Your Essential Guide to Buying the Right Car Seat

Christie Haskell

infant car seatWith the announcement from the American Academy of Pediatrics that children should ride rear-facing in the car until they're at least 2 years old, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration putting 3-year-olds in their rear-facing categories, there's been a lot of talk around the web about how people can manage this.

While some people rear-face their kids until 3 or 4, some even manage longer. Though others swear their children outgrew their rear-facing seat when their child was a mere 10 months old. How is this possible?

After much discussion, a lot of car seat advocates have realized that often parents just don't know what seats are available to them and what is the best buy for their family. Here is your essential guide to buying the right car seat.

Infant seat: Birth to around 12 to 18 months old

An infant seat has a carry handle, along with a base in the car it snaps into, and it can snap onto a stroller. The weight limit on these varies, with the lowest weight being between 4-6 pounds, and the highest weight anywhere between 22-35 pounds.

This seat is outgrown when the baby's head is within an inch of the shell, measured at a right degree angle from the angle of the back of the seat, or when baby has reached the max limit. Legs going over the edge or touching the seat doesn't matter.

convertible car seatConvertible seat: Birth to approximately 4 to 7 years old, depending on the seat and child

The next step is NOT a forward-facing seat! As the name suggests, convertibles convert between a rear-facing and forward-facing seat. Those with larger babies, who research their purchase, can sometimes skip the infant seat and use a convertible starting at birth.

Convertibles have varying weights as well, some allowing 5-8 pounds as the lowest limit, and between 30-45 pounds for rear-facing. They also allow, for forward-facing, between 20 pounds (not a single seat in the US allows forward-facing for a baby under 20 pounds, and to do so is illegal in every state) and all the way up to 70 pounds.

This seat is outgrown rear-facing when the child has reached the weight limit for rear-facing, or when their head is within an inch of the top of the shell. Forward-facing, it's outgrown when the child hits the weight limit for that position, or when the top of their ears are level with the top of the shell.


harness booster seatForward-facing Harness-to-Booster: 2 years old minimum (harnessed-mode), 4 years old minimum (booster-mode) to 8 to 12 years old

After your child has outgrown their convertible (or if you have one forward-facing child and want to pass down the convertible to a younger one), the next step up is NOT going to be a booster, unless your child is more than ready for one. You need a forward-facing harness seat that turns into a booster.

These seats also have an age limit, with 2 years old and 30 pounds being the bare minimum. The max weight varies from 50 to 85 pounds in harness-mode, the seat being outgrown in harness-mode when the child hits that weight limit, or the harness straps go below their shoulders.

booster seatDedicated Booster Seat: 4 years old (minimum) to 8 to 12 years old

If you had a Harness-to-Booster, eventually you switch to booster-mode. Some only turn into "no-back" boosters, some "high-back," and some do both. A dedicated booster is a high-back or no-back booster seat that didn't have a harness at any point. Unless you have no choice, a high-back is always preferred as many offer side-impact protection.

The bare minimum for these seats is often below some state laws, and definitely below the recommended minimum age of 4 years old and 40 pounds (smaller/lighter kids can slide under the belt, and their hips aren't developed enough to take the impact from the belt), but most children aren't ready until they're closer to 6 years old.

These have weight limits varying from 30 pounds, all the way up to 120. A child has outgrown this when they can pass the 5-point test that allows them to use the car's seat belt, which is designed for average adult men.

DO NOT rush to bump a child up to a new step -- rear-facing to forward-facing, forward-facing to boostered, boostered to seat belt -- each step up in seats is a step down in safety. Be patient. It is not a rite of passage, nor is there anything to gain.

Your research, car, budget, and child all dictate what you purchase. Some people have gotten away with only buying two seats -- a high-weight and height convertible and a long-lasting harness-to-booster -- for the child's entire life. Most complaints of "too many seats to buy, too much money" are the result of lack of information before initial purchases, not lack of proper options.

Did any of this surprise you? Do you now know the info you need to buy the best seat?


(Writer's note: I skipped 3-in-1 seats, that is ones that promise rear-facing, forward-facing and boosters, intentionally. They often have low limits in all directions, making promises they can't deliver on, and they are usually advised against.)


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