A car seat is one of the few products you’ll purchase for your child which could one day save their life.
The guide which follows will help you understand car seat safety, the differences between the many available models, and how to choose the best convertible car seat for your child.
What is a convertible car seat?
This is a child seat which gives you the option of using it as both a rear facing and a forward facing seat. They’re designed to fit a wide range of heights and weights, and so they’re very adjustable.
What age are convertible car seats appropriate for?
Most convertible seats can be used with infants as little as 5 pounds. They will continue to fit until your child reaches anywhere from 40 to 65 pounds and 40” to 52” in height, depending on the model. For example, a seat with a 40 pound maximum weight will fit from birth to about 4 years of age, while one with a 65 pound max weight will fit until around 7 years of age.
Do I need a separate infant car seat, or can I use a convertible seat starting at birth?
Many parents choose to start their babies out in infant seats simply for the added convenience. Infant seats can easily be removed from your car, carried, and locked into a stroller since they include a detachable base. In terms of safety, convertible car seats are just as safe for newborns and infants as long as the weight minimum is met and they are used properly. Look for seats which offer a newborn insert to best fit a small infant.
I already own an infant car seat. Can I skip a convertible seat and go right to a booster seat?
While your child may fit into a booster seat after outgrowing an infant seat, it’s not recommended. Booster seats are forward-facing only. It’s safest to keep your child in a rear-facing seat as long as possible. Convertible car seats have higher rear-facing weight limits than nearly all infant seats. This means when your child outgrows the infant seat, they can use a convertible car seat in the rear-facing position until they grow another 10-15 pounds.
How long should my child remain in a rear-facing seat?
In many states, it is required by law for children below 1 year of age to be in a rear-facing car seat. Further, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents keep their toddlers in rear-facing seats until at least 2 years of age. It’s safest for children to remain in that seating position until the rear-facing weight limit of your convertible car seat is reached, which can be anywhere from 2 to 5 years of age depending on your child’s growth and the seat you choose.
Can I buy a used convertible car seat or get one secondhand from a friend?
It’s strongly recommended that you don’t in most cases. There are a number of reasons for this. First, you can’t be certain of the seat’s condition unless you know its history. Think of a car seat’s protective shell like a helmet. Once a child seat is in an accident, or even dropped, its ability to protect has likely been compromised. There is no easy way to examine a used seat to know whether the shell has been damaged.
Next, the materials in the seat are only designed to provide protection for a certain amount of time (typically 6-8 years) and so all seats are given an expiration date by the manufacturer. If you get a used seat that was purchased several years ago it may not be safe to use for long.
A used car seat may be missing the instruction manual, which is critical to proper installation, or accessories which are necessary for proper fitment of your child.
Finally, newer is better when it comes to safety. Car seats are improving all the time. The latest models from top brands are designed to be safer than their last generation of seats.
Only if you’re 100% certain of the seat’s history and the expiration date is far enough in the future should you consider it.
What is the safest convertible car seat?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) tests all car seats before they are approved to be sold in the United States. Unlike safety testing for cars, ratings on a 5-star scale are not available for comparing overall car seat safety in the event of a crash. Child car seats are basically given a pass/fail safety grading by the NHTSA; if a car seat is available for sale in 2016, then it has passed current crash safety standards.
You may have heard the phrase “the safest car seat is the one that’s used correctly every time.” Well, some seats are easier than others to install and adjust properly. Confusing instructions and difficult harnesses can make it hard to secure your child in the seat.
Fortunately, the NHTSA does provide “Ease-of-Use” ratings for car seats. These are 5-star ratings of the labels, instructions, installation features, and how easy it is to secure a child in the seat. The reviews and recommendations at CarSeatAnswers.com take these ratings into account.
Should I spend extra money on a seat which advertises better “side impact protection?”
Some models tout additional protective features; one of the more commonly advertised options is enhanced side impact protection. Keep in mind crash test data is not available, so you can’t see for yourself if an added feature really does make the seat safer in a crash. If you’re on a budget, you don’t need to go with an expensive top-end model to be confident your child is safe – the fitment of the seat and where it’s positioned in your car is far more important. On the other hand, if you can afford the fully-featured model and you trust claims made by the manufacturer, added safety features may offer more protection in certain types of crashes. Use your own judgment.
What is the best convertible car seat?
While there isn’t one car seat that will work best for everyone, some models really stand out for their high-quality materials, ease of use, and added safety features.
My top pick is the Britax Marathon G4.1. Ask nearly any owner and they’ll have nothing but praise for this seat. Britax puts a lot of effort into making sure their instructions are clear and their seats are as easy as possible to install and secure your child in. Steel bars are used to reinforce the structure and side impact protection is built in. The Marathon has a large range of adjustment and will fit children up to 40 pounds rear facing, or 65 pounds and 49” front facing. The fabric is easily cleaned and very comfortable for extended trips. While the full Britax convertible car seat line is excellent (including the Advocate and Boulevard) I feel the Marathon is the best value.
Note: If you plan to travel a lot with your seat, or frequently move it between cars, Britax also offers a ClickTight version of their Advocate, Boulevard, and Marathon seats. Though heavier and a little more costly, these seats are MUCH quicker to install with a seat belt – taking seconds rather than minutes.
Another great choice is the Chicco Nextfit. The Keyfit infant car seat system from Chicco is well known for its quality and safety; the Nextfit is Chicco’s convertible seat, and it’s just as great. It’s priced on the high end, but I’ve found it’s one of the easiest convertible seats to install and adjust.
If you’re looking for more versatility, along with higher weight and height limits, consider the Diono Radian RXT. Like the Britax and Chicco seats, it features a reinforced steel structure and side impact protection. This is a 3-in-1 seat which can be used rear facing, then front facing, and finally as a booster seat. It supports up to 45 pounds rear facing and 80 pounds / 57” tall forward facing, yet it is narrower than most seats so you can fit up to 3 side by side in most cars.
See my comparison chart and reviews linked within to find the ideal convertible car seat for you and your child!