This is one of the most common questions we get asked. It might even be the most commonly asked question. There is no easy answer, unfortunately. The safest and best car seat is the one that will install securely in your vehicle, that fits your child’s age, height, and weight, and that you can operate correctly every time. Looking at safety ratings is not enough–if the seat rated “safest” doesn’t fit securely in your vehicle, or if you can’t figure out how to operate it, it is NOT the best seat for YOU. All car seats are safe and will protect your child if properly used.
If you’re in the market for an infant car seat, you’re in luck as we’ve got a comprehensive infant car seat buying guide here (we’re working on one for convertible seats & forward-facing seats).
There are so many factors that go into picking the best car seat, here are some things to consider.
A great car seat for you will install easily in the center position of your vehicle–since passengers sitting in the center are 43% safer than passengers on the side, it is safest to get a car seat that will work in the center. Many car seats unfortunately are difficult or even impossible to install in the center of many vehicles, largely because the center seat of most vehicles does not come equipped with lower latch anchors – not to mention the center is typically very narrow with a more rigid seat cushion. You can read more about installing a seat in the center on our Using Latch in the Center page.
While we can’t make a specific recommendation about which specific car seat will work in your particular vehicle without speaking with you, we can recommend that you look for a car seat with a built-in locking device for the seat belt. These car seats typically yield a secure installation in the center seat using the vehicle’s seat belt in conjunction with the built-in locking device. When using a built-in locking device, you don’t have to switch the shoulder belt into its locking mode… a locking mode that typically causes most rear-facing seats to tilt on their sides due to all the tension being upwards in the shoulder belt.
A car seat has to work for YOU. If you travel a lot and are constantly installing and uninstalling your seat, you need to buy one that is easy to install. If you need to take taxis or use rental cars frequently, buy a seat that is easy to install using the seat belt and doesn’t require lower anchors (so you don’t have to dig around the seat bottom of strange cars). If you walk everywhere, the car seat needs to fit on your stroller–but you should base your stroller purchase on the car seat, not vice versa, since the car seat and not the stroller may one day save your child’s life (see our Stroller Compatibility page). If you plan on having a second child soon, buy a car seat with a long lifespan, so that you can pass it down to the next child, and buy one that can be installed in multiple locations in your vehicle, since a second child may change your seating positions. Good car seats for taxi travel can be found on our Using Taxis seat selector page; good seats for airplane travel on our Airplanes page.
Car seats are expensive! Buy a seat that has high height and weight limits. This will allow you to use the seat for longer and will push off your next purchase for as long as possible. An infant or convertible car seat with high height and weight limits will allow you to keep your child rear-facing for longer, and since rear-facing is 5 times safer than forward-facing, it’s the best way to keep your child safe in the car.
As we said above, car seats are expensive! However, they are also the one baby item that could one day save your child’s life. They are well worth the money when considered in this light. You do not need to spend hundreds of dollars to get a safe car seat, but if you have to pick one item to splurge on, we (obviously) think the car seat is the one.