Parents, This Is Your Guide to Buying the Best Car Seat for Your Child

·15 min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

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Photo credit: Stocksy
Photo credit: Stocksy

There are popular car seats out there, but are they really the best car seat? It's tempting to rely on word-of-mouth advice when deciding on the right products for your precious baby, but after looking into the specs of different car seat models, you might form your own opinion.

When choosing the best car seat for your family, first consider safety. Then, when you've narrowed it down to the safest options in each category, you can then have fun with other details, like the ease of use, style, price, and the ability to clean and keep the car seat fresh — especially if you're opting for anything other than an infant car seat, because you'll be getting years of use out of it. Luckily, we've done the work for you.

Best Car Seats of 2022

Proper Installation

The safest car seats are the ones that are installed properly. However, a 2016 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report from 2016 found that more than half of all car seats are installed incorrectly. Making things even trickier for parents, laws vary from state to state regarding the proper car seat position for your baby, based on your baby's growth stage. You'll need to brush up on the laws for your state and study up if you're planning a road trip. You'll also want to register that car seat so that in the event of any recalls, you'll know immediately.

Top Signs Your Car Seat Is Installed Incorrectly

  1. The car seat harness is too loose. Sure, you don't want your little one to be uncomfortable during a long ride, but it's crucial to make sure the harness is in the correct position and not too loose. If you can place more than two fingers between your little one and the harness, it needs to be tightened.

  2. Your baby is forward-facing. Until your baby is age 2 (or meets the top weight indicated by the instructions included with the car seat), your little one should ride rear-facing.

  3. The car seat base isn't secure. Make sure when you initially install the car seat that you push down with all your weight to ensure the base is secure and snug in your backseat. The fix? Loosen up the seatbelt to reset the base into the backseat and tighten the seatbelt again.

  4. The seatbelt looks funky. It's true, correct seatbelt routing is less intuitive than you'd want it to be, but the main thing is to make sure the shoulder belt is secure around the base of the seat, and the lap belt is the one positioned closer toward your baby. Pay careful attention to the instructions for your car seat, and keep an eye out for stickers on the seat itself that indicate exactly where the seatbelt should be positioned. The chest strap closures should be nipple level, and the crotch strap should be secure to the body. There should be no more than two fingers of space between the strap and your baby. And remember, your baby should not wear a winter coat under the straps—a thin jacket under, and blankets atop.

  5. The leveling indicators are off: Most car seats now come with some type of leveling or installation indicator. Whether it's a bubble level or a guide on the side of the seat, it's important to make a note of where it should be and where your car seat is.

  6. You didn't install through the NHTSA's guidelines: The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration has an in-depth checklist for installing a car seat — and it is absolutely critical to follow it.

The team at Best Products has tested car seats like the Mesa and Maxi-Cosi, we've spoken to multiple manufacturers, and even carried our own children in these seats. We got down and dirty with them (literally, we smothered them in pudding and potato chip crumbs) to test their cleanability. We reviewed safety data from the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA), and Consumer Reports to determine the performance of these seats in collision conditions, and we read hundreds of reviews and spoke to real parents who use and love these car seats to decide which seats made our list.

Car Seat Types

There are a few different types of car seats to choose from: infant, convertible, and toddler. Depending on your needs, you'll be purchasing a car seat within these categories.

➥ Infant

This is the category in the car seat world where you’ll find the model that you’ll be taking your baby home from the hospital in. Infant car seats are rear-facing and designed to keep your precious newborn safe. While some parents choose to start with the convertible car seat and use it in infant mode, other parents choose to have an infant car seat first and then switch to the convertible option when baby grows out of it.

The cool thing about an infant car seat is that you can easily take it right out of the car with your sleeping newborn resting inside. There are plenty of stroller and car seat combos (aka travel systems) that make this transition seamless. One more thing: By the time your cute baby hits age 1, the safest thing to do is transition to a convertible car seat.

➥ Convertible

Convertibles can typically be used from birth until 2 or 3 years of age. Some can be used up to age 10. It really just depends on the make and model. They're designed to be extended rear-facing but have the ability to face forward when your child grows out of the rear-facing stage. Usually, the rear-facing capabilities last until around 35-40 pounds.

➥ Toddler

It's time for a forward-facing seat! 3-in-1 car seats are also popular in the toddler category, though the models differ. The idea is that the car seat is safe for babies and tots, but it can then transform into a booster. (Sounds pretty “convertible,” right?) There are 3-in-1 (or all-in-one) seats that are perfect for toddlers, but they might also include infant and rear-facing capabilities. However, all 3-in-1 car seats offer a booster option, which is where 3-in-1 seats differ from convertible car seats.

If price is a main factor for you in your decision, it's worth noting that convertible car seats are the priciest option because they last the longest. They have all the safety and comfort features found in an infant seat, and yet they extend long beyond the range of the carrier-style car seat. Convertible seats typically feature the most bells and whistles, too, especially our posher picks on this list. Things like one-handed headrest extension and swiveling base add to the price of these seats, but trust us, they're worth it. They last for years of your child's growth, and they're actually quite an economical purchase when you consider the duration of use. If you're using it for more than one child? Even better.

Ready to shop for car seats now? Buckle up and check out our top choices!

Best Overall

The ClickTight feature on this car seat model ensures a safe and secure installation every single time, which is incredibly important because so many parents unknowingly install car seats incorrectly. Rest assured knowing that everyone from Dad to Grandma can nail a rock-solid installation, even when you're not around. We love that the car seat features SafeCell Impact Protection, which is a hex-shaped technology designed to absorb extra energy and protect baby beyond federal standards in the case of a serious crash. This car seat also features something that's rare to find in the United States: an anti-rebound bar, which offers extra padded protection in the case of a crash. It's the best car seat for babies from 5 to 65 pounds.

This is the car seat my kids used, and I can tell you we were hard on them. My kids are active, snacky, car-sicky, and they're close enough in age that we bought two of these. They're heavy, sturdy, easy to install, and my kids made washing this beast routinely a very important endeavor.

Suitable in rear-facing mode from birth to 40 pounds and forward facing 20 to 65 pounds.

Best Infant Car Seat

The Mesa car seat features a no-rethread harness, which means you won't have to take apart the harness system as your baby grows. What a breeze! This beautiful black car seat is so light and lean that you won't have to worry about lugging a heavy baby and car seat around. If you want to make things even easier on yourself, you can grab the Vista2 stroller by UPPAbaby to complete a travel system. Plus, there's also the first-ever smart auto-retracting mini latch, combined with a red-to-green tension indicator, which makes handling the seat a lot easier, and, in turn, safer for baby.

My nephew used this car seat as a baby, and my sister-in-law could not sing its praises loudly enough. She was into how easy the latch was, saying “You don’t get mad at it,” she loves that it’s easy to clean, and she loves that the whole thing feels, as she puts it, “planted.”

This seat will safely sit babies from 4 to 35 pounds.

Best Toddler Car Seat

Your toddler can have multiple snacks and drinks in this car seat, and you'll never have to worry about spills, thanks to easy clean-up. It's easy to install, easy to remove, and overall, it's just a great seat.

The patented Snuglock design makes securing the Graco Nautilus toddler seat to your latch a cinch. The chest lock is completely intuitive, and its threadless adjustable harness allows your child to grow with the seat without needing to constantly remove it from the car.

It has a steel-reinforced frame and strong foam lining and headrest, making this one of the safest car seats on the market, according to Consumer Reports.

Don't worry about cleaning it, either. The seat pad is — get this — machine-washable. It also has multiple areas for storage, four reclining positions, five harness placements, and six headrest positions.

There’s a lot parents love about this seat, but one standout that makes it the best car seat for many parents is the lock. Car seats have notoriously difficult seatbelt locks, but this one? Easy to operate and easy to clean. One big fan said, “It’s the easiest lock of any car seat I’ve used, and I have six kids.”

Suitable in forward-facing mode from 22-65 pounds, to highback booster between 40-100 pounds, to backless booster from 40-120 pounds.

Convertible Car Seat Runner-Up

This stunner of a car seat by Maxi-Cosi is a favorite of the Best Products team. Our executive editor, Christine Anderson, uses the Magellan with her son, saying, “The Maxi Cosi Pria was recommended to us by a friend — and once we started comparing the features of the Pria to the Magellan XP model, it was an easy decision to upgrade her recommendation and go for the Magellan. With the Magellan, you’re purchasing a 5-in-1 convertible car seat (no extra infant seat or booster seat required). They’re all in there. Plus, the Magellan is complete with Maxi Cosi’s patented Air Protect in the headrest (for side-impact protection) AND torso side impact protection.”

It's ridiculously straightforward to install, though it does take a minute. But thanks to very explicit guides that show you how to do it, it's not challenging. Plus, it's just a really good-looking seat.

Suitable from birth to 120 pounds.

Infant Car Seat Runner-Up

This highly rated infant car seat is easy to install, and it fits securely in the back seat of anything from compact cars to bulky SUVs. The flip-out visor offers great sun protection, and a removable insert for newborns makes this a great choice for bringing a preemie home. We're impressed with the lengths Chicco goes to when it comes to ensuring proper installation: This car seat features ReclineSure (which helps the car seat achieve an accurate fit in any car model), RideRight (a bubble level indicator for angle accuracy), and SuperCinch (a one-pull tightener to achieve a secure fit with a fraction of the effort). Your newborn can safely ride in this seat until she reaches 30 pounds. The cover is also machine-washable and zips right off!

The ease of the car seat is what parents love best. It's easy to install, easy to clean, easy to take apart, and easier on the wallet than a lot of its counterparts. Parents also love how breathable it is. One user said "The thing never gets too hot. Yes, you'll still get sweaty babies out of them, but it doesn't overheat."

Suitable from birth to 32 inches tall and 30 pounds.

Toddler Car Seat Runner-Up

Clek is known for their rugged durability, narrow design, and incredible side-impact protection. The Clek Fllo is arguably one of the safest, if not the safest narrow seats on the market. It has Clek’s patented EACT energy management system, with advanced side-impact protection, deep side wings that cradle baby's skull, rebound bar, energy-absorbing foam layers and an adjustable headrest that's actually a part of the car seat's structure.

The Clek Fllo is the best car seat if you're looking for a convertible seat that can fit three-across in a back seat, it's also the best for long use, with a nine-year expiration time. The only reason this isn't our top pick for all families is the hefty price tag, and the fact that while its cover is stain and odor repellent, and made of an OEKO-TEX Standard 100 certified blend of sustainably-sourced, Merino wool + TENCEL, it is hand-wash only.

Parents I’ve spoken with are floored by how sturdy this car seat feels. Descriptions of “like a tank” and “small, but mighty” are thrown around quite a bit. It’s also super comfortable for baby thanks to dense cushions and soft fabrics, parents say. One parent told me “I can’t think of a thing I don’t love about this car seat other than getting my kid into it when they don’t want to leave somewhere.” High praise, indeed.

It can be used in rear-racing mode from 25-43 inches and 14-50 pounds, with a child able to sit upright alone, and in forward-facing mode from 30-49 inches 22-65 pounds and 2+ years recommended (1 year minimum).

Best Smart Car Seat

This car seat is new on the market and has a smart function that connects to an app on your phone. Rather impressively, it's capable of spinning 180º to make getting your baby in and out of the car as easy as possible.

This app that works with this car seat is quite literally a lifesaver. Why, you ask? Every year, dozens of children die because tired, overworked parents forget them in the car when it's too hot or too cold. Cybex not only alerts you if you've left your child in the car, but it also tells you if it is too hot or too cold when your baby is clicked-in. Although our tester did find that the app glitches sometimes, telling you that your baby is "in the car" when you're clearly still in there with them, it's overall still a pretty amazing car seat.

It's suitable from birth to 40 pounds when it's rear-facing, and forward-facing from 22 to 65 pounds. You will really get your use out of this one.

How to Clean a Car Seat

Cleaning a car seat can feel like a chore, but it doesn't have to — if you know how to do it right. Make sure to reference your seat's instructions because each one is slightly different. One universal truth is that straps cannot be machine washed, so you just need to use a damp cloth and wipe those off.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images
  1. Get rid of the little things first. First, use a handheld vacuum to remove dirt, crumbs, and anything else icky from the car seat.

  2. Spot clean spills. Even perfect tots have spills. Use a carpet cleaning solution to spot clean any stains. For tougher spots, use an inexpensive degreaser and simply pour it on the stain to watch it magically erase it. Then, use a washcloth with water to dab up the degreaser, so the chemicals don't sit.

  3. Freshen it up. Dip a cotton towel into a solution of water and baby-safe laundry detergent and wash the car seat down. Let it air dry outside. Voilà! (And let's not lie, you're definitely going to Febreeze it more than once.)

  4. Machine wash: Some of the seats have covers that are machine-washable. Just follow your manufacturer's instructions and get that bad boy cleaned right up.

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