Which Car Seat Is Right for Your Toddler?

Family traveling by car
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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, convertible car seats, booster seats, etc. (not to mention brands and models)—can feel overwhelming especially for a purchase designed specifically to keep your baby safe in the event of a car accident. And when your baby becomes a toddler, mom and dad may re-live the initial car seat stress again. 

You will probably 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 backseat 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—making these car seats portable, which is perfect for napping babies. Popular brands have varying height and weight minimums and maximums, but typically, you’ll find that babies between 4-30 pounds and up to 30 inches tall can safely use these car seats. Infant car seats should always be rear-facing.

As your baby approaches his first birthday and toddlerhood, you can expect him to outgrow his infant car seat. However, even if your young toddler hasn’t reached the maximum height and weight requirements, once your child turns one, new safety guidelines recommend ditching the infant seat for a convertible car seat. This was determined because even smaller children are more likely to hit their heads on an infant seat in frontal car accidents. Major convertible car seat brands and models typically have weight requirements of 20-80 pounds and around 50 inches tall. The downside with these seats? You can’t remove them from the car easily, but by your child’s first birthday, you’re probably tired of lugging around an infant car seat anyway.

Finally, the third type of car seat is a booster seat. A booster seat is much less bulky than an infant car seat or a convertible car seat and 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 4, but some children do not reach the height and weight requirements for this type of car seats until they are well into elementary school.

Children shouldn’t be moved to a booster seat until they are at least 40 pounds and approximately 40 inches tall—but remember, each car seat manufacturer's recommendations are different—they can vary by model too—so don’t forget to check your car seat's instruction manual before moving your child into a booster seat.

That said, with a toddler, you don’t need to be too concerned with booster seats just yet—for now, you’ll need to 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 to save a few dollars, 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 but. Keep in mind: The used seat you found at the community church's consignment sale probably doesn't have the original instruction manual. It also may not have all of its parts, and you probably won't be able to ask the original owner if the car seat has been involved in an accident. In addition, 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. Do not use a car seat that is more than five years old. There should be an expiration date on the car seat.
  2. Ensure that the car seat has all its parts and the original instruction manual. The manual will include a list of all the parts. Consult it before installing.
  3. Talk to the previous owner to determine that the car seat has not been in a crash. Any car seat that has been involved in an accident should be discarded.
  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. There are plenty of options at a variety of price points. First and foremost, look for a model with a five-point harness. In addition, consult the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) website, which has a 5-star rating system that ranks car seats based on ease of use. Plenty of parenting publications and websites also offer reviews and rankings. But don't take the internet's word for it: Visit major big box stores and specialty retailers to try out the car seats yourself. See how they buckle and unbuckle, test how easy it is to adjust the straps, and determine if it's easy to clean and reassemble after the inevitable messes that will happen with your toddler.

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 accident. When riding in a forward-facing car seat, a baby or toddler is more likely to sustain serious spinal cord or neck injury than they are in a rear-facing car seat. 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 to keep a toddler—who is now more apt to throw a tantrum when he’s unhappy—rear facing in the car. A curious toddler wants to see mom and dad as well as what’s going on outside the front windshield. But it’s imperative that parents keep their toddler rear-facing until at least age 2. Use these tips to keep your toddler happy while in a rear-facing convertible car seat:

  • Keep special toys in the car specifically for your toddler to play with while in his car seat. Books are a great option as are coloring books and crayons, plush toys, or finger puppets.
  • Sing, play your toddler’s favorite music and talk to your toddler. If your toddler is engaged and not bored, she’ll be less likely to throw a tantrum.
  • Bring snacks that will distract your toddler and keep them from getting hungry or cranky in the car. Stick with safe foods in spill-proof containers.
  • For longer rides, the iPad and 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? If your child is content in the rear-facing convertible car seat, you don't have to turn them around at 2. You can keep your child rear-facing past the age of 2, as long as they are not exceeding the weight limit for their rear-facing car seat. The convertible car seat manual will provide these weight limits.

If your child reaches the limit before turning two, don't turn the seat around. Instead, you will need to buy a seat that has a higher limit.

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 is the middle of the back seat. If you have more than one child, put the youngest child in the middle and the older child on either side. If you cannot fit the seats that close together, you'll have to use either side of the car.

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 center of the back seat, if possible. But installation can seem complicated. Manufacturers provide instructions for installing the seats, so follow the instructions carefully and consult your vehicle manual as well. But to be sure that you've installed the car seat correctly, it's best to get it inspected. Many fire stations and police stations offer this service (hospitals often won't let you leave with an infant until they inspect your car seat installation). Find a location near you where you can get your convertible car seat inspected.

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Article Sources
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  • Kallan MJ, Durbin DR, Arbogast KB. Pediatrics. 2008 May;121(5):e1342-7. doi: 10.1542/peds.2007-1512. Seating patterns and corresponding risk of injury among 0- to 3-year-old children in child safety seats.