How to Buy the Best Car Seat for Your Toddler

Toddler Car Seat

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Once your baby has outgrown her rear-facing infant car seat, typically between 1-2 years, the next step is a conventional, or toddler, car seat.

Of course you want a car seat that's reliable, comfortable, and easy to use, but above all, keeps your child safe. With so many brands and factors to consider, how do you make an informed choice?

When evaluating car seats, the key thing to note is their type, weight capacities, and their additional features (some are important, others not so much).

Types of Car Seats

There are several types of car seats available. Just learning the difference will make shopping much easier:

Convertible Car Seats - These two-position car seats convert from rear facing (the safest, most desirable position) to forward facing. Once your child reaches the rear-facing weight maximum, you turn the seat around. Because some convertibles are safe for newborns, some parents skip infant car seats and jump straight to these. Others use these as a way to keep their babies rear-facing once they outgrow infant car seat carriers.

Combination Car Seats - These car seats are always positioned forward-facing, but still offer two modes of use: first as a conventional car seat, complete with harness, then (once a child reaches the harness weight max) as a belt-positioning booster that's used with the vehicle's seat belt.

3-in-1 Car Seats - Merge the convertible and combination car seats, and you have the 3-in-1. This car seat works rear-facing, forward-facing, and as a belt-positioning booster. Some parents love the versatility; others would rather have a series of car seats more scaled to their child's size.

In addition, there are single mode forward-facing car seats, which are geared to narrower weight and height ranges.

Keep in mind, not all manufacturers use these terms the same way. (We're using them the way National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—or NHTSA—does.) So look at how the car seats work, rather than just what they're called.

Weigh the Features

  • Is right for your child's size and age
  • Is installed correctly
  • Is properly used single every time

Beyond these safety basics, some infant car seats offer additional features that, we think, make them better choices. Some offer enhanced safety features or are easier to install correctly. Others provide greater comfort or convenience. Here are some of the things our buyers look for:

  • Higher weight capacities, especially in the rear-facing position, to protect children longer.
  • A five-point harness, as opposed to a three-point harness. A five-point harness secures babies at the shoulders, waist, and crotch, which prevents "submarining or slipping under the belt.
  • Features that enhance side impact protection, such as side wings or impact-absorbing EPS or EPP foam liners.
  • Features that promote easy installation, such as seat belt lock-offs or a push-button LATCH mechanism.
  • Substantial, all-over padding. It's not only comfortable but offers added crash protection.
  • A harness that adjusts easily, from the front, without having to rethread the straps from the back. If the harness is difficult to adjust, it discourages parents from making needed adjustments as kids grow.
  • A multi-position reclining seatback and height-adjustable headrest for comfort.
  • A removable infant insert if used rear-facing.
  • A removable, washable seat cover.
  • FAA certification, a must if you plan on traveling by plane with baby.
  • Cup holders (as kids get older, amenities that keep kids entertained become more important).

And after you buy, be sure to read your manual (even if you rarely read manuals) and follow the manufacturer's installations directions. Register your car seat with the manufacturer, so you'll be notified of any news or recalls. And, since four out of five car seats are installed incorrectly, periodically take advantage of car seat inspections held in your area. That way, you'll know your car seat is always doing its job to protect your child.

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