Child restraints are unlike any other piece of baby gear you will ever buy.
Unfortunately, most stores and most salespeople assist parents in their car seat shopping just like they would when recommending a crib, high chair or stroller.
What features do you want? What do you want to spend? Here you go!
Alas, if the salesperson doesn’t ask you about your child’s specific needs (age, weight, height, body proportions, etc.) and doesn’t ask you about the vehicle you drive, yet still makes a recommendation, then you are likely to be dissatisfied with your purchase.
If you can come away with any one piece of information from this admittedly very dense post, it is the following:
Car seats do not universally fit all children and all vehicles.
Even experienced parents are often unaware of the important factors that must be considered when shopping for a car seat.
The absolute best way to make sure you choose the car seat that fits your child, your vehicle and your budget is to contact a Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST). We are trained to teach parents about car seat usage and car seat installation, and we can help you figure out what your family’s unique car seat needs are, both now and in the future. Our goal is to empower parents so that they can choose the right seat and install it and use it correctly every time.
And if you missed it the first time, you can go back to the post I wrote in February about what a CPST can do for you.
As a CPST and as a parent, I come across the same car seat shopping errors over and over. These errors lead parents to regret their choice of car seat and, worse still, leave them unable to safely use the seat they’ve chosen, either because it doesn’t fit their child or it doesn’t fit their vehicle. And unfortunately, it’s not always possible to exchange the seat!
Hopefully this detailed list of tips for choosing a child restraint will help you choose the perfect seat for your child, your vehicle and your budget.
If you’re not sure what kind of car seat you’re shopping for, start by learning about the car seat stages.
9 Tips for Choosing the Right Car Seat
1 – Talk to a tech. Don’t rely solely on the recommendations of salespeople, friends, family or internet strangers.
Key message: Just because someone else loves a certain car seat doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for you.
Guess how I chose my son’s first convertible car seat?
I asked a seemingly innocent question in a Facebook group for cloth-diapering moms. I asked something like, “What car seat should I buy?”
And a bunch of lovely mamas jumped in to tell me why they loved their particular seat. So I bought the brand whose name came up the most often.
But no one asked me what I drive.
No one asked me how big or how old my son was.
No one told me why I should read reviews written by CPSTs.
While it’s great to find out what others love about the car seats they use or carry in their store, their recommendations are not especially valuable to you unless they drive the exact same vehicle as you, have the same budget and have a child who is your child’s clone.
Furthermore, parents may love a car seat but not realize they are not using it correctly for their child or in their vehicle. (Which is why all parents should meet at least once with a CPST!)
When you’re shopping for a new vehicle, you likely put more stock in advice from your mechanic rather than your dentist. Wondering about introducing baby to solids? Hopefully you value the opinion of a registered dietitian rather than your great aunt Debbie. Shopping for a car seat? A CPST can help you figure out the specific needs of your child and the unique quirks of your vehicle so that you make the best choice.
Unbiased reviews, written by CPSTs, are your best online resources when you start making your shortlist of seats to try:
- Vancouver Island Car Seat Techs (Canadian seats only)
- Car Seats for the Littles (information for both Canadian and American seats)
Another resource to consider is a Facebook group operated by volunteer CPSTs:
- Vancouver & Fraser Valley Car Seat Safety Group
- CSTAlberta Discussion Group
- Manitoba Car Seats Group
- Group de soutien – Little Cupcakes in Car Seats (Quebec)
- New Brunswick Safe Little Passengers
- SEATS for Kids (Canada-wide)
- Car Seats for the Littles (USA)
2 – Consider the height and weight minimums and maximums of a seat, as well as the lowest and highest harness heights.
It is unsafe and illegal to use a seat for which your child is too small or too large as prescribed by the seat manufacturer.
Infant Seats (also known as bucket seats or rear-facing only seats)
Key message: Make sure the lowest harness height is low enough for a newborn, and consider minimum weight if your baby is likely to be premature.
When choosing an infant seat, it’s important to consider the minimum child weight for the seat, especially if you are likely to have a preemie or a smaller baby.
The lowest weight available for an infant seat is 4 lb, and it is unlikely a baby less than 4 lb will be discharged from the hospital anyway. Some seats start at 5 lb, and neither of my twins was that heavy when we were discharged from the NICU.
BabyTrend seats available in Canada have their lowest harness slot at 8.5″ (21 cm), which means the baby needs to measure 8.5″ from rump to shoulders to fit the seat properly. Compare that to the 5″ lowest slot of the Graco Snugride, which fits newborns well. Because the harness must come from at or below baby’s shoulders in a rear-facing seat, it is important to pay attention to the lowest harness slot height in the seats you are considering.
Neither of the seats referenced above are bad or dangerous seats; however, they are examples of what you need to watch out for when seeking the best infant seat for your newborn.
I like to refer parents to the Vancouver Island Car Seat Techs list of recommended infant seats, and I caution against choosing a seat not on the list without talking to a CPST. Infant seat reviews on Car Seats for the Littles specify lowest harness slot height.
While it may seem like added value to choose an infant seat with a high weight limit, I can assure you that very few babies actually make it to the maximum weight in their bucket seats. For one, it is very cumbersome to carry a 35 lb baby in their car seat, and two, most babies will have outgrown their seat by height long before they hit 35 lb. (For reference, my 3-year-old only weighs about 30 lb.) Don’t let a higher weight maximum be the deciding factor in your car seat shopping.
For more information, refer to my full post on how to choose an infant seat.
Convertible Car Seats (rear-facing/forward-facing seats)
Key message: Make sure the height and weight minimums and maximums are suitable for your child’s needs in both rear-facing and forward-facing modes.
When you’re ready to move your child out of their infant seat, the next step is a convertible seat. (Note that you can also use a convertible seat from birth, in which case make sure you confirm that the seat fits newborns well by consulting the review sites listed above.)
Choosing the right convertible seat means you’ve got to think long term about your child’s car seat needs and about their own unique growth curve.
Confirm that the convertible seat you choose is a good choice in BOTH rear-facing and forward-facing modes. If you plan to use this seat for the same child until booster age, you will want to make sure it is likely to fit your child for the next four to six years.
Considerations for Rear-Facing Mode:
Key message: Consider how long you want your child riding rear-facing and how tall and heavy they will likely be at that age.
At a bare minimum, children should ride rear-facing until age 2. Many brands now require children to be at least 2 years old before switching their convertible seat to forward-facing mode. A fairly common height/weight maximum for a convertible seat in rear-facing mode is 40″ (102 cm)/40 lb (18 kg).
You will find seats that have different limits, and your choice will depend on your child’s body type. Consider if it is likely for your child to reach 40″ or 40 lb before their second birthday (not especially likely), and also consider how long you would like to keep them riding rear-facing. Most rear-facing seats also require 1″ (2.5 cm) of space between the top of the child’s head and the top of the car seat. Some seats allow for the head to be even with the car seat shell. Children with a very long torso may outgrow their seat in rear-facing mode before they actually reach the stated height limit.
The highest limits currently available in Canada for a rear-facing car seat are found on the Graco Extend2Fit at 49″ (124 cm) and 50 lb (23 kg). These limits mean that my son, who is above-average for height and weight, would only just have outgrown this seat in rear-facing mode at almost 6 years old.
Considerations for Forward-Facing mode:
Key message: Don’t rely exclusively on the stated height maximum. Consider the height of the top harness slot.
Don’t be fooled, either, by the forward-facing standing height maximum on the box—it’s not the only criteria to ensure a seat is suitable for your child, especially if your child is especially tall or carries a lot of height in their torso. The height of the top harness slot is particularly important when you consider that children need to be harnessed in their forward-facing seat until at least age 5, at which point parents can start assessing whether or not their child is ready for a booster seat.
Why does the top harness height matter so much? Consider that two children who are the same height when standing may have different heights when seated: one child having long legs and a short torso and the other having short legs and a long torso. The second child with the long torso may outgrow certain seats before actually reaching the stated height maximum because the harness must be at or above the child’s shoulders in forward-facing mode. Even if a child hasn’t reached the stated height limit for their seat, once their harness comes from below their shoulders, their seat is outgrown.
Note that the child’s head can be above the top of the car seat in forward-facing mode. Most car seats will specify that the tops of the child’s ears must be contained within the car seat shell, but consult your manual to confirm.
As an example, let’s look at the Evenflo Symphony and the Evenflo Sonus, which both have a maximum standing height of 50″ (127 cm) in forward-facing mode. The Symphony has a top harness slot height of about 16″ (40.3 cm) and the Sonus’s top slot is 18.25″ (46.3 cm). A child may measure less than 50″, yet outgrow the Symphony because they carry most of the height in their torso.
In terms of weight, most seats go up to 65 lb in forward-facing mode, which is ample for most children. However, some seats may be as low as 40 lb, so make sure you double check!
Combination Car Seats (forward-facing, harnessed seats that convert to boosters)
Key message: Make sure the seat can be used in harness mode until the child is ready to use it as a booster. Make sure booster mode is likely to work as long as you need it to.
If your child has outgrown forward-facing mode in their convertible seat or you’re passing that seat down to a younger sibling, you might be shopping for a combination seat. This type of seat has a removable five-point harness so that the seat can also be used as a booster seat. (Some seats transform into high-back boosters only, and others will also become backless boosters.)
The same information described above about forward-facing mode in your convertible seat will apply to the harness-mode of a combination seat. If your child is tall, you’ll want to choose one that has a high top harness slot. The Britax Frontier has the highest top harness slot of any seat on the Canadian market at 20.5″ (52 cm).
Since a combination car seat converts to a booster seat, you’ll want to confirm that the seat you’re choosing will actually work as a booster for your child and your vehicle (if you intend to use it in this mode).
A common mistake parents make is choosing a seat that must be converted to booster mode at a fairly low weight; that is, a weight at which the majority of children are not old enough to ride in a booster seat.
Ideally, you want a seat that can be used in harness mode up to the Canadian maximum of 65 lb, that can be used as a booster starting at 40 lb and can continue to be used to a high enough weight that the child won’t outgrow it before they’re big enough for just the seat belt. This upper height maximum can be tricky to figure out since kids should ride in boosters until they are at least 4’9″ (145 cm) tall—typically around 10–11 years old—and you may be buying the seat for a 4-year-old. Luckily, if your child does outgrow their booster as a pre-teen, slim and subtle backless boosters are available for $30 or less. Booster seats typically have a weight maximum of 100–110 lb (45–50 kg).
I’m going to pick on the Evenflo Chase right now to illustrate my point. This is not to single this seat out as unsafe, because it’s definitely a safe seat if your child meets the height and weight restrictions.
The Chase is a combination seat that can be used in harnessed mode up to 40 lb, at which point the seat must be used as a booster. Do you see any problems here? Basically, there is no guarantee that when a child hits 40 lb they will be ready for a booster. My son was 40 lb at age 4, and there is no way that he was mature enough for a booster seat at this age. Most parents who buy a Chase either buy it when their child is already too heavy to use the harness but still requires the harness, or buy it without realizing the weight restriction and continue using it in harness mode well past 40 lb, which is dangerous in the event of a collision. Box labels can be misleading when they list the weight range for a seat. Do. Your. Research.
As with convertible seats you should consider minimums and maximums for both rear- and forward-facing modes if you plan to use your combination seat in booster mode.
Key message: Choose a booster seat that is suitable for your child’s shape.
The minimum weight for booster seats in Canada is 40 lb, but maturity is a very important factor. Children are booster-ready between 5 and 7 years of age. Familiarize yourself with the factors to consider when determining whether your child is ready for a booster.
You can find high-back boosters that convert to backless boosters as well as stand-alone backless boosters. Typically, parents like to transition from the harnessed seat to the high-back booster first.
Not all booster seats have the same height and weight ranges, so again, don’t forget to factor in those minimums and maximums when choosing the right one for your child. If you’re choosing a seat that converts to a booster, don’t forget to look at the information for this mode!
Most booster seats can be used up to about 100 lb (45 kg) and 57″ (145 cm) tall, with a few on the market for even taller and heavier kids who don’t yet fit the adult seat belt. The height of the shoulder belt guide will influence when a seat is outgrown in high-back mode, just like the top harness height matters for forward facing seats. These heights are listed in reviews from Vancouver Island Car Seat Techs and Car Seats for the Littles.
3 – Test the seat in your vehicle.
Key message: Don’t assume it will fit. Test the seat out in all modes (rear facing and forward facing, for example), fully installed according to the manual and according to your vehicle owner’s manual.
Ever bought a piece of furniture at IKEA only to discover it doesn’t fit in the trunk of your car? Well, a lot of parents buy car seats only to discover they don’t fit in the back seat.
Before you try seats in your vehicle, read the child restraint section of your vehicle manual. I strongly recommend also reading the installation manual for the seats you plan on testing in your vehicle before heading to the store. Otherwise, you may not install the seat properly in your vehicle, and this may lead to an incorrect assessment of whether it fits or not. (You can find the manuals for all car seats on the market on each manufacturer’s website. Make sure you are reading the manual for the correct country.)
Here are some of my favourite car seat YouTube tutorials, but remember to consult each seat’s manual for specific installation instructions.
Considerations for Rear-Facing Mode Test Installation
The biggest culprit for car seat-regret is seats that are very large in rear-facing mode, forcing the front passenger or the driver to have their seat so far forward that they’re eating the dashboard or steering wheel. I’ve seen parents who can’t even use their front passenger seat because of the car seat they’ve chosen. Don’t assume that you have tons of room just because you drive an SUV or a minivan.
When testing a rear-facing seat (either an infant seat or a convertible seat in rear-facing mode) make sure you are respecting the required recline angle for your child’s age and stage. Some seats have a single recline, and others have multiple options. Make sure you try the seat at its most reclined, with your front seat as far back as required. Again, I don’t want to point fingers, but the Safety First Alpha Omega is notorious for being much larger rear-facing than it appears on the store shelf. That’s just one of the reasons .
In most cases, the child restraint should not press against the seat in front of it. If the only way the car seat fits in your vehicle while still accommodating a front passenger is with the car seat shell and the vehicle seat back making contact, you must confirm with both the car seat manufacturer and your vehicle manufacturer that this is acceptable. Pressure on the seatback from a car seat can influence airbag performance, and not all brands of car seats and vehicles permit this type of contact.
Keep in mind that front passengers and the driver should have at least 10″ (25 cm) between their chest and the dashboard or steering wheel, according to Transport Canada.
Even though infant seats (also known as bucket seats or rear-facing only seats) are for our tiniest passengers, some of them take up a MASSIVE amount of space. The most compact front-to-back in most scenarios are the Chicco KeyFit 30 and the Graco Snugride. On the very large side are the Maxi Cosi Mico Max and the Peg Perego when it is at its newborn recline. For infant seats, make sure you respect the required handle position. The Peg Perego Primo Viaggio requires the handle at the top of the seat, which adds a good inch to the seat’s length, something you won’t notice on the store shelf.
You also need to be on the lookout for overhang, which occurs when the base of the child restraint doesn’t sit fully on the seat of the vehicle. Some vehicle seats are surprisingly short. (I’m looking at you, Jeep!) Whether this is permitted and by how much is dependent on the restraint. Many manufacturers allow for 20% of the car seat base to overhang the vehicle seat, but this must be confirmed in the manual or by contacting the manufacturer. Yet another reason to consult the manual in advance!
Considerations for Forward-Facing Mode Test Installation
If you’re testing a convertible car seat, don’t just test it in rear-facing mode. You’ll eventually want to use it in forward-facing mode, and you’ll be pretty annoyed if you discover it doesn’t fit a couple of years down the road. If you’re testing a seat that only faces forward, the following tips also apply.
A lot of times the culprit in forward-facing mode is interference from the vehicle’s headrests. Take a look at what kind of headrests your vehicle has and whether or not they can be removed. Some vehicle manufacturers require the headrest in place when installing a car seat, some allow the headrest to be removed, while still other vehicles have headrests that are not removable. Look for this information in your vehicle manual!
Although not super common, sometimes the tether anchor in your vehicle is located quite close to the vehicle headrest, and you cannot tighten the tether strap enough. (So yes, fully install the seat when you’re trying it out).
Lastly, for most forward-facing seats you will want to try installing them using the seat belt. I know parents typically find installations with the Universal Anchorage System (UAS) easier, but what you may not realize is that most car seats eventually need to be installed using the seat belt. This is because a vehicle’s lower anchors are only tested to a maximum weight of 65 lb, and that 65 lb is the combined weight of the child and the car seat. So if your child’s car seat weighs 20 lb and your child weighs 45 lb, your car seat must be installed using the seat belt. You should always double check your vehicle’s lower anchor weight limits, although most manufacturers defer to the stated maximum of the car seat manufacturer. Don’t worry about the math: this information should be located on the side sticker of your car seat. Some seats on the market are very lightweight and can be installed using UAS for higher child weights.
Take a look at your vehicle’s seat belts. Some car seat designs cannot be safely installed using the seat belt in some vehicles. The most common reason is when the seat belt is located “forward of the bight.” The bight is the crease where the seatback meets the seat, and usually the seat belt buckle comes out from the bight or fairly close to it. In some vehicles, the buckle is quite far out from the bight, and this can create some awkward geometry that makes a secure forward-facing install difficult if not impossible. A secure installation means you do not have more than 1″ (2.5 cm) of movement side to side or front to back, and depending on the car seat, this cannot be achieved with some seat belts.
If your vehicle has forward-of-the-bight buckle stalks, definitely talk to a car seat tech so you know what to look for when choosing a car seat.
And yes, you need to test out booster seats in your vehicle, too! One of the main reasons why a booster seat doesn’t work well in a given vehicle is belt retraction. Think about what happens to your seat belt when you lean forward to reach the stereo: the belt loosens so you can move and retracts as you sit back in your seat. Sometimes the geometry of where the shoulder belt comes out of your vehicle and the location of the belt guide on a high-back booster seat make it so that if a child leans forward, their seat belt lengthens as they move, but does not retract when they sit up again. This leaves them riding with a loose seat belt dangling in front of their bodies—a seat belt that won’t do its job in a collision.
It’s worthwhile to test the retraction at various headrest heights, since you will be raising the headrest and the belt guide as your child gets taller. For certain vehicles there are only a couple of booster seats that work at all, such as the Evenflo AMP in the back row of Dodge Caravans, Pacificas and Town & Country vans.
You will also need to factor in your vehicle’s headrests when testing a high-back booster. If you find the headrest interferes with the booster seat, you’ll want to confirm that your vehicle’s headrest comes off and that the booster seat manufacturer allows installation without a vehicle headrest.
4 – Don’t be swayed by 3-in-1 seat marketing.
Key message: Most 3-in-1 seats do not make great booster seats.
Have you ever wondered if the world really needed the movie Crossroads? Not sure what I’m talking about? Well, Crossroads is the 2002 Britney Spears film that nobody asked for and surely Zoey Saldana would like to forget. Is Britney a fantastic pop star and dancer? Totally. Is she a good actress? No.
And like Britney Spears, most triple threat car seats do very well in two modes (rear-facing and forward-facing), but do not excel in the third mode (booster). Often the booster mode on these seats is very short-lived, and your child will need a dedicated booster anyway. Some seats that have a booster mode on paper do not function as such in real life.
As an example, Diono convertibles are touted as 3-in-1 seats, and this often helps parents justify the high price tag. However, Diono convertibles may only be used in booster mode for a child weighing 50 lb (23 kg) or more. Most children are not close to 50 lb by the time they have outgrown the harness on the Diono or by the time they are old enough and mature enough to transition to a booster seat. As a point of reference, Cub is soon turning 6 and has been in a booster for six months now. He only weighs 48 lb but has long outgrown the harness on a Diono.
The aforementioned Alpha Omega is another popular seat that is rarely suitable as a booster seat, in this case because it doesn’t provide a safe belt fit for most children.
The Graco 4Ever is currently the only 3-in-1 car seat included on the Vancouver Island Car Seat Techs list, which is my go-to list of seats.
So before you get disappointed that you’ll eventually have to dole out a fortune for yet another car seat, keep in mind that a booster seat can be as inexpensive as $20. And by the time your child is ready to transition to a booster, their convertible seat is likely to have seen much better days, and you’ll be ready to move on to a super-lightweight, trim and portable booster.
Bottom line: don’t let the potential for “booster mode” be the deciding factor in your car seat choice. It is often a marketing gimmick.
5 – Don’t trust that a seat will fit 3-across because the box says so.
Key message: There’s no such thing as a car seat that will always fit 3-across.
Repeat after me: no one car seat will universally fit 3-across in any vehicle. Some vehicles cannot, no matter what seat, accommodate three car seats side by side. For vehicles that can accommodate three seats, it is often a combination of different seats, through trial and error, that will give the best fit.
Factors influencing 3-across scenarios include A LOT more than simply measuring the space you have and comparing it to the width of a given car seat. There are websites that purport to list what seats will fit in 3-across scenarios, but base these conclusions on nothing more than measurements. Trust me: a ruler is not enough.
Find out if your vehicle permits 3-across installations by consulting your vehicle manual and calling the manufacturer. There are vehicles that prohibit or discourage a middle-seat car seat installation, for example, or vehicles that prohibit the installation of two car seats side by side. When seat belts overlap each other or overlap a vehicle’s Lower Universal Anchorage System, it is often next to impossible to safely install three seats side by side.
Many vehicles that do permit 3-across installations will still require the help of a CPST or two.
6 – Spend what you can afford.
Key message: More expensive seats offer different features, but seats at all price points are safe when used correctly.
All car seats undergo the same pass/fail safety testing in Canada, and while extra testing is great, these tests are done by THE COMPANY, following standards they’ve designed themselves.
If you can only spend $100, the seat you can afford may not have fancy bells and whistles, but installed and used properly, I can assure you it is safe.
7 – Choose based on your needs, not looks.
Key message: Those cool character car seats are not cool to install.
Have you seen those seats that let the child wear a Batman cape or have Minnie Mouse ears? What kid doesn’t want to be a caped crusader or Disney character in the car? There are some super funky car seat patterns on the market to tempt you and your child.
On the flip side, I’ve had parents not choose the car seat that I know meets their needs the best because it wasn’t cute enough.
Pick everything else in your child’s life according to their love of superheroes or obsession with purple … but please let the aesthetics of their car seat be the absolute last criteria on your list.
8 – Make sure your infant seat fits your child and your car, not just your stroller.
Key message: Just because a seat fits your stroller doesn’t mean it will fit your car or suit your child.
Your stroller is most definitely an important piece of baby gear, and ideally you’ll be using it a lot longer than you are using your child’s infant seat. I’ve seen too many parents select their infant seat only because it is compatible with (can be clicked onto) their chosen stroller or because it came with their stroller. They don’t try it in their vehicle nor do they consider the unique needs of their child.
It’s much more important that your car seat fit your child and your vehicle than your stroller. I’m not saying you should use a car seat that is NOT compatible with your stroller on your stroller, just that you may need to compromise. If the stroller of your dreams isn’t compatible with the car seat that fits your vehicle and your needs best, then maybe you don’t use the two of them together. Many strollers recline sufficiently to be used straight from birth, or a lightweight car seat “trolley” from your favourite buy and sell site might do the trick. The Monarch Mommy has a great post on making your own “travel system.”
9- Let your child try the seat (if applicable) and try it out yourself.
Key message: If your child is uncomfortable in their car seat, they’re going to share that discomfort with you every time you drive. If you hate the harness, you’re going to hate buckling your kid.
When at all possible, let your child test out a car seat before you purchase it. Some car seats have narrower harnesses than others, and the harness might rub against some kids’ necks. (And only harness pads supplied by the manufacturer can be used: do not purchase after-market harness pads.) Some seats have high sides that make it hard for the child to climb in on their own (and sometimes climbing in on their own is the ONLY way they want to get in). Some kids like lots of cushioning, others are happy with no extra padding. Just like no car seat fits all vehicles universally, no car seat fits every child.
Since you’re the person doing the buckling (and if it’s not you, bring the principle buckler with you), make sure you like how the harness and buckles work. When doing a test install, make sure you like the installation features, too.
I know that car seat shopping is a much more complicated science than it appears on the surface. I promise, however, that taking the time to find the right seat will save you a lot of headaches in the future. Plus, you can drive confidently knowing your child is properly secured in their seat every time they ride.
To become an expert on YOUR family’s child restraint needs, I highly suggest meeting with a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician. The Child Passenger Safety Association of Canada (CPSAC) is the most reputable certifying body, so look for a tech with current CPSAC certification.
You can meet with me online if you’re not in Calgary!