“Hearst Magazines and Verizon Media may earn commission or revenue on some items through the links below.”
There are popular car seats out there, but are they really the best? 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 a car seat, 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 2021
Best Overall: Britax Advocate ClickTight Convertible Car Seat
Best Infant Car Seat: UPPAbaby MESA Infant Car Seat
Best Toddler Car Seat: Graco Nautilus SnugLock LX 3-in-1 Booster Car Seat
Convertible Car Seat Runner-Up: Maxi-Cosi Magellan Xp All-in-One Convertible Car Seat
Best Splurge: Clek Foonf Car Seat
Infant Car Seat Runner-Up: Chicco Keyfit 30 Zip Infant Car Seat
Toddler Car Seat Runner-Up: Britax Grow with You Harness-2-Booster Car Seat
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.
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.
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.
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 cat 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ready to shop for car seats now? Buckle up and check out our top choices!
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 perfect for babies from 5 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. 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.
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.
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!
Toddler Car Seat Runner-Up
This also has a machine-washable cover like some others on this list. The washable performance fabric is very breathable and doesn't scratch on baby's skin.
The harness features a no-rethread design that's easy to move as your child grows with their beloved click-tight installation. The frame is steel-reinforced, and it installs quickly. It has two recline positions and comes with a 1-year limited warranty.
The Britax Grow with You toddler seat has well-cushioned side-impact walls, designed both for comfort and crash performance. It has a total of four cup holders and storage compartments for snacks and drinks, which your kids will love.
Best Splurge Car Seat
Simply put: This car seat is an absolute tank. It's steel-reinforced with an anti-rebound bar, and it weighs an astonishing 36 pounds. It's the car seat equivalent of a 1980 Oldsmobile — but updated. The car seat cover is nearly spill-proof, thanks to their C Zero+ performance fabrics with moisture barrier, which is a fluorine-free solution for stain resistance that gives the cover a level of protection against liquids and spills with anti-microbial technology. (Poop protections.) It is GREENGUARD Gold-certified and free of chlorinated and brominated flame retardants.
It has the ability to hold your baby in a rear-facing mode until their fourth birthday or until they hit 50 pounds. After they age out of that stage, this car seat has multiple headrest positions that will allow your child to use this seat conceivably until age 10.
But perhaps the most impressive part other than the safety and cleanliness? It's so narrow that you can fit three of these across in a standard backseat.
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.
Get rid of the little things first. First, use a handheld vacuum to remove dirt, crumbs, and anything else icky from the car seat.
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.
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.)
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.
You Might Also Like