Unlike a grown-up’s simple three-point harness, infants need a NASCAR-level of protection in the car. That means buying a car seat is extra-complicated. And even after your baby stops staring out the back window and faces forward, they still need extra buckles, belts, and cup holders. Check out these eight highly-rated, beyond-safe, and occasionally innovative car seats that are guaranteed to work until the day you hand them your keys.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Car Seats
Types of Car Seats
Infant Car Seat
Because you’re always taking an infant in and out of the car, infant car seats are part-carrier, part-backseat bassinet. Most infant seats have a base that — after a Herculean effort and lots of swearing — sits snugly in the center of your car. Why the center? Besides allowing you better access than behind either seat, it’s 43% safer in the middle.
You can use either the LATCH system, which are metal anchors that every modern car (2002 and later) now comes with. Or, if hooking up a seat like a paratrooper’s static line isn’t attractive, there car seat that simply use the existing seat belt.
Once that base is in you can click and unclick the car seat and transfer it to a stroller, or just in the crook of your arm like a picnic basket full of delicious baby.
Convertible Car Seat
When your little one becomes a big one, you can face them forward (usually past the age of two, and experts say it’s five times safer to stay turned around until then). You can opt for a convertible seat, which can be front or rear facing, but doesn’t transform into a baby carrier the way the infant ones do. Also it’s better for those who are spending way too much time in the car.
Hassle-Free 3-Step Installation
The Graco® SnugRide® SnugLock® infant car seat provides a secure install in 3 simple steps. The audible CLICK! gives parents the confidence that they have a secure install.
The final stage of car seat isn’t really a seat at all. When your child is around four they’ll be able to use a seatbelt like a big boy or girl (probably the least fun age privilege, just shy of being able to vote). They’re usually light and infinitely portable because they just use the belt. Also, a lot of three-in-one seats will give you rear-facing, front-facing and booster options.
Infant Car Seats & Rear-Facing Car Seats
Best Infant Car Seat (At Any Price): Cybex Aton Q
- Age: Infant
- Height: Up to 30″
- Weight: 4 – 35 lbs
Pros: Beyond the efficient German design that’s “as deluxe as they come” according to Gear Patrol — what with its giant sunshade and interior padding that rivals a Maybach — the Aton Q was also named one of Consumer Reports top five. It has ‘telescoping linear side-impact protection arms’, that jut out to keep the side of your car from coming in contact with the car seat during a collision. The thing that GP liked best is “the easy-adjust harness that not only raises and lowers the shoulder straps but automatically adjusts the seat so newborns and sleeping infants are more reclined and less likely to slump forward.”
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Cons: The Nightlight was similarly impressed, but for those front-seat passengers (ie. parents), “Keep in mind that this seat will not work in many center seating positions, due to the load leg, and will instead have to be placed in an outboard position.” That means one of you is twisting to attend to the kid. Also, one Amazon reviewer notes, “The way you press the buttons for removing it from a stroller are not very intuitive (I’m still the only one in my family that knows how to do it and my parents have tried at least 20 times).
Best Infant Car Seat Under $200: Chicco Keyfit 30
- Age: Infant
- Height: Up to 30″
- Weight: 4 – 30 lbs
Pros: The Nightlight crowned the Keyfit their best choice, saying it was the easiest to install, and fit into both center and outboard positions in each car. It was the narrowest seat we tested, at only 16.5 inches wide, and it took up the least amount of room lengthwise in both back seats.” And Baby Gear Lab praised its advance LATCH system, noting, “The Chicco earned a high score of 9 out of 10 for ease of installation.” And the Gear Patrol raved about a convertible you can move around saying, “The ability to install and remove a car seat base quickly and safely is extremely helpful if you’re chauffeuring your child in more than one car.”
Cons: Baby Gear Lab wasn’t high on the Chicco without using the base, saying “If you plan to use the seat frequently with taxi cabs, Uber, or shuttle services, you’ll want to consider installation without the base as a key metric. The Chicco earned its lowest score for ease of install without the base, with a 4 out of 10.” Yikes. Also, one mom on Amazon called for the resignation of man who invented a handle that requires you to push buttons on both sides, instead of a 1-sided release.
Convertible Car Seats
Best Convertible Car Seat (At Any Price): The Clek Foonf
- Age: Infant – about 5
- Height: Rear-Facing, 25″ – 43″.; Forward-Facing, 30″ – 49″
- Weight: Rear-Facing, 14 – 50 lbs; Forward-Facing, 20 – 65 lbs
Pros: The Clek Foonf may sound like the noise a toddler makes getting carsick, but is actually one of the slickest seats on the market. If you’re trying to squeeze a large family in a minivan, The Car Seat Lady says, “it is narrow enough to work in a 3-across scenario in a CX-9 (should your family expand again).” And Baby Center says that “Foonf’s mighty [weight] limits can handle most kids right through booster-seat age.”
Cons: Not enough padding in the diaper region, and according to one Amazon customer named Jasmine, “you actually need tools to disassemble this to clean it if, say, someone barfs in it.” Someone? Is it her husband? Is it the dog? Who is doing the barfing, Jasmine?
Best Convertible Seat Under $200: Evenflo Triumph LX
- Age: Infant – about 5
- Height: Rear-Facing, 19″ – 37″; Forward-Facing, 28″ – 50″
- Weight: Rear-Facing, 5 – 40 lbs; Forward-Facing, 22 – 65 lbs
Pros: Say you just want a car seat that works and you don’t go in for all this frou frou stylishness. Amazon customers have found that “the harness is easy to tighten and loosen, and the straps pull from the bottom, not at the shoulders … it makes the transfer to bed a lot easier,” and another customer liked the fact that “[my daughter] seems very well protected but not cramped up with tons of padding and other space-inhibitors.” That’s no way to talk about Teddy.
Cons: While a lot of people love adjustable straps that adjust up and down, others say they didn’t stay put. “They’re hard to maneuver and feel like they don’t stay where I put them. I can’t stand this feature,” says a parent who has the strongest opinion anyone has ever had about straps.
High Back Booster Seat
The Best Booster Seat (At Any Price): Britax Pinnacle ClickTight
- Age: 2 – 12
- Height: Forward-Facing, 30″ – 58″; Booster, 45″ – 62″
- Weight: Forward-Facing, 25 – 90 lbs; Booster, 40 – 120 lbs
Pros: The folks at Baby Center love the Pinnacle ClickTight, praising its “cutting-edge safety features including steel bar construction and large side-impact panels,” and “the five-point harness won’t tangle up, however squirmy your child might be.” And although it’s the priciest model that Britax has “the seat will last until your school-age child absolutely refuses to sit in it any longer.” Possibly right before you drop them off at college.
Cons: “It can be bulky for a compact car and a haul to transfer between vehicles,” says Baby Center. And another Amazon reviewer says “if you own a small car with very little room in the back seat, the top end does spill into the shoulder space of other seat, which may make other larger passengers uncomfortable.”
Best Booster Seat Under $200: Diono Monterey Under
- Age: 4+
- Height: 38″ – 63″
- Weight: 40 – 120 lbs
Pros: Much like the skinny jeans or Pavement, the Monterey came out of retirement due to popular demand. It goes from high-back adjustable to a backless booster for kids five+, and is rated to 120 lbs, which could even support someone who is 55+.
Cons: First, it costs about $35 more than the other model, the Cambria. Ostensibly, that extra cash is going toward softer fabric and an adjustable headrest. Second, “we question whether most parents actually need a booster that can accommodate children up 120 pounds,” says Baby Center. “The majority of kids will have outgrown the need for a booster.”
Innovative Car Seats
Most Innovative Infant Car Seat: Doona
- Age: Newborn – 1
- Height: Up to 32″
- Weight: four – 35 lbs
Pros: If Optimus Prime had kids (maybe one day he’ll find the right Autobot), it would be this stroller. One minute the Doona is an infant car seat. Take it out of the car and the wheels fold down like landing gear. Speaking of which, this thing is FAA approved, so no need to wrassle an umbrella stroller at the airport’s curbside check-in. Baby Gizmo says, “We think the Doona is a game changer when it comes to lightweight travel systems. No need for a separate stroller frame to take the Doona on-the-go.” And Gizmodo digs the fact that it can be “operated by just one parent.”
Cons: Cool Mom Picks can only find fault with the fact there isn’t enough built-in storage. But there is a matching bag you can strap to the stroller. And what’s another $30 when you’ve already spent $500?
Most Innovative Booster Seat: Mifold
- Age: 4+
- Height: As tall as 12-year-olds get
- Weight: 40 – 120 lbs
Pros: The 10-inch x five-inch case is the size of a pack of baby wipes and protects your four to 12-year-old kid just like a giant high back booster. The concept is that instead of making your toddler the size of an adult, it makes the seat belt fit a toddler. Nobody has their hands on one (yet), but this should make taxis and carpools about a billion percent less of a hassle — give or take a few hundred million percent.
Cons: It’s still in IndieGoGo limbo — although with more than $1M in funds raised, Mifold is expecting to ship starting in May. Also, because it has four connecting points, the littler ones aren’t going to be able to strap themselves in. Time to start an IndieGoGo campaign for a toddler helper robot.