The Ultimate Buying Guide for Your Baby’s First Car Seat

Children’s car seats are not what they used to be. The more we learn about the physiology and safety needs of babies and young children, the more car seats have evolved. While better ways to protect our children is never something to complain about, the number of options which now saturate the consumer market can easily overwhelm new parents, or any parents for that matter. Every year, safety standards are updated and new features and technologies are incorporated into car seat designs. What features should you look for? Which features are deal-breakers, and which could be bypassed?

In this post, you’ll find:

  • My recommended approach to comparing and assessing car seats,
  • An overview of current laws, standards, and guidelines regarding car seats,
  • A comparison of the primary types of car seats available,
  • The features and qualities today’s car seats boast with pointers to help you decide which ones you need and which you can bypass,
  • The car seat we chose for our daughter, and why,
  • My top tips for finding the best seat at the best price.

Just so you know, I incorporate affiliate links, from which I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you, to help showcase products I personally own and love, as well as to illustrate certain points or product features.

The Ultimate Buying Guide for Your Baby’s First Car Seat

Which Car Seat is the Least Expensive?

This heading is one of the most commonly asked questions about children’s car seats, according to Google. You’re probably wanting to know the same thing. I know it was a dominant consideration for me as I was building my baby registry during my pregnancy. I opted for a very budget-friendly travel system (which is a stroller and infant seat combo). Looking back, I could kick myself. Repeatedly.

When I chose this seat, I did read the reviews on Amazon for safety concerns, but my top determinant was ultimately price. I didn’t do in-depth safety research and compare models and features. I just found one that fit the literal bill and clicked “add to registry.” Over the six months that I used this seat, I began to realize my error.

You Get What You Pay For

While I was thinking about which seat would be most amenable to a gift-giver’s budget, I should have been considering which seat would do the best job at protecting my infant. Fortunately, the seat was never put to the test. It probably would have done the job of keeping my baby alive, but it is not a quality infant seat.

I didn’t even fully realize this until Carrots seemed to be outgrowing it at only six months old, so I began researching her next seat. What finally changed my perspective was reading Amazon reviews which detailed horrendous vehicular crashes which could easily have proved fatal to all passengers.

One review completely changed my perspective

In one review in particular, the vehicle rolled multiple times after colliding with a semi. Two of the passengers were babies under two. The younger baby was ejected fifty feet from the vehicle, still in his car seat, and survived nearly unharmed. (The other kid was safe as well with minimal injury). (It’s in the top reviews for this seat, complete with pictures.)

As my eyes were opened to my previous decision making process, I felt really stupid and rather guilty. To think that I would prioritize a budget (not even my own!) over the life and safety of my own child. While price will always be a limiting factor and legitimate consideration, I urge you to first decide which car seats you trust to carry the most precious cargo on earth and then compare prices.

To get a good seat, you will probably spend between $100 to $300, but if you want premium features, you can certainly spend more. Once I was hit with the gravity attached to my child’s life, this seemed like a much easier bite to swallow. My husband and I do not have an unlimited budget. We are young with student loans to pay and limited income as he tries to finish law school and I care for a new baby.

However, when you look at the long term cost, many of these car seats will fit your child for six to nine years. Divide $200 out over that time, and protecting your child is suddenly pretty dang cheap–even cheaper if you divide the cost by the number of times your child will ride in it protected.

Car Seat Laws and Guidelines

Legal Requirements

Laws regarding children’s car seats are at the discretion of each individual state. In addition to the government’s safety regulations are recommendations made by safety experts and pediatricians, which usually exceed the requirements placed upon you by your state.

Since each state is different, you will want to know:

  • How long, or until what size, does your child have to remain rear-facing?
  • When can your child transition from a front-facing seat to a booster seat?
  • When, or at what size, can your child ride without a safety seat?
  • When, or at what size, will your child be permitted to ride in the front seat?

Make sure the source you check is up to date for the current year. Most likely, your child:

  • Will be rear facing for 1-2 years and,
  • Will be in a car seat for a total of 7-9 years.

I made it out of my booster seat at five years old just before the laws changed (at least in my state) and was riding in the front seat of my dad’s ancient Toyota Corolla since it didn’t have a passenger air-bag. Now your kid has to use a car seat basically until they get their driver’s license.

Additional Recommendations

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:

  • Children should be kept rear-facing as long as possible, especially since many car seats are now designed to enable rear-facing up to around 40 pounds.
  • Once forward facing, children should continue using the safety seat’s harness until they max out the height or weight limits for the harness.
  • From there, children should remain in a booster seat until they are 4 feet 9 inches tall and 8-12 years old.
  • Children under 13 should not ride in the front seat.

It seems like every year the “recommendations” keep your child in a car seat longer! Pretty soon, your child will need a booster seat to take to college with them. Joking aside, the recommendations do make sense to me, so I looked for a seat that could accommodate my child from babyhood to Algebra books.

One additional thing to note: you might be thinking of saving money by using a secondhand seat, and the recommendation is that you don’t. You just don’t know how a seat has been worn out or compromised through previous use, especially if it was involved in an accident, or is nearing its expiration. I’m all about saving money, but as a better-safe-than-sorry move, we opted to just purchase a new seat.

What are the options?

Infant Seats

The first option is the one you’re probably already picturing in the back of your car ready to bring your brand new bundle of poop and joy home from the hospital. These seats usually accommodate your baby for the first year and are specially tailored to the safety needs of an infant. After marinading in amniotic fluid squished up in a little ball for nine months, a baby’s spine, neck, and bone structures are weak and flexible.

As I’m sure you well know, a new baby’s head needs extra support so that it doesn’t flop around and injure the neck or spine. Besides that, another concern is that Baby’s head will drop forward and restrict air flow. The infant seat provides the best angle and contoured support to protect the head and spine from both regular movement and dangerous impacts.

An added benefit of the infant seat is that it can easily be removed from the vehicle and used as a carrier. I am not the kind of person who totes this bodybuilder basket everywhere I go, but I will admit to its occasional conveniences. It’s nice not to have to wake a sleeping baby to take them into the house, or when your first arrive at a restaurant and value a few precious seconds to scarf down the corn chips and salsa. You can also warm it up in the house on a cold winter day so that baby is already buckled and snuggly before an outing.

Convertible and All-in-One Seats

Since the AAP wants to keep your kid in a car seat through puberty, you obviously can’t rely on your infant seat forever. After all, your seventeen year old might be embarrassed to have his friends see that he still uses his baby seat. Geez, mom.

You can either buy a different seat for each transitional phase mentioned in the Laws and Guidelines section (rear facing infant, rear facing toddler, forward facing, booster), OR you can get one or two car seat that grows with your child.

Convertible Seat

Convertible seats are so called because they assist the transition one stage to the next. Some will transition rear to front facing, others from a high back booster to backless, etc. The AAP recommends keeping your child rear-facing for a minimum of two years, but your infant seat may not accommodate your baby beyond a year, depending on which one you buy. That makes convertible seats attractive to the budget-conscious parent.

You can see how different the two convertible seats I’ve pictured are.

Convertible seats can be used in both the rear and forward facing positions, but won’t necessarily accommodate your child through high school. (For this reason, I would also place “2-in-ones” in the convertible seat category.) The design of some convertible seats limits their use to smaller/younger children, which means you may still need to buy a booster seat later on. Others are specifically for bigger/older children, which means you will still need a designated rear-facing seat. Enter the all-in-one.

All-in-One

How is an all-in-one different from a convertible seat? Although it’s not entirely clear, an all-in-one seems to be an offshoot of convertible seats, as opposed to being a distinct category (like the infant seat). An all-in-one (also called a 3-in-one or 4-in-one) is supposed to supposed to grow with your child up until they’re big enough, heavy enough, old enough, educated enough, pretty enough, to graduate to the vehicle’s regular seats and harness.

Despite the name, not all ‘all-in-ones’ are designed for babies, although some are (confusing?). You have to pay attention to the age and size recommendations, as some are intended for children two and up.

Many convertible and all-in-one seats are marketed as being for newborns and up, but not all are actually considered suitable for such small babies. If you continue on to my Top Tips section, I’ll give you some third party resources to help you evaluate the individual seats you’re considering, and you should read Amazon reviews. Just be aware that the advertised age ranges may be misleading.

Single Stage Seats

If you like spending money and filling your garage with used car seats, opt for single purpose car seats! Actually, you might have valid reasons for going this route. For one thing, if you plan to have multiple kids, it could be more convenient and potentially even less expensive to buy a different seat for each phase. You might have your oldest in a backless booster, the next one in a front-facing seat, a toddler rear facing, and an infant in the carrier seat.

Another argument for single use seats is that each may fulfill its intended function better than a convertible or all-in-one.

Features: What to Look for in a Car Seat

When comparing car seats of any kind, these are some of the top considerations you’ll want to take into account.

Functionality

Size

Unless you plan on buying a vehicle to fit your car seat, you’ll want to make sure your car seat fits your vehicle. Don’t assume just because you have a big vehicle that any car seat will fit. I drive a boat (a Dodge Durango) and the size of the safety seat is restrictive on the front seats. Practically speaking, that means my husband can’t move the driver’s seat far enough back if the baby is behind him (at least with her seat rear-facing).

Also consider whether you will need to fit other car seats side by side in the future. Some seats may be too bulky to fit side by side should that become necessary.

Finally, pay attention to how your child will fit into the seat. Some seats are more narrow than others, some headrests too low or too high. Even if it could fit your child now, is it likely to remain a good fit for as long as you need it?

Weight

You might think this mainly applies to infant seats that you plan to remove frequently and carry on one arm, but actually, it is a factor you should consider for other seats as well. Obviously, it makes sense that you would not want a heavy carrier, so be on the look out for that.

However, you will also want to watch out for seats that are too lightweight, as they will shift more easily and are less stable.

LATCH

If you’re new to the car seat world, you might not have heard of the LATCH system before. LATCH stands for Lower Anchor Tethers for Children. Pretty much all vehicles newer than 2005/2006 should have a built-in LATCH system.

LATCH makes your car seat way easier to install (most of the time) and prevents you from having to do acrobatics to buckle the seat in with the shoulder belt. It is supposed to be just as safe, if not safer. (If you still need help picturing it, or want some more info, here are some resources from The Car Seat Lady.)

Easy cleaning

How easily can the padding and lining be removed and cleaned? Is it machine washable? Are the colors going to stain easily? Can the buckles and straps easily be wiped off, or are there lots of little groves to collect grime?

Ease of installation

While you obviously can’t test this yourself ahead of time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has. You can use their Car Seat Finder tool to easily compare basic stats for car seats, as well as check their Ease of Use ratings.

I wouldn’t be terribly concerned about this factor unless you need to transfer it between vehicles frequently. If you plan to use it primarily in one vehicle, it shouldn’t necessarily be a deal breaker.

Cup Holders

Maybe this doesn’t seem like an important factor, but just take a moment to consider what your toddler will do with a sippy cup without cup holders… Not as critical as safety features, but possibly a secondary or tertiary deal breaker, still.

Construction

Breathability

This is a feature I didn’t even think to watch out for with the first seat we got. Unfortunately, the infant carrier we got was made with a very synthetic, non-breathable material, so when Carrots would get upset and cry during a car ride, she would get very hot and sweaty.

Aside from concerns about overheating, her sweat would soak her little outfit, requiring us to change her clothes as soon as possible. She was born in the fall as the temperature was already cooling, so I hate to think the problems this would have caused in the warmer months.

Comfort

Padding: You don’t want a bare bones, hard plastic shell with a flimsy synthetic liner like the first car seat we had. If you think you wouldn’t be comfortable in it, your baby probably won’t be either. However, you can overdo the padding. It’s purely up to your discretion, but I have seen car seat reviews that complained of over-padding.

Softness: Feel the material that will spend long periods of time rubbing against your baby’s fresh, sensitive skin. Use the back of your hand or underside of your arm–something more sensitive than your palms and fingers–to help you evaluate.

Straps and Harness

Do you have to manually re-thread the straps/harness as your baby grows? It might seem like a minor inconvenience, but when you’re going solo and have to adjust the straps because your baby grew AGAIN, you have to find somewhere safe to put the baby while you deconstruct the car seat and you just wanted to go to the flippin’ grocery store. Nope, can’t speak from experience. I love that with our new seat, the straps automatically adjust when you slide the headrest up or down.

Does the harness come with shoulder pads to prevent the stiff edges from digging into your baby’s neck?

Buckles

How easy is the buckle to fasten? With our first seat, you had to overlap the two pieces of crotch-buckle before inserting and clicking it into place, which was impossible to do one handed, and a challenge even with two. It was such a massive pain.

How about the buckle’s materials? It didn’t cross my mind until comparing our new seat to the old, but the first seat’s buckles were all made of plastic, while our new one had a plastic chest buckle but metal crotch-buckle.

Adjustability

How will the seat adapt as your child grows? Does it have a movable headrest? Removable padding/inserts? Do you have to re-thread the harness? Will the seat have to be replaced completely?

Flame Retardants

You might think car seat materials manufactured with flame retardants would be a beneficial feature, but you might be surprised to know that flame retardants are actually highly toxic. They are immediately absorbed into the blood stream and have lasting impacts such as endocrine disruption, lowered IQ, attention deficit disorders, reproductive and fertility problems, and thyroid disease/cancer.

For more information, check out my post, The 9 Worst Ingredients in Your Baby Products

While I would personally still prioritize safety features above the non-use of flame retardants, it is certainly something you want to consider. Here is a list of car seats manufactured without flame retardants. Sadly, price may also play a limiting factor here, as seats without flame retardants are ex-pen-sive.

If you do get a car seat with flame retardants, don’t freak out–you can mitigate their effect by washing the textile materials according to the manufacturer’s instructions and leaving the seat out in the sun for a couple of days.

Appearance

You might think a Hello Kitty or Spiderman themed seat is cute for your two year old, but how will they feel about it at eight? My advice is to choose a seat without trendy patterns or characters, although it should be a factor much lower on your checklist.

Do not reject a car seat because the color you liked was out of stock. To get Carrots her car seat in the color/pattern I liked would have cost an extra $70. Instead, I bought the less exciting muted color because it was on a close-out deal. Conversely, don’t pick a seat because it’s cute or has your favorite colors. Safety and functionality are way more important.

Safety

Expiration

The expiration on your car seat will let you know its recommended length of use and when you should plan to retire it. The car seat we chose for Carrots has a ten year expiration, so it should last until she graduates to regular vehicle seats!

Safety Standards

Car seat manufacturers are required to meet certain minimum standards and conduct safety testing before bringing a car seat to market. However, some manufacturers go above and beyond the baseline standards with advanced safety features and extensive testing. You’ll want to find out if the seat you’re looking at meets safety standards, or exceeds them.

Independent crash tests

Another way you can gauge the durability and quality of a car seat is to look at independent crash tests. Unlike the manufacturer, these third parties have no vested interest in selling you a particular product, only in determining the characteristics of the product.

One such independent tester is Baby Gear Lab. They contract with the same testing facility used by the NHTSA, and conduct their own analysis of the resulting data. Check out this crazy in-depth article as an example.

Emerging Technologies and Practices

Anti-rebound bars

Some rear-facing car seats are now built with an anti-rebound bar. In a forceful enough collision, the car seat might careen upwards and a child strike against the vehicle seat back. The anti-rebound bar adds stability and helps to keep the car seat flat in place. Some seats alternatively have an anti-rebound foot, although it seems to be much less common.

EACT and REACT

REACT stands for Rigid-Latch Energy Absorbing Crumple Technology. REACT is an aluminum honeycomb that crumples upon impact to absorb some of the force of a collision and slow the the movement of the car seat. Currently, this technology seems to be pioneered by the company Clek (I haven’t found any other seats with this specific construction).

Extended rear-facing

While not universally required (yet), it is recommended that your child remain rear facing as long as possible since it is the safest position in a collision. As more parents become aware of this, companies have begun marketing seats which extend the rear-facing timeline by accommodating larger children in this position.

SAFE device

SAFE stands for Shock Absorbing Foam Element and serves much the same function as REACT. SAFE has been incorporated by Italian company Peg-Perego and crumples on impact to slow the forward motion of the seat.

The Seat We Chose and Why

We chose the Graco 4Ever 4-in-1 Convertible Car Seat. I initially narrowed down my choices to the Graco and the Safety 1st Grow and Go 3-in-1. They seem to me fairly comparable seats, although the Safety 1st is less expensive, but I liked that the Graco had a sturdier base (reviews complained the narrower Safety 1st tipped), has the fourth option to convert to a backless booster, and overall had more polished features (the bells and whistles, if you will).

The Graco 4Ever 4-in-1

The Graco is also the seat from the Amazon review I mentioned at the beginning of this post. The fact that a baby was ejected 50 feet from a vehicle in this seat and was barely injured basically sealed the deal for me.

This seat:

  • Was the top contender according to BestCarSeatHub with a 9.8 out of 10 rating;
  • Will be the only seat Carrots ever needs (fitting babies down to 4 pounds–confirmed by reviews–all the way up to kids 120 lbs);
  • Was easy to install with the LATCH system;
  • Has an easily adjustable base to ensure the correct angle in any vehicle;
  • Has comfy padding and soft fabric;
  • Has a sliding headrest that automatically adjusts the height of the shoulder harness as well;
  • Can easily be cleaned since the padding can be removed without un-threading the harness;
  • Makes it simple and quick to get Carrots in and out;
  • Exceeds safety standards.

The two main downsides are that it is not non-toxic, and it is large. I don’t know how easily we will be able to fit multiple car seats side by side, especially if we chose this seat again for future kids. It also limits the movement of the vehicle seat in front of it, at least when rear facing.

Even so, it has the qualities of a premium or high-end seat, but at an average price. I believe I got ours right at the $200 mark by finding a closeout sale at Bed, Bath, and Beyond (of all places).

Tips for Finding the Best Seat at the Best Price

  • Use resources like BestCarSeatHub and BabyGearLab, which provide independent reviews and safety testing of the most popular seats, to start your search.
  • Once you have some top contenders, read the Amazon reviews. Many will have personal accounts of how the seats held up in actual, severe collisions, and it’ll let you know the little “nit-picky” things people discover over extended use.
  • As you’re sifting through reviews, you can also start comparing prices. Amazon will be competitive, but doesn’t always provide the best deal. Google the full name of the seats you’re eyeing and click the “Shopping” tab. Sort from low to high on price.
  • Factor in gift cards you have from holidays or the baby shower. You can also take stock of any coupons you might have, but know that stores don’t always accept coupons for items like car seats. I was not able to use my BB&B 20% off coupon for our seat.

A Final Note on Choosing a Car Seat

You shouldn’t feel like you have to get the most expensive seat with all the latest advances in car seat technology. As much as we all want to do everything within our power to protect our children from every form of harm, their well-being isn’t something we can always buy. If our budgets were big enough, we could line our very own castles with plant-based, non-toxic padding and bring everything to us so that our children never had to face the perils of transportation, but most of us don’t have those kinds of funds. At some point we have to recognize that certain things are out of our control, and we just have to make the best decisions we can.

With car seats, you will find a cost-quality equilibrium, after which an increase in cost will not significantly enhance safety features. For infant seats and convertible/all-in-one seats, that seems to fall between $130-$300, based on the seats I’ve seen in my research. The seats at the bottom of that range will be decent seats that get the job done, but for convertible seats, may not span all of the required car seat phases and definitely will not have as many conveniences. The materials may be a little lower quality, and overall may not be as user friendly.

As you get closer to the $300 mark, you’ll find the quality of materials improve, with more ‘bells and whistles’ (some of which are actually pretty valuable conveniences), simpler usability, and maybe a higher quality skeleton. The $2-300 range is where you’ll find the 4-in-1s, which can save you money over time. This is the sweet spot where you get the most features for the best price. After this point, more expensive seats will have nicer materials and feel more “bougie,” but won’t dramatically improve the safety features. $450-$500+ is where you’ll find the swanky, non-toxic seats with the latest in safety technology, but surprisingly, these aren’t necessarily better seats according to independent testers.

All of that is to say, you’re not a bad parent if you can’t afford to buy a top-of-the-line Italian-made, leather-accented, Oprah-approved infant carrying car seat with wheels.

Do you remember what it felt like to finally escape your car seat? How old were you? Comment below!

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