Picking The Best Toddler Car Seats: Important Criteria To Watch
Your toddlers have their own needs for car seats, and you want to adhere to these needs to ensure their safety. Read on for the best toddler car seats.
Three-in-one, five-point, convertible, LATCH.
What does it all mean?!
With the amount of jargon thrown around on the web, it can be hard to find the best toddler car seats.
But it’s vital that you do. It’s hard to hear, but motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death among children in the United States.
That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children ride in a car seat from the day they’re born until they grow into adult seatbelts.
How long does that take?
Well, a child can finally move on from a booster seat to regular seatbelts when they reach a minimum height of 4 foot 9 inches. Typically, that’s between the ages of 8 and 12, but it’s recommended that even 13-year-olds stay in the back seat.
So until they’re big and strong, it’s important that your little one uses the right car seat.
That’s why we’re looking at the best toddler car seats.
Choosing the right type of car seat for a toddler
As your child grows, it only makes sense that their car seat should grow along with them. But no car seat is truly one size fits all for every baby in the world.
Eventually, it will be necessary to transition from your infant seat to another model.
What you choose depends not only on your child’s age but also on their height and weight. And of course, what you can afford.
Fortunately, high price tags don’t necessarily translate to the best toddler car seats. There are plenty of mid-range options that perform just as well as the budget breakers, and for a much lower cost.
But to begin, here are the three types of car seats suitable for toddlers.
Convertible Car Seats
Convertible seats are the safest next step when it’s time to nix the infant seat.
They can be installed rear- or forward-facing, which means you can keep using them even when your child is ready to face forward.
Regardless of where you live, it’s recommended for children to use rear-facing seats until they are at least two years old. However, in states like California, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania, children under two must use rear-facing seats.This is why it’s worth noting that convertible seats have higher rear-facing weight limits than infant seats. Usually up to 40-50 lbs. Which means toddlers can ride in the safer rear-facing position even longer before they turn forward.
Although many convertible seats have weight limits that include newborns and infants, they lack the convenience of a detachable carrier. And don’t usually offer the best fit for small babies.
Even so, the best time to buy a convertible seat is before your child turns one. But you don’t need to actually make the switch in your car until your child:
- can sit up on their own
- has outgrown the height and weight limits for your infant seat.
That’s usually between 9 and 18 months.
To sum up, here’s a breakdown of convertible seats and what makes them one of the best toddler car seats:
- Can be installed forward- or rear-facing
- High rear-facing weight limits (40-50lbs)
- High forward-facing weight limits (up to 65lbs)
- Feature 5-point harness
- Perform well in safety tests
- Bulkier than infant seats and with no removable carrier
- Not ideal for newborns or very small babies
- Good for little ones that have outgrown their infant seat limits set by the manufacturer
All-In-One Car Seats
All-in-one car seats, also called 3-in-one seats, attempt to do exactly what the name says: everything.
Value-wise, they can’t be beat. They can accommodate:
- children between 5 and 45 lbs when rear-facing;
- children 20 to 65 lbs forward-facing with a harness;
- and children 30 to 120 lbs when used as a forward-facing booster seat.
That’s quite a range.
But before you get too excited about buying one seat to take your baby from birth to booster, consider this.
Consumer Reports found that by trying to do so much in one product, all-in-one seats don’t really excel in any of their performance categories. Those categories are ease-of-use, fit-to-vehicle, and crash-test. But despite their drawbacks, all-in-ones are still some of the best toddler car seats.
Here’s the breakdown:
- Can be installed forward- or rear-facing, or as a booster seat
- Can be used longer than any other car seat
- High rear-facing weight limits (about 40-50 lbs)
- High forward-facing weight limits (up to 65 lbs)
- Typically higher height limits due to booster configuration
- Bulkier than infant seats and with no removable carrier
- Middle of the road ratings for ease-of-use, fit-to-vehicle, and crash-test performance
- Good for secondary caregiver who transports child less frequently
Toddler Booster Seats
Toddler booster seats are also called combination seats or harness booster seats. They are for when your child is at least two years old and has met the height and weight requirements to begin sitting forward.
As a result, these seats are designed to be forward-facing only and feature a five-point harness system for children between 20 and 90 lbs. They also transition to booster seats for children 30 to 120 lbs.
One of the major benefits of this type of car seat is that larger children can continue using a five-point harness for a longer period of time.
They’re also less expensive than convertible seats and are great for safely transitioning to your car’s three-point safety belt.
Here’s the breakdown for toddler booster seats at a glance, and why they’re among the best toddler car seats:
- Child must be at least two years old and meet minimum height and weight requirements
- Forward-facing only
- Not for small toddlers
- Cost less than convertible seats
- Five-point harness security for children 20 to 90 lbs
- Booster seat transition for children 30 to 120 lbs
- Better height limits
- Good for older and larger toddlers
What to look for when choosing the best toddler car seats
With so many options on the market, it can be daunting to figure out what features are actually important to the safety and functionality of your child’s seat. And which ones are just additional flair.
To make sure you’re getting what you need in your budget, look for these features when shopping the best toddler car seats.
Weight and height limits
Every parent knows that babies grow too fast.
So if you want to get the best bang for your buck, don’t overlook your manufacturer’s weight and height limits. These are the primary factors that determine how long your child can safely use any car seat.
Limits vary by manufacturer and you should always refer to their labels to make sure your child is in the safe range.
A five-point harness is a combination of five safety belts. They clip over both of your toddler’s shoulders, around their hips, and between their legs.
The design ensures a snug and safe fit, as well as minimum movement in the event of a collision.
Five-point harnesses are the safest option when buckling your child in. So the best toddler car seats allow their use for as long as possible. When a child is developed enough, a forward-facing seat with a higher weight limit and a five-point harness is a great option for both safety and product longevity.
Ensuring your car seat has adequate padding does more than just allow for a comfortable ride for your child; although comfort is always a bonus when it comes to finicky toddlers.
The fact is, residing within the manufacturer’s height and weight limits don’t promise a perfect fit for your toddler. That’s why soft, plush padding around your child’s head and back are key snugness factors.
However, if there is extra space around your child in the seat, you can help provide a little extra support. You can tuck rolled up towels or blankets on either side of your toddler to prevent slumping.
Just be sure not to put anything behind or under your child, which may hinder the design and safety of the car seat.
Ease of installation and use
It’s estimated that 46% of car seats are misused in a way that might reduce their effectiveness in a crash. That’s why it’s so important to abide by the manufacturer’s installation instructions.
Overall, there are two primary installation methods for car seats.
The first is the seatbelt method. It can be tricky the first time you do it, but it’s time-tested and reliable when you ensure that the seatbelt is locked with a tight fit.
The other system commonly included with car seats is LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children). Rather than using your vehicle’s seatbelt, lower anchors and a top tether keep the car seat firmly in place.
Many parents find this system to be easier to use than the traditional seatbelt route. But the drawback is that no more than 65 pounds of combined weight (car seat and child) can be put on the lower anchors.
Your car also has to have a LATCH system in place. Most vehicles manufactured since 2002 come standard with a LATCH system, but you can check for anchors in your car before you commit to buying a seat.
Drive on, baby
Now that you’ve looked at the best toddler car seats, you’re ready to start shopping. But even with your new knowledge, it can be daunting to make such an important decision about your toddler’s safety and stay within a reasonable budget.
Don’t worry though, we’ve got your back. No matter your budget, we want you to get the best car seat possible. So we’ve rated the top 25 best cheap car seats under $100 and even made some picks for the best affordable car seats between $100 and $200.
Nothing to cry about there–drive on!
Are you interested in finding more options? Check out these other buying guides we have created:
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