Which Car Seat Should I Buy?

Truth be told, this is quite likely the question that gets asked (and searched) most often by parents! And for very good reason; a car seat is unlike any other piece of baby gear that you will purchase.

The online forums are chock full of new and expectant parents seeking direction to the ‘best’ or the ‘safest’ car seat on the market. And as much as I wish there were, there’s no simple answer to that question. Every child is different - so too is every seat and vehicle combination! There is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution.

Unfortunately, most retailers have limited knowledge when it comes to the masses of child restraints on the market and is often only educated to discuss the car seat on more of a superficial level; making recommendations based on cost, advertised proprietary features, and fabric options.

The good news is that there are professionals whose purpose is to help you in this field. A Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) is trained to educate parents and caregivers about everything car seat related, from harnessing to installation. What’s more, is that we are uniquely qualified to identify and evaluate your family’s car seat needs, both in the present and future. Our goal is to be a resource for families. To empower them so that they can choose the right seat, and provide them with the skills and confidence to install and use their seats correctly every time.

Technicians routinely come across the same seat selection mistakes. These missteps lead parents to regret their car seat purchase or, worse case, leave them unable to use their seats for a variety of reasons including, the seat not fitting their child or not fitting their vehicle. And since most retailers consider car seats ‘Final Sale’, they are not eligible for return or exchange.

Unfortunately, car seats do not universally fit all vehicles. Try before you buy and take the time to test the seat in your vehicle. Before you begin your quest to find YOUR next car seat, get in contact with a certified CPST. Not only can they steer you in the right direction from the start saving you time and money, but they can also give you tips for a secure install, and the peace of mind that you’re doing everything you can to keep your children as safe as possible.

To find a certified CPST near you, check out the Safe Kids Worldwide National CPS Certification Training database if you’re in the U.S.A. If you’re in Canada, you can use the Child Passenger Safety Association of Canada Find-A-Tech map.

What is the ‘BEST’ seat or the ‘SAFEST’ seat for my child?

The answer is this; the ‘best’ or ‘safest’ seat is one that fits and installs securely in YOUR vehicle, that offers the best fit for YOUR child’s stage, age, height, and weight, that fits YOUR budget and meets YOUR family’s needs, and that YOU can use correctly every single time.

Looking at safety ratings can offer you a perspective but it isn’t enough - it’s merely one piece of the pie. If the seat that is rated ‘safest’ doesn’t accommodate your needs, or is incompatible in your vehicle, then that is not the best seat for YOU - regardless of the ratings. All car seats are tested to the same federal safety standards and the safest seat is one that can be installed and used correctly every single time.

By the same token, be wary when reading consumer reviews and don’t be swayed by marketing tactics. Use them as a research tool. Consider this, 4 out of 5 car seats are installed or used incorrectly. This means that 4 out of 5 of those posted reviews are written by parents and caregivers who aren’t using their car seats properly. Unbiased reviews, written by CPSTs, are your best online resources when you start making a shortlist of seats.

Does more expensive mean safer?

Choosing a car seat can feel overwhelming. Not only is it one of the most important baby gear purchases you'll make as a parent, but in all likelihood, it will be one of the most expensive.

When comparing seats, it’s hard not to notice the price discrepancy between many of the more popular seats on the market. In a society where we’re taught that cost=quality, it’s difficult not to have that ideology carry over into car seat shopping. So, let’s break it down. When it comes to the cost of a child restraint, does more expensive mean safer?

Child restraints range in price from $50 to $650+, but it’s important to understand that ALL car seats have to pass the same crash tests and meet federal safety standards. You don’t need to strike it rich to safely transport your child!

Many of the seats with higher price tags include what are referred to as premium, or ease-of-use features. Several items available on a seat can make the seat friendlier to install and use, though they may add to the overall cost of the seat. Often the seats also include features that enhance safety or leave less room for error during both the installation process and day-to-day use. Examples of such features include built-in lock-offs, load legs, rigid latch connectors, easier to read level indicators, premium LATCH systems, smooth harness systems, etc. While these features aren’t making the seat safer per se, they can facilitate the proper use of the seat thereby leaving less room overall for error which can lead to a safer outcome. Does this make a car seat inherently safer? Perhaps when compared to a seat that isn’t used properly.

However, a higher price tag isn’t necessarily indicative of a seat's functionality, and more expensive seats do not necessarily perform better. Rather, it could simply mean the seat has added features that you may or may not want or use. Or that might be flat out unusable by you. Case in point, purchasing a seat with a load leg for a vehicle that prohibits the use of load legs (PRO TIP: check your vehicle manual AND speak with a CPST to determine whether your vehicle has similar prohibitions).

What To Look For When Buying A Car Seat

When selecting the best seat for YOU, it must fit YOUR vehicle, fit YOUR child, fit YOUR budget and meet YOUR family’s needs, and be one that YOU can install correctly every single time.

There are 4 stages of child restraint usage: rear-facing, forward-facing, belt-positioning booster, and vehicle seat belt. The type of car seat you need will depend on your child’s age and stage. 

First thing first, read the labels! Find a seat that will fit your child based on stage, whether it be an Infant Car Seat (rear-facing only), a Convertible Car Seat (rear-facing & forward-facing capabilities), a Multimode Car Seat (three or more modes: rear-facing, forward-facing, high back booster, or backless booster), or a Belt-Positioning Booster Seat (high back booster and/or backless booster). 

Thereafter, it’s important to look at the limits of the seat. Car seats have height, weight, and fit minimums along with height, weight, and fit limits (maximums), but often the numbers alone don’t tell the entire story.

Best practice, the gold standard of protection, is the safest way to transport a child based on the child’s age, weight, height, and development levels. The best practice is to keep your child rear-facing as long as possible, and The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children remain rear-facing until they reach the highest height, weight, or fit requirement allowed by their seat. Why? A rear-facing seat will keep your child’s head, neck, and spine aligned offering the best protection during an abrupt stop or impact. It will cradle your child and absorb the forces, reducing the stress, and protecting the most vulnerable parts of the body. Therefore, selecting a seat with high height and weight limits will allow your little one to ride rear-facing longer.

Other important factors to consider are the height of the shell, and the height of the harness positions, both of which will factor into how your child will fit in the seat (lowest harness position), and when your child will outgrow the seat (highest harness position).

The height of the top harness slot is important when you consider the length of time children should remain harnessed in a forward-facing car seat. The best practice is to remain in a 5-point harness for as long as possible, until the child reaches the height and weight limits for the seat and is physically and developmentally mature enough to ride in a belt-positioning booster seat, somewhere between 5 and 7 years of age. The top harness height will be relative to your child’s torso height since the harness (when forward-facing) must come from AT or ABOVE your child’s shoulders. The same can be applied to belt-positioning booster seats which also position the seat belt above the child’s shoulders. A child can outgrow his seat before reaching the stated (standing) height limit when the top harness slot (forward-facing), or shoulder belt guide (booster) is below his shoulders. For taller children or those who carry their height in their torso, the top harness height is directly proportional to the longevity of a particular seat.

Don’t forget that even if your child is older, more than likely he will still need a belt-positioning booster seat. Once a child’s weight or height is above the forward-facing limit for their car safety seat, current AAP recommendations stipulate that they should ride in a booster seat until they are 4’ 9” (57”) tall, and between 8 and 12 years of age, and until the vehicle lap and shoulder seat belt fits properly, as it would an adult.

A belt-positioning booster is a device designed to achieve the proper positioning of the adult-sized seat belt over your child’s body. Boosters work by positioning the shoulder portion of the vehicle seat belt on the child’s shoulder across the center of their collarbone, and the lap portion of the vehicle seat belt low across the child’s hips.

When can they stop using a booster? The rule of thumb is 4'9", however, it’s vital they are able to pass the 5 step test in every vehicle in which they ride. If they can pass these criteria then they can safely use the adult seat belt. 

Next, a car seat has to work for YOU and for your lifestyle. And sometimes size does matter. When you’re working with smaller vehicles, the footprint of the car seat instantly becomes a priority. If you travel a lot or will be frequently moving and installing your seat, then you will need a lightweight seat and one that offers a friendlier installation. If you need to install the seat in a vehicle alongside other child restraints or passengers, you have a specific set of criteria that will determine the seat or seats that will work for you. Every child is different - so too is every seat and vehicle combination!

Pre-Loved - Yes or No?

In this day and age, repurposing and recycling baby gear is a perfectly acceptable, and often lauded practice. Where this doesn’t hold true is when it comes to the child restraint. Car seat manufacturers and CPSTs alike do not recommend buying a second-hand car seat from anyone who isn’t a trusted source. Consider this, when you obtain a used car seat you are trusting the previous owner with your child’s life. You don’t know if it has ever been involved in a crash, part of a recall, or if the seat were cared for according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

If you have obtained a second-hand car seat from a family member, friend, or other trusted source, or are considering using a second-hand car seat, the NHTSA has put together a checklist to help.

Car Seat Features

Side Impact Protection

While some manufacturers are implementing side-impact testing, particularly with harnessed seats, there are not currently any regulatory standards. Specifically, there are no standardized testing requirements for side-impact or rollover testing. Much of what manufacturers advertise in this area is marketing, and statements that claim to exceed federal testing requirements are not something that can be proven nor compared without a system of regulatory checks and balances.

3-in-1 Seats - One and Done?

In the world of car seats, manufacturers often tout 3-in-1 seats as the ‘only seat you’ll need’! And let’s face it, who doesn’t want to save a little money? Unfortunately, the math rarely works out and here’s why.

For starters, most 3-in-1 seats do not make great booster seats. The expression ‘jack of all trades and master of none’ comes to mind. The truth is, belt-positioning boosters are just as fit specific as convertible seats, if not more so. In fact, since the booster involves a moving component (ie. seat belt) the fit-to-child can be even more important. It’s largely the booster mode that fails to impress, or that garners a less than stellar review. Most 3-in-1 car seats do well in two modes (rear-facing/forward-facing), but fall short in the third mode (booster); sometimes miserably. This occurs for a few reasons, including a short-lived booster mode that leaves your child in need of a new dedicated booster regardless, or a booster mode that simply fails from the word go.

Then there’s the cost. Many of the 3-in-1 seats on the market will have the additional booster cost factored into the manufacturer’s price, in addition to the retail markup. This routinely ends up with those seats retailing for considerably more than it would cost to purchase a convertible seat and then a booster separately as needed.

The average child is between 5 and 6 years of age before he is both developmentally mature enough to ride in a booster, and has met the minimum requirements to do so. Since most children will continue to need some form of child restraint until between 10-12 years of age, you’re looking at a minimum of 10 years of child restraints in your future, and likely closer to 12 years. While more and more seats are hitting the market with a 10-year lifespan, this doesn’t guarantee that it’ll cover all of your car seats needs as your child grows, and more often than not a new booster will be needed at some point. A lot can change in just those first 5 years alone. New vehicle, new sibling, and perhaps most importantly, new technology and safety features incorporated into new seats.

This is something that parents bring up often and while the desire to get the best bang for your buck is appreciated, the priority should be on the ‘now’ when it comes to child restraints and to worry about the future when you get there. 

If anything, your takeaway should be this: do not put too much weight or focus in searching for a seat that will be your ‘one and done’. If the seat that you choose also happens to have a booster mode, fantastic, but do not filter your search to only include seats with booster modes. So much can, and will happen in the next 10 years - even the next 6 years!

Motor vehicle collisions are the leading cause of death by preventable injury for American children. This makes riding in a car the most dangerous thing we do with our children - and we do it daily. 

Selecting the right car seat is the first step in car seat safety. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that three out of four safety seats are installed or being used incorrectly

In car seats, as in other areas of parenting, the devil is in the details. Ultimately, the best and safest car seat is a properly installed car seat. Seek out an expert and be careful with advice from well-meaning friends and online acquaintances! Consulting a certified CPST and doing your research will save you time and money, and allow you to make the best decision for YOU. Period.⁣

Sean Linnenbruegger 

Child Passenger Safety Technician Instructor (CPST-I)

Safe Seats Ottawa