Which Car Seat Is Right for Your Toddler?

Toddler in rear-facing car seat
2014, NHTSA Photo Library.

When you’re expecting a baby, buying the right car seat is typically near the top of the registry list. But the number of options available to new parents—infant seats and convertible car seats in dozens of brands and models—can feel overwhelming, especially for a purchase designed specifically to keep your baby safe in the event of a car crash. And when your baby becomes a toddler, mom and dad may re-live the initial car seat stress again. 

You will need to choose and purchase a new car seat to fit your growing child, ensure that the new car seat is properly installed, and determine when you should turn your child from rear-facing to forward-facing.

Which Car Seat Is the Right Seat for Your Toddler?

For many parents, an infant seat will be the first car seat they purchase and install—before the baby is even born. These seats typically detach from a base that is latched separately into the back seat of the car. These seats also have a handle so that mom and dad can carry the baby around in the car seat, and most offer attachments that fit strollers. Infant car seats are always rear-facing.

Popular brands have varying height and weight minimums and maximums, but typically, you’ll find that babies between 4 and 30 pounds and up to 30 inches tall can safely use these car seats. Note that most kids outgrow their seat in height before weight. When your child's head reaches one inch below the top of the car seat while they are seated in it, they are too tall for it and need a new seat.

You can expect your baby to outgrow their infant car seat anywhere between 6 months old (for bigger babies) to 12 to 15 months old. Rather than using age as a marker, always follow height and weight requirements.

Convertible car seats typically have much higher rear-facing capacities than infant car seats. These seats are designed to convert from rear-facing for younger kids to (eventually) forward-facing for older kids.

Convertible car seats can often be used rear-facing up to 40 or even 50 pounds (varies by seat) and have much taller seated heights, so while the rear-facing child's head still needs to stay at least one inch below the top of the convertible seat, they'll fit a lot longer than in the infant seat because of the convertible seat's taller shell. The downside with these seats? You can’t remove them from the car easily.

Finally, the third stage of seats—after infant and convertible seats—is a booster seat. A booster seat is designed to raise your older child up so that the car’s seat belt is secure across your child’s body and positioned correctly. Booster seats are not recommended for children under 5, but some children do not reach the height and weight requirements for this type of car seats until they are well into elementary school.

To use a booster, kids should be at least 5 years old, weigh at least 40 pounds, and be mature enough to sit properly in a seat belt for the duration of the ride (no slouching, no leaning over, no messing with the seat belt).

When your child is a toddler, you don’t need to be concerned with booster seats at all. For now, focus on transitioning your child from an infant car seat to a convertible car seat. Here's what you'll need to keep in mind as you make the switch.

Purchasing a Convertible Car Seat

Convertible car seats can be a pricey baby item, but resist the urge to buy one used, if at all possible. A quality convertible car seat is paramount for your child's safety and purchasing one new from a reputable brand is your best bet.

The used seat you found at the community church's consignment sale probably doesn't have the original instruction manual. Although you could find one online, the bigger issue is that the seat may have been in a crash, have missing or damaged parts, or be expired. The older the car seat, the more likely it's falling short of today's standards for safety. In other words, buyer beware.

If you do need to use a previously owned car seat or you're given a convertible car seat as a hand-me-down, keep the following safety guidelines in mind before you install it in your car.

Safety Guidelines for Used Car Seats

  1. Talk to the previous owner to determine that the car seat has not been in a crash. If it has, don't buy or use the seat.
  2. Do not use a car seat that is expired. All car seats and boosters have expiration dates. If you can't find the expiration date on the seat, look in the instruction manual. If you still can't find it, call the manufacturer and they will inform you of the expiration date.
  3. Ensure that the car seat has all its parts and that they are in good working order (no frayed straps, rusted buckles, etc.). If the seat didn't come with the original instruction manual, find it online or call the manufacturer.
  4. Search the brand and model to ensure that the car seat has not been recalled. This is easy to do online.

For a new convertible car seat, do your research first. Look for seats with a high rear-facing capacity, motion-limiting features for added safety, and a narrow exterior but roomy interior (especially if you need to fit multiple car seats and/or passengers in the back seat). There are plenty of options at a variety of price points.

Plenty of parenting publications and websites also offer reviews and rankings. But it's important to try out the car seats yourself. Visit a store to see seats in person.

See how they buckle and unbuckle, how easy it is to adjust the straps, and how much the straps twist when you try taking your child in and out of the seat. Also, how loose do the straps get? Will they drop over the sides of the seat so your child doesn't sit on them when they get into the seat?

Rear-Facing vs. Forward-Facing Car Seats

Because babies and young children are still developing, they are at a greater risk of injury in the event of a car crash. When riding in a forward-facing car seat, a baby or toddler is more likely to sustain serious injury, especially to the brain and spinal cord, compared to a child riding rear-facing. For this reason, it is critical that you keep your child rear-facing until at least the age of 2.

Parents sometimes find it difficult getting toddlers to cooperate with climbing in their car seat, getting buckled, and staying happy during the car ride. A curious toddler wants to see what is going on. If their convertible seat allows for a more upright rear-facing position, many toddlers appreciate this as it often lets them see better out of the windows (instead of looking up at the roof).

If the vehicle head restraint in the position where your child is riding is removable, you can consider taking it out to give them a better view. But if you have an SUV or wagon with cargo in the back, keep the head rest in place to serve as a bit of a barrier.

It’s imperative that parents keep their toddler rear-facing until they reach the height or weight limit of their seat (between ages 3 and 5). Use these tips to keep your toddler happy while in a rear-facing convertible car seat:

  • Toys: Keep special toys in the car specifically for your toddler to play with while in the car seat. Soft books are a great option, as are plush toys or finger puppets.
  • Music: Sing, play your toddler’s favorite music and talk to your toddler. If they are engaged and not bored, they are less likely to throw a tantrum.
  • Snacks and drinks: Bring snacks that will distract your toddler and keep them from getting hungry or cranky in the car. Stick with foods in spill-proof containers, and make sure they are not choking hazards and that your child will not over-stuff their mouth (turning a safe food into a choke food).
  • Screens: For longer rides, a tablet with a few toddler-approved games or a special TV show may be a parent’s best bet for a calm and happy ride. Keep screen time rules in mind and don’t overuse this secret weapon—special occasions only!

When can you turn your child forward-facing? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that kids remain rear-facing until reaching the rear-facing weight or height limit (whichever comes first) for their convertible car seat. For most kids in most convertible seats, this means they can stay rear-facing until age three to five. One-third of all states require kids to ride rear-facing until at least age two.

If your child reaches the rear-facing height or weight limit on their convertible seat before turning two, you will need to buy a seat with a higher rear-facing capacity.

In addition to facing your child to the rear of the car, the safest place in the car for a car seat to be installed may be either the center of the back seat or one of the sides. Sometimes the center seat is too narrow for a car seat. If you have more than one car seat, put the younger child on the side and the older in the center if possible.

If you cannot fit the seats that close together, you'll have to use either side of the car. This is why purchasing seats with narrow exteriors is helpful when you have multiple children.

Additional Tips for Installing Your Convertible Car Seat

You've purchased a new convertible car seat for your toddler. You know it should be installed so it is rear-facing and in the back seat. But installation can seem complicated. Manufacturers provide instructions for installing the seats, so follow the instructions carefully and consult your vehicle manual as well. Find a location near you where you can get your convertible car seat inspected.

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