Just when you thought you finally had it all figured out with regard to your baby and how to cruise the seven seas of parenthood with a steady wind in your sails, new choices need to be made. Your sweet little mini-me outgrew his/her infant car seat. Great, you think, yet again a million different options from which we need to find the right fit. They all look somewhat samey, yet veeery different. Plus, they all seem to come with a broad variety of features. How do you make sure to select the right one for your toddler and that fits to your family life? The following list aims to ease your decision making process by helping you navigate through the different options for identifying what really matters for you and what might be negotiable or merely nice to have, but not essential.
General recommendations to start with
As you will use this seat for a good couple of years, check if the cover can be taken off and is machine-washable. We are talking about kids in cars and not everyone is blessed with a stable stomach right from the get go, plus diaper accidents can obviously happen as well or even just the classic food stain.
This is only a really minor point of consideration: It’s “just” a car seat, but one that you have for a longer period of time. This means that any fancy super trendy design pattern can grow old pretty quick. So boring and classic wins the race.
In any case, the car seat should have a 5-point harness to ensure that any pressure on the body in the event of a crash is most evenly distributed.
If you are a family with more than one car, you need to consider whether the car seat will only be used in one of the cars or in both. In the latter case, you might want to avoid a solution that requires a separate docking station (as you would in that case buy two as in one per car), and you definitely want to avoid one that requires securing the seat with the seatbelt, as buckling up and unbuckling will otherwise turn into an annoying chore that you will soon come to curse. So if switching the seat between cars will happen more of less frequently (not just between both parents, but also consider if the grandparents will sometimes drive with your munchkin), then you should definitely invest in a slightly more expensive seat that comes with isofix or any other solution that allows you secure the seat in the car with an easy click solution. If you switch cars a lot, it is also advisable to take the weight of the car seat into consideration, as there are huge differences between the different models and, since they are quite bulky, you don’t want to make carrying it any more awkward than necessary.
Frequency of use
How often do you use the car with your kid? Every day or maybe just once every two weeks? This determines whether it’s worth it to invest in a more expensive options (like one with isofix or one that twists to the side) or if you are perfectly fine with a more basic model and are certainly fine with a seatbelt seat option. If, however, you use the car fairly frequently (for instance to drive to daycare), make sure to indeed invest in a car seat that allows you to buckle your toddler up in their harness with a few simple moves. It will save you a lot of hassle and time.
Your kid’s weight and height
The next car seat after your baby outgrew his/her infant seat typically starts at 20 lbs/9 kg. So this is your official starting point. However, your mini-me will obviously continue to grow and put on more weight. Therefore, it makes sense to assess your baby in terms of where they are on the scale compared to the average and to consider if it is likely that your bundle of joy will likely be in the lower or normal bracket of weight gain or at the upper end of the spectrum. Be honest with yourself here. This matters, as toddler car seats have a wider range of maximum weight depending on the model. Some allow for kids of up to 42 lbs/18 kg (i.e., a 4–year old). Others are suitable for up to 55 lbs/25kg. Some even go up to 65 lbs/30 kg (for up to 12 years of age). Let’s not fool ourselves. It is highly unlikely that you will manage to convince a 10-year old to gleefully sit in the car seat that they already sat in at 2 years old, as “that’s for babies”. So I would only recommend getting one that would reach up to age 12, if you have a quite heavyset kid to ensure the car seat lasts until at least age 4. Like if your baby weighs 28 lbs/13 kg at month 11, for example. If you have a baby of completely average weight, then you are better off with a seat that is limited to 42 lbs/18 kg. Stores will usually tell you that the baby’s weight is not an issue, as they know you will then come back sooner to get a new one. The exact same thing applies with regard to height. If you have a very tall kiddo, err on the side of a car seat that they do not outgrow in length too quickly. If you opt for one with a higher maximum weight, make sure to pay attention to the back support, which is reduced if the weight is increased.
Do you go on regular or semi-regular trips that entail long car rides? If so, make sure that your car seat can be equipped with a little table tray. Thereby, your munchkin can easily play with toys or draw. As a bonus, it is also easier to serve snacks without making a complete mess. A content and well-occupied toddler will save you a lot of stress and help you arrive at your destination without feeling like a holiday resort kiddy entertainer. Plus, you can place snacks and drinks on it.
Also relevant in the case of regular longer trips: can the seat be reclined to allow your toddler to sleep peacefully while you cruise through the night or during their midday nap? This is important, as a tired baby is a cranky baby, and that ends up making everyone a little cranky. Besides the sleeping aspect, don’t forget that the spine of your munchkin is a delicate part of the body, so any pressure relief you can provide on a long journey is highly advisable. That means, the more the seat can be reclined, the better for your kid’s back (aside from regular breaks of course).
Some airlines require you to bring a car seat when you fly with your kid, . Granted, this mainly applies for long distance trips. So if your family frequently takes overseas trips, it can make sense to check whether the car seat is suitable for that and fulfills the requirement for air travel. In that case, it would be FAA-approved (if you are in the US, but even if you are not, it can be a very helpful guideline). For more, check out this link by the Federal Aviation Administration. Some airlines however allow you to choose between the car seat or a child airplane travel harness (click here).
While some airlines offer solutions to rent for the flight in case you do not have one yourself, it is certainly more cost-effective to bring your own, plus you get the bonus of providing your kid with some extra comfort, as he/she gets to sit in a seat they are familiar with while being in a very alien environment. On top of that, if you rent a car or even if you take a cab or an Uber, it is obviously better to have a safe travel option for your kid with you and, in the case of a rental, you save the cost of having to rent a car seat for your munchkin. The rental car aspect is certainly one where seatbelt car seat models are in a slight advantage, as any car you rent will have seatbelts, but not every vehicle is suitable for isofix.
In any case, if you want to travel down that route (no pun intended) and select an FAA-approved seat, as you know you will frequently fly with your kid, make sure the weight of the seat is actually manageable, because don’t forget: you will maneuver through an airport with a curious toddler and a bulky car seat. A great overall car seat that’s suitable for flying is the COSCO Scenera Next (click here).
Character of your toddler
It might not seem like an intuitive factor for selecting a car seat, but whether your kid is a mellow, relaxed type or the active, constantly-on-the-move type does make a difference with regard to choosing the best solution. Some seats can be twisted 90 degrees so that they face towards the car door, which makes it infinitely easier to position your child and buckle them up, if they are a bundle of unlimited energy and getting them seated resembles a wrestling match with a flunky ball.
Forward or rear facing?
There are different recommendations regarding rear-facing seats in different countries. In the US, for instance, it is recommended to only have your kid in a forward-facing seat when they reach the two year mark at the earliest. So another choice to make is whether you want a reboarder (rear-facing) or a forward-facing solution, as the former is superior to the latter in terms of protecting the spine, head and neck of your baby in a crash. Their disadvantage is that your kid might outgrow them faster if they are on the taller side. Plus, they are significantly pricier. If you have a baby that is lighter than average and happens to also be a bit slower in terms of physical advancement, a reboarder has the benefit, that it reduces the physicals stressors in case of a sudden stop.
Safety standards to observe
Besides all those personal selection criteria based on your family’s lifestyle ensure that the car seat fulfills the US standard FMVSS 213 if you are living in the US (plus the local standards required by your state), the National Safety mark sticker if you are in Canada and the ECE Reg. 44/04 or 129 norm if you are residing in the European Union.
Want to safe a few bucks
If you are running on a budget or just simply want to not break the bank buying the car seat, look out for good deals in January and February. This is the time that stores want to make space for the new models that have been released in the beginning of the year, which means previous year models can often come with a very attractive discount. Plus we are talking car seats, there is usually not a gigantic leap of development that makes the new version vastely superior to a seat from the previous year. So keep this in mind, even if the car seat is only really needed as of mid-year.