birth to roughly four to eight years of age. In this guide we'll help orient you to the car seat world so you can figure out what type of car seat you need, and what you should look for in buying one.
Note: Our editors developed this list by summarizing TotScoop parent favorites and adding a few hand-picked editor favorites and new releases. Our picks are 100% unbiased — we never accept compensation in exchange for coverage. That said, this page may contain affiliate links, meaning we may receive a small commission on any purchases that you make (at no cost to you); see our full disclosure.
When you're done here, proceed to our picks for the best car seats by subcategory:
- Best Infant Car Seats
- Best Convertible & Multi-mode Car Seats (coming soon)
- Best Car Booster Seats (coming soon)
First, let's get our terminology straight. Here's a breakdown of the main types of car seats you're likely to encounter over the course of your career as a parent.
Infant car seats are harnessed seats that are sized for infants and are always installed rear-facing. They often come with a base, so the seat can be easily snapped in and out of the car. These are the most popular choice for newborns and young infants, thanks to their light weight and portability. They typically accommodate babies up to 22 to 30 lbs. (or approximately six to 12 months).
Once your baby outgrows her infant seat, you'll need to get her a toddler seat.
Forward-facing-only seats are harnessed seats sized for toddlers (generally 20-40 pounds and less than 43 inches tall) that are always installed forward-facing. It's actually rare to find a standalone toddler seat these days (actually, there are hardly any left on the market); the market has primarily shifted toward convertible car seats, which offer greater longevity.
Convertible car seats can be installed both forward- and rear-facing: larger toddlers ride forward-facing, and smaller toddlers and sometimes also infants (with insert) ride rear-facing.
Belt-positioning booster seats are for older youngsters who no longer require a five-point harness, but are still too small to be secured properly with a normal adult seat belt (typically 4-8 years old, 40+ pounds, and shorter than 4 feet 9 inches tall). There are two types:
1) High-back booster seats also incorporate an integrated backrest and protective head wings for additional head and neck support. (Generally appropriate for younger/smaller kids)
2) Backless boosters are the lower-profile version, which primarily serve to elevate the child so the seatbelt is positioned appropriately. (Generally appropriate for older/bigger kids)
Combination seats are multi-stage seats that convert from forward-facing harnessed toddler seats to belt-positioning booster seats (typically high-back). Some, like the Graco Nautilus (also marketed as a "3-in-1" seat), convert front-facing harnessed seat to a high-back booster to a backless booster. A combination seat cannot be used rear-facing.
All-in-one car seats (also sometimes marketed as "3-in-1" seats) typically convert from rear-facing harnessed seats to front-facing harnessed seats to belt-positioning booster seats; some are suitable for children from birth all the way to 80+ pounds! Be careful when evaluating "3-in-1" seats to confirm whether they can be used rear-facing, since (as described above) some combination seats (not rear-facing) are also marketed using this term.
I don't have a car. Do I still need a car seat?
Child passenger safety law varies by state. Every state requires that kids up to the age of four ride in a federally approved car seat in any private passenger vehicle; most states also require booster seats for children ages four through eight.
Some states (including New York, but not California) offer exemptions for taxis, but even if there's no legal requirement, having a car seat is still a good idea from a safety perspective.
Unless you plan to exclusively get around via public transportation (or you have access to a super convenient car service that reliably has cars with quality car seats available), we recommend you bite the bullet and just buy one.
When do you need it?
If you plan to drive home from the hospital, you'll need to have a car seat installed by the time you check out. In fact, a nurse will most likely follow you out the door to confirm that you have an age-appropriate car seat installed — and keep you from leaving if you don't!
Plan to install it a month before your due date in case baby arrives early. That will also give you ample time to take it to an inspection station if you like for peace of mind.
After that, you can expect to have some sort of car seat installed in your car for quite some time: at least through the age of four, and possibly until the age of eight (depending on the legal requirements of your state). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends that kids ride in booster seats until they're at least eight years old or 4 foot 9 inches tall.
Here's a breakdown of your main car seat options at each stage of your child's growth. For more info, see the full NHTSA guidelines.
Newborns/infants (from birth to 6-12 months)
Infants must ride rear-facing — they are legally required to do so until their first birthday, and the AAP recommends that they continue to do so until at least their second birthday (or, even better, until they reach the max weight/height limit for rear-facing use). You have two main options for rear-facing seats:
1) Buy a dedicated infant car seat: This is our recommended option, unless you're on a super tight budget. Infant car seats offer the best fit for younger babies, are are unmatched in terms of convenience — they're portable and can be snapped into stroller frames and many strollers for an instant "travel system." The only real downside is that your baby will outgrow it by six to twelve months old, at which point you'll have to buy another car seat.
2) Buy a multi-stage car seat and use it from birth: Whether it's a combination car seat or 3-in-1/all-in-one, you can economize by buying a multi-stage car seat that will grow with your baby. However, be prepared that the fit probably won't be as good, and of course the seat will also be much larger, heavier, and less portable vs. an infant car seat.
Older babies and toddlers (from 6-12 months up to 2-4 years)
Here are your three basic car seat options for older babies and toddlers:
1) Convertible seat: The most popular option. You'll be able to keep your child rear-facing as long as possible, but then transition her to forward-facing when she is large enough.
2) 3-in-1/All-in-one seat: Another interesting option, which could allow you to skip an additional purchase at the next stage. An especially good option if you're on a tight budget or won't be using your car seat regularly. Otherwise, our view is that your child will probably get enough use out of her convertible seat to justify making your purchase based on other criteria.
3) Combination seat: Since these do not offer a rear-facing position, they are only a good option for older toddlers (for example, if you need to replace a convertible seat or buy a second seat).
Keep in mind that it's safest to keep your child rear-facing for as long as possible — at a minimum until her first birthday, but ideally until at least her second birthday (or whenever she hits the height or weight limit on her rear-facing seat). After that, she can transition to a forward-facing (but still harnessed) seat.
4 to 7 years old
Your child should remain in her toddler-stage, forward-facing, harnessed seat until she hits either the height or weight limit. (Generally this occurs at around 4 years old, 40 pounds, or 38 inches tall, but limits vary by seat; check manufacturer guidelines.)
At that time, she's ready to move to a booster seat. High-back boosters (vs. backless boosters) are recommended for younger toddlers, as they are safer, and also provide critical support in vehicles with low seat backs.
If you thought ahead to purchase a combination or 3-in-1/all-in-one seat at the toddler stage, you'll be able to simply remove or tuck away the harness and use it as a booster with the vehicle seat belt at this stage (as permissible based on manufacturer instructions).
8 to 12 years old
Your child should continue to use a booster seat until she is big enough for the lap belt to lie snugly across her upper thighs rather than her stomach, and for the shoulder belt to lie snugly across her chest rather than her neck or face. This typically does not happen until the child is at least 4 feet 9 inches tall.
- Frequency/intensity of use: If you'll be spending a lot of time in the car, it's probably worth springing for a higher-end seat. Yep, even a single hour less of high-pitched screaming in the car will pretty much make that worthwhile. On the flip side, city dwellers might prefer a cheaper, no-frills option.
- Use outside the car: For infant car seats — if you plan to carry your child around everywhere in this thing (as most parents do), we highly recommend prioritizing light weight as a key criterion (particularly if you're, shall we say, bicep-challenged). A couple pounds can make a big difference after just a block or two.
- Small car or three-across: If you have a small car or multiple young kids, you may need a narrower or more compact car seat.
- Travel: If you plan on doing a lot of travel with baby, consider getting a less bulky, more light weight seat. Another popular option (for toddler seats) is to buy a second cheap, lightweight seat just for travel.
- Growing family: If you plan to have another child within a couple years, definitely get a dedicated infant seat (as opposed to getting an all-in-one or 3-in-one seat to use from birth), since 1) you'll be able to hand it down, and 2) you'll most likely need to buy a second seat to use simultaneously anyway.
- Two-car families: If you'll need to transport baby in both cars fairly regularly, you definitely need either a second base or a second car seat. It's not only inconvenient to install and uninstall a single car seat every time, but there's also a greater risk that you'll install it incorrectly. TIP: For the infant stage — instead of buying two bases or two identical seats, consider getting an infant car seat (and base) for the primary car, and a convertible or 3-in-1/all-in-one car seat (that can accommodate infants) for the secondary car. This way you're just buying the second seat a few months early, and can avoid the expense of a second seat or base.
Where to buy
Best selection and prices are online — often with free shipping and returns. Amazon.com offers a great selection of car seats and competitive prices. However, given the weight and size of a car seat, we recommend that you check out your top contenders in person first (e.g., test out fit with base and your stroller, try out harness, etc.) in order to minimize the chances that you'll need to return it.
Visiting a local retail store will allow you to get the best sense for size, look, and feel; another benefit is more straightforward returns and exchanges.
Large retailers like Babies R Us, Buy Buy Baby, Target, and Walmart offer a fair selection of low-end to mid-range car seats at fair prices. These stores also offer registries if you’re counting on friend or relative to help you out with a larger purchase.
You may need to look at local baby boutiques to find higher-end brands and models.
Buying a used car seat is unwise if you have any doubts whatsoever about its provenance (especially whether it has ever been in a crash), so buying off of Craigslist or other sources is not recommended.
However, using a hand-me-down from a sibling, close friend, or relative is fine, as long as it isn't too old (materials erode over time), and you're confident the car seat has never been in a crash.
All car seats are clearly labeled with expiration dates; some also have indicators which can tell you if the structural integrity of the seat has been compromised.
All car seats on the market must meet minimum federal safety regulations, however there are also a number of premium safety features worth considering as you shop for a car seat.
- Five-point harness: This type of harness offers five contact points (both shoulders, both hips, and the crotch), and is much safer than a three-point harness, which lacks contact points at the hips. Five-point harnesses are found on nearly all modern car seats, but double check if you're getting a hand-me-down.
- LATCH-equipped: LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren) is a system that makes child safety seat installation easier, using lower anchor(s) and often also a top tether to secure the seat (vs. using the vehicle's seat belt). LATCH is required on child safety seats and most vehicles manufactured after September 2002, so any unexpired seat you run across these days is going to be LATCH-capable. However, there are several flavors of LATCH lower anchor connectors: rigid, push-in type connectors and flexible connectors (hooks or click-on connectors attached to flexible webbing); the former is rare in the US, but safer and easier to use. If you have an older car, check whether your vehicle is LATCH-equipped; if not, look specifically for a car seat that is easy to install using the seat belt. Some cars can also be retrofitted to add LATCH anchors.
- EPS/EPP foam: The core car seat shell that protects your child in case of crash is made of plastic. No-frills seats just put a cover directly on top of the plastic, whereas some higher-end seats add layers of EPS foam (a.k.a. Styrofoam) or EPP foam (a higher-grade, more expensive foam) in key areas to absorb crash forces, rather than letting them pass through to your child.
- Side impact protection: Given that one out of every four crashes involves impact from the side, some sort of side impact protection is advisable. Various forms include energy-absorbing foam lining the sides of the car seat, deep side walls, a head restraint (a.k.a. headwings) to keep the head/neck/spine aligned, and additional external foam cushions on outside of the shell. Note that the trade-off for these is often additional bulk around your little one's head.
- Chest pads: Chest pads, such as those in Britax's "HUGS" system, reduce forward movement of the child in a crash by adding friction to the harness against the chest.
- Snug harness indicator: Makes an audible noise when the harness is appropriately tensioned, so you know it is sufficiently snug. Britax calls this feature "Click & Safe"; it's only available on their higher-end models.
- Anti-rebound bar or foot: This component is designed to reduce rotation of rear-facing seats toward the seat back during a rear crash or following a front crash, reducing the chance that your child's head will hit the vehicle seat or any accessories (e.g. mirrors) installed on the headrest. Only a handful of seats — including the Combi Shuttle and and Britax Chaperone infant seats and the Clek Foonf/Fllo and The First Years True Fit Premier convertible seats — have it.
- Foot prop / load leg: This is a rigid leg that extends downward from the back of a car seat base or convertible car seat to the floor of the vehicle and serves to reduce downward rotation of rear-facing seats in a crash. This feature is also rare in US seats; the Nuna PIPA and Cybex Aton 2 are a couple of the few to feature it. Note that this feature increases protection for the child's head and neck even more than an anti-rebound bar.
- Recline level indicators: Provide visible feedback as to whether your rear-facing seat is sufficiently reclined — important to make sure your child's airway will remain open, and her head won't fall forward while sleeping (a dangerous position in a crash). The most basic type of indicator is a line or other reference point that is meant to be installed parallel to the ground. Fancier, easier-to-read indicators typically feature a ball or bubble, and may also include different ranges based on the child's weight.
Ease of use
Even the fanciest set of safety features is useless if you aren't able to install and use them correctly every time. The NHTSA publishes ease-of-use ratings covering many of these aspects.
- Instructions and labeling: The user manual and quick-reference label on the car seat should be informative and easy to follow.
- Ease of installation: The easier the seat and/or base are to install, the higher the likelihood that you'll install them correctly (via either LATCH or the seatbelt). Recline level indicators (described above) give you visual feedback on whether you've installed the seat at the correct angle.
- External harness adjustment (a.k.a. "no rethread" harness): This allows you to adjust the harness height without having to remove the seat from the car and rethread the harness straps through the slots in the shell.
- Ease of securing child correctly: Consider how easy it is to clip/unclip the buckle and tighten/loosen the straps.
Child fit and comfort
- Overall fit: Does your child fit comfortably, but snugly, in the seat — with room to grow?
- Weight/height capacity: For infant car seats — focus on the height capacity rather than weight, since most babies outgrow them on that basis. (TIP: Car seats with 22-pound weight limits are more than sufficient for most babies, and tend to be lighter than 30-pound models.) For convertible car seats — if you want to your child to be able to stay rear-facing for an extended period of time (say, past two years old), pay special attention to the rear-facing height and weight limits (look for a weight limit of 40-45 pounds). See here for a helpful chart.
- Fabric/material: At a minimum, make sure the top layer is soft to the touch. A select few higher-end seats also feature organic or Oeko-Tex-certified fabrics. If you live in a hot climate, a more breathable material is also key.
- Cushioning/padding: Car seats lined with energy-absorbing foam will be more comfortable than pure plastic shells. Some covers are also more plushly padded than others.
- Strap cushions/drool pads: First, does it have any? If so, are they soft and removable (for easy cleaning)?
- Adjustable recline: More basic models will have a single-position "foot" that will allow you to adjust the seat to a preset angle for rear-facing installation. Depending on your car, you may need to utilize a supplementary prop (e.g. towel or pool noodle) to install these types of seats at a suitable angle. Higher-end models will feature multiple recline settings that will allow you to install the seat at the proper angle in a wider range of cars, and/or allow you to adjust the angle on the fly to make your child more comfortable (e.g. for naps).
- Canopy: For infant car seats, look for as large a canopy as possible, especially if you plan to use the seat outside of the car. Some feature extension panels. Canopies that can be adjusted to multiple positions are also nice.
- Infant insert and/or head support: Make sure the seat will fit your newborn snugly, either with or without an insert (typically appropriate up to 11-12 lbs.). Some seats also come with head support for babies who don't yet have good head and heck control. If yours doesn't, aftermarket options are also available (though be sure to only buy products approved for use with your car seat).
Vehicle fit and caregiver convenience
- Vehicle fit: If you have a compact car or require multiple car seats, you may need a narrower or shorter car seat.
- Car seat weight: This is an especially important consideration for infant car seats and seats that will be used for travel. Infant car seats range from approximately six to 12 pounds. Convertible car seats range from approximately eight to 39 pounds. When testing out an infant car seat at the store, load it up with 10 to 20 pounds and do a few laps around the store to get a real feel for it.
- Handle: Make sure it's easy for you to adjust the handle position, and that it's easy for you to lift and carry when fully loaded. Also, many car seats only allow certain handle positions for in-car use; avoid these if you don't want to be bothered with this extra step. See here for a helpful chart.
- Stroller compatibility. For infant car seats, be sure consider stroller or stroller frame compatibility in your selection process. Many strollers are only compatible with car seats from the same brand out of the box, but offer optional adapter accessories for the more popular car seats.
- Fabric care: Is the fabric durable and stain-resistant? Are the seat, insert, and drool pads wipe-clean, removable, and/or machine washable?
There unfortunately no such thing as a truly "organic," "all-natural," or chemical-free car seat. However, if minimizing your baby's exposure to chemicals is important to you, there are definitely safer choices to be made.
That said, we do not recommend that you make any compromises on safety or ease of use — after all, the most important function of a car seat is to keep your baby safe in a crash!
- Flame retardants: Because of Federal Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 302, which governs flammability of all interior materials in cars, all of the car seats that we are aware of are treated with flame retardants. Most use brominated or chlorinated fire retardants (such as TDCPP and TCPP), however some use "safer" non-halogenated fire retardants such as phosphates or Oeko-Tex certified flame retardants. Orbit Baby has long been a leader in this area, and Britax has only used non-halogenated fire retardants since January 1, 2013. The Clek Foonf is also free of all harmful chemicals. If these seats are too pricey, the flame retardants in any seat can be reduced by leaving it outside in the sun for a few days or washing the cover with soap (not laundry detergent).
- Oeko-Tex certification: Oeko-Tex certified fabrics meet or exceed strict limits for nearly 200 chemicals, including heavy metals, phthalates, formaldehyde, pesticides, and flame retardants. Orbit and Nuna car seats feature Oeko-Tex certified fabrics.
- PVC, phthalate, BPA, lead and heavy metal-free: Typical car seats utilize plastics that may incorporate one or more of these. Look for these designations if minimizing your child's chemical exposure is important to you.
According the the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the first simple steps toward ensuring the safest possible ride for baby are taken at the purchase decision stage: find a car seat that is appropriate for her age and weight and fits well; make sure the car seat is the right fit for your vehicle; and buy a car seat that can be installed and used correctly every time.
Beyond that, here are some additional tips on how to keep your baby safe when actually installing and using your car seat.
First, choose the right place and position in the car
Car seats should always be installed in the back seat. Baby should ride rear-facing for as long as possible, until at least the age of two, according to the AAP. Rear-facing seats should never be installed in front of an air bag.
Install your car seat correctly, and get it checked
According to the NHTSA, approximately 75% of car seats are installed incorrectly (!). According to one study, the most common errors include: installing too loosely; installing the seat using the seat belt, when LATCH connectors are available, or using both (when contraindicated by manufacturer); twisting the lower anchor or seat belt straps; failing to secure the tether properly; routing the seat belt or LATCH components incorrectly; and using an inappropriate recline position.
When installing, follow manufacturer instructions to the letter and tighten straps (when applicable) as much as possible. Not sure if your car seat is installed securely enough? Give it a good shake at the base. A properly installed seat should not move more than an inch either side to side or front to back. Also, if you are installing a front-facing seat and your car has top tether anchors, be sure to use them; on average they will reduce the forward motion of your child's head in a crash by 6-8 inches.
Are you in the 97% of parents who think they've installed their car seat correctly? Well, consider taking your car seat and vehicle to a free Child Car Seat Inspection Station anyway, so a certified technician can check your work and show you how to secure your child to maximize your car seat's safety features. Visit www.safercar.gov to locate an inspection station near you.
Make sure baby is securely buckled in each and every time
The harness should be threaded through the correct slots to fit your baby appropriately (check your car seat manual — sometimes it should be at or below your child's shoulders, and sometimes above). Make sure it's tightly buckled. When buckled, the chest clip should be level with your child's armpit. Try pinching the straps; if you're able to pinch any excess webbing, then the harness is too loose.
Don't use any bulky clothing or blankets inside the harness, as doing so can leave undetected slack in the harness that could increase the risk of injury in a crash. Always secure the harness over light clothing only, then if needed you can place a blanket or jacket on top of the harness.
Exercise caution when using an infant car seat outside of the car
According to The Car Seat Lady, more infants are injured outside of the car than in car crashes. The most common injuries are due to drops and falls, in particular falling out of car seats and falling from an elevated surface in a car seat.
Always use the harness when baby is in the car seat, and never place a car seat on an elevated surface (such as a shopping cart, stroller frame, table, or counter) unless you are certain that it is secure.
Avoid unapproved padding or seat covers
It's not a good idea to use any sort of aftermarket padding or seat cover with your car seat, since car seats are only tested with manufacturer-approved accessories. Using anything else may put your child at risk, and will usually void the warranty as well.
Minimize car seat time to avoid flat head syndrome
To minimize the risk of plagiocephaly (flat head syndrome) for infants, avoid placing your baby in her car seat for extended periods of time on a regular basis. For example, don't let her nap or sleep in there regularly, unless prescribed by your doctor for medical reasons (e.g. reflux or congestion).
When your baby is out of the car seat, make sure she spends plenty of time in other positions (e.g. on her stomach, or sitting up once she's able to).
General car seat accessories
- Seat protector: Not a necessity, but a nice-to-have if anticipate a lot of crumbs or liquids (or potty training).
- Window sunshade: Recommended for sun protection and naps.
- Car seat bag: For storage and protection from wear & tear during travel. Recommended if you plan to check your car seat for air travel regularly.
Accessories for infant car seats
- Car seat base: These allow you to easily snap your car seat in/out of the car, rather than uninstalling and reinstalling the whole seat, and area a must if you ever plan to carry your baby around in her car seat (or use it with a stroller). Many car seats will come bundled with one; consider getting an extra one if you will be using a second car regularly.
- Car seat adapter: An optional stroller accessory that allows you to mount your infant car seat on it. Check ahead of time to make sure an adapter is available for your stroller and car seat of choice. Most stroller manufacturers make adapters for the most popular car seats (e.g. Chicco Keyfit and Graco Snugride).
- Car seat stroller frame: Allows you to turn your infant car seat into a lightweight stroller system. See our Stroller buying guide for more details.
- Footmuff / car seat blanket: Any small blanket will do. The ones specially designed for car seat use go around the harness, and can be zipped off without removing your baby from her seat.
- Newborn insert/head support: If your car seat doesn't come with one, many aftermarket options are available (just be sure to get one that is approved for use with your car seat).
- Pacifier/toy strap: A nice-to-have to keep items within your baby's reach.
- Car seat activity bars and toys: Any toy (or household object) will work fine to keep baby entertained in her car seat, but there are also products specifically designed for car seat use that clip on to keep toys handily within reach.
- The NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) maintains a great informational website on car seats at safercar.gov.
- The NHTSA also publishes a set of Ease of Use ratings for car seats annually, covering such dimensions as clarity of instruction manual, ease of installation, clarity of labeling, and ease of securing child correctly.
- Federal crash test ratings are, sadly, not released to the public. However, Consumer Reports performs independent frontal crash testing, based on the criteria outlined in Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213 (NHTSA’s standard for crash performance of child car seats), and publishes the report annually. You'll need a subscription to view the results. Note that we've already incorporated CR's ratings into our various car seat recommendations.
- The Car Seat Lady and CarSeatBlog offer expert opinions and reviews.
- Car-seat.org features a popular forum where experts offer advice and answer questions.
- For more on toxic chemicals found in car seats, see this Healthystuff.org study (2011) and this report from the Washington Toxics Coalition. Also see these counteropinions from The Car Seat Lady and CarSeatBlog.