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Buying a child car seat should be at or near the top of your ‘to buy’ list when you’re preparing for the arrival of a newborn. However, there is so much information out there that it can be tricky to know what you need, what features are essential and what type of car seat you should purchase.
There are infant car seats, convertible car seats, forward facing car seats, 3 in 1 + 4 in 1 car seats and booster seats, some of which you can consider from the birth of a your child, and some which can be used until your son or daughter are around 12 years old. So here is everything you need in one place. Your one-stop guide to car seats!
What are the different types of child car seats?
There are 5 main types of car seats.
- You can find infant car seats, which are rear facing and can be used from birth until 12-15 months (depending on the model) or until they reach the weight limit of the seat. In the UK, these are sometimes known as Group 0 car seats. For infant car seats which can be used for longer until around 15 months they are often referred as Group 0+. These are usually i-Size car seats.
- There are standard forward facing car seats which can be used after your child has outgrown their infant car seat (usually around 1 year). On average these can be used until your child is about 4 years old. These are often classed as Group 1 car seats.
- You can also find convertible car seats, which can also be used from birth until your child is around 4 years old, switching from a rear facing to a forward facing position. These car seats are usually classed as Group 0 and Group 1.
- There are also 3 in 1 / 4 in 1 car seats to consider. These are similar to convertible ones except they can convert into a booster seat as well, which means they are suitable until your child can start using a seat belt by themselves. As these cover all the various stages, these may be classified as Group 0 – 3 car seats.
- Finally, there are booster seats. These aren’t for infants as they have to be used in a forward-facing position. These car seats are for small children who have a minimum weight of around 30-40lbs. They can be used until your child doesn’t need a car seat any more, which is usually around 11 years old. There are backless booster seats and high back boosters. In the UK, backless booster seats are known as Group 3 and high back boosters are Group 2.
Infant car seats
Infant car seats are specifically designed for newborn babies and young infants. They recline at the right angle so it makes it easier for them to breathe. They are also easy to install and detach, either attaching via a car seat base, or using your car’s seatbelt. Infant car seats are always rear facing and can be used until your baby is around 1 year old, depending on the maximum weight of the particular model.
Britax B-Safe Gen2 Infant Car Seat
Pros of infant car seats
- Portable and lightweight. You can carry infant car seats fairly easily. Some can even go on an airplane with you.
- Compatibility with strollers. You can usually attach infant car seats to strollers or other travel systems, which makes things very convenient if your baby has fallen asleep in the car, or if you’re in a rush. (you may need stroller adaptors though so check with your car seat manufacturer)
- Easy to install. If you’re using a car seat base, you can easily attach and remove the car seat very easily.
- Safety. Infant car seats are rear facing, specifically designed to maximise your baby’s safety in the event of a crash.
- A good option for premature babies.If your baby is on the small side, an infant car seat is really the best option, as they can still fit ok, especially if you use a newborn insert.
Cons of infant car seats
- Longevity. Unfortunately unlike convertible or 3 in 1 car seats, infant car seats just won’t last as long. Depending on the size of your baby, and the weight limit of your car seat, it may only last a year or 18 months at the most. We transitioned my son from his Maxi-Cosi Cabriofix when he was around 12 months old (He does eat a lot though!)
- Cost and value for money. Considering you can’t use them for very long, infant car seats are quite expensive for what they are.
Why are these car seats rear facing?
Infant car seats have to be rear facing because they reduce the risk of injury in a crash by 90% (compared with being unrestrained). You should only switch your baby to a forward facing car seat once they can sit upright by themselves and they exceed the maximum weight recommendation of a rear facing one.
What safety factors should I consider?
Here are some requirements and tips for using rear facing car seats:
- The top of the harness should be roughly 2cm below your baby’s shoulder.
- The straps should be quite tight on your baby (fitting 1 or 2 fingers between their chest and the harness is a good indicator)
- If you are using an i-Size rear facing car seat, you need to use it until your baby is at least 15 months old. In fact, some experts advise even longer than this. Some car seat manufacturers have car seats that can last in a rear facing position until your child is 4 years old.
- You can attach your car seat using the seat belt, which wraps around the car seat (just ensure you check this carefully) or using ISOFIX or LATCH fittings.
- Never use a rear facing car seat in the front passenger seat if there is an active airbag.
Are rear-facing car seats more dangerous for rear collisions?
While they may be safer for head on collisions, some parents worry that if the car is hit from behind then this can be dangerous. However, in a rear car seat a baby is still quite far away from the point of impact (at the trunk of the vehicle). Also, in a rear collision there is a lot less force involved because both cars are usually moving in the same direction. All the statistics show that the rear facing position is the best option for infants and toddlers.
How long should a baby use in an infant car seat?
On average, you should use infant carriers until your baby is around 13kg, which is approximately 12 months old for most infants. These can be attached using an ISOFIX base or with a seat belt. However, for i-Size car seats, you should use these for longer, until they are around 15 months old. You can also get convertible car seats which can be used from birth until the child is a lot older. Here are some good options for rear facing car seats; infant carriers, i-Size car seats and convertible car seats, all of which can be used for newborn babies.
If you’re thinking how long a baby should be in a car seat for during a single journey, then most experts agree that 2 hours at a time should be the maximum. This is because babies, particularly newborns, should lie flat when they’re sleeping, such as in a cot or bassinet. Try to avoid keeping your baby in a car seat for a long period. If you’re travelling a long journey, take regular breaks for yourself as well as your baby to stretch out and move around a bit.
Forward facing car seats
Once your baby outgrows their infant car seat, you need to move to something a little bigger. This usually means buying a standard forward-facing one. These car seats are usually suitable for babies aged around 12 months to 4 years old.
Pros of forward facing car seats
- Compatibility with your car seat base. If you’ve purchased an car seat base for your infant carrier, this is often compatible with a forward-facing car seat as well (providing it’s with the same manufacturer) We did exactly this with the Maxi Cosi 2way fix base; we purchased the Maxi-Cosi Cabriofix as an infant car seat, and the Maxi-Cosi Pearl as a forward-facing option.
- Best option to buy once your child has outgrown an infant carrier. If you’ve made the decision to buy an infant car seat, then this is really the only practical option available to you for the next stage. There’s simply no point buying a convertible car seat, or an all-in-one option. Your baby will also be too small for a booster seat.
- Safety. These car seats have thicker frames and padding to ensure your toddler is safe and sound in your vehicle.
Cons of forward facing car seats
- Design. Although these are perfectly fine by themselves, you’re not getting the benefits of some other options. You will get a lot more use out of a convertible or 3 in 1 car seat due to their functionality. Furthermore, these car seats aren’t compatible with strollers.
- Cost and value for money. If you buy an infant car seat beforehand, by purchasing a forward-facing one later on, it will cost you more money than if you just went for a convertible or all-in-one option to begin with.
- Bulky and heavy. These car seats are fairly heavy and bulky and take up more space than infant carriers. Make sure your car is big enough to accommodate them.
Convertible car seats
These car seats can flip between rear facing and forward facing. They can be used for newborn babies and toddlers, usually with a weight limit of up to 40lbs for the rear facing option and 80lbs for forward facing. This means you get a good few years of use out of them.
Chicco NextFit Zip Convertible Car Seat
Pros of convertible car seats
- Longevity. Convertible car seats are a great option if you want to buy something and not worry about upgrading too soon. They are fine for your newborn, older baby, toddler, preschooler and probably when your child just starts school. You can get anywhere from 4-6 years of use from a convertible car seat.
- Great value for money. Unlike infant car seats, these convertible types are very good value for money if you look at what they cost per year of use.
- Rear facing and forward facing positions. You can use these car seats in a rear facing position for your infant and switch to forward facing for your toddler and older child.
- Sturdy design. They are bulkier than infant car seats, with a more solid frame, which means they can withstand a greater force in a collision.
Cons of convertible car seats
- No stroller compatibility. Unfortunately there’s no convenient option to detach the car seat and pop it on your stroller if you want a quick walk to the park or shops. They are just too bulky. If your baby has taken a nap in the car seat, you’ll probably have to wake them up to put them in the stroller.
- Heavy, bulky and not portable. You may get more use out of convertible car seats, but you don’t get the lightweight design and portability of an infant car seat. They have to stay in your car.
3 in 1 / 4 in 1 car seats
These are sometimes know as ‘all-in-one’ car seats, as they can be used for infants, toddlers and older children, used in a rear-facing position, forward-facing and as a booster seat (with a high back and then backless). If you purchase one of these, you won’t need to worry about car seats ever again, as once your child has finished with it, they can use just the car seatbelt like an adult.
Graco SlimFit 3 in 1 Car Seat
Pros of 3 in 1 and 4 in 1 car seats
- The only cat seat you’ll need. Longevity is by far the biggest plus of a 3 in 1 or 4 in 1 car seat. Just make sure you look after it by cleaning the covers regularly.
- Cost over the long term. Although these tend to be more expensive than convertible or infant car seats, your bank balance will thank you in the end as you won’t have to buy 2 or 3 car seats to cater for your growing child.
- Sturdy and well designed.These “all in one” car seats tend to be fairly bulky with a solid frame. This will ensure your baby is well protected in the event of any collision.
- You can use these car seats in rear and forward facing positions, just like convertible seats.
Cons of 3 in 1 and 4 in 1 car seats
- Not all 3 in 1 car seats can be used in the rear facing position, so they aren’t suitable for small infants. Make sure you check this before making any purchase. For example, the Baby Trend Hybrid Booster 3 in 1 Car Seat is a hybrid booster, which can only face forwards, so it’s only suitable for toddlers and older children.
- Heavy and bulky. While they might be sturdy and tough, it also means these car seats are big, heavy and take up a lot of space in your car. Although you’ll likely keep the car seat in place most of the time, it’s a bit of a hassle if you need to remove it occasionally. For example, you may need to accommodate some adults in your car, or put the seats down to transport some items somewhere.
- They won’t attach to a stroller. If your baby has fallen asleep in the car, you’re just going to have to wake her up (or wait until she wakes up) if you want to put her in the stroller. These car seats aren’t compatible with strollers.
What’s the difference between 3 in 1 and 4 in 1 car seats?
Both are considered all in one car seats, but the 4 in 1 car seat has a high back booster and a backless booster. 3 in 1 car seats don’t have the backless booster option.
Once your child is around 4 years old (or about 22kg) you can consider purchasing a booster seat. There are two types; backless and high back boosters and they can be used until your child is 11-12 years old. Backless boosters are about the size of a cushion and they work by elevating your child enough so the adult seatbelt spreads across their pelvic region and torso. High back boosters have padding on the sides, a headrest and back support.
GoFit Plus Backless Booster Car Seat
Backless vs high backed booster seats
There is some concern by experts that backless boosters aren’t really safe enough for children, particularly in side collisions. However, some parents opt for them because they are cheap and don’t take up much space inside the vehicle. They are also portable so you can easily take them with you if you need to go in another vehicle with your child.
In recent years, there has been a push for parents to purchase high back boosters instead as they offer a bit more protection. In fact some car seat manufacturers have stopped making backless boosters altogether. Maxi-Cosi don’t seem to have any on their website, and neither do Britax. However, Graco still sell them.
Maxi-Cosi Rodi Sport Booster Car Seat
Here are some advantages of high-backed booster seats, when compared to backless ones.
Pros of high-backed booster seats
- They have a headrest, which makes it more comfortable for your child, especially on long journeys.
- Some high-back boosters can be detached from the base which makes it easier to transport.
- High-backed booster seats offer better side-impact protection than backless boosters.
Cons of high-backed booster seats
- They’re larger and a bit more bulky, taking up more space inside your car.
- High-back booster seats are more expensive than backless booster seats.
What should you consider when buying a car seat?
Here are some key aspects to think about when you buy a car seat.
Your first thoughts should be on what type of car seat you want to buy. You have to weigh up whether you want the practicality of buying an infant car seat first, which is portable and very handy in the baby’s first year. However, you’ll then need to invest in a forward facing-facing option, and later a booster seat, which means you’ll need 3 car seats for your child until they are around 12 years old. This is the most costly option, but it might not be so bad if you’re planning on having a second child as you can use the same car seats with the younger sibling.
Alternatively, you can just pay one upfront purchase on an all-in-one car seat which will either be 3 in 1 or 4 in 1, and that’s it. This will save you money in the long run, but you won’t get the stroller compatibility of an infant carrier in your baby’s first year. Providing you can put up with this, this is the most economical option of all.
For an option in between these two, you could buy a convertible car seat, and then later a booster. Here you are only going to buy 2 car seats in total. However, in my opinion this is the worst of the three options. You’re not getting the benefit of an infant carrier to use with your stroller in the first year, and you’re not getting the extreme longevity of a 3 in 1 car seat.
Weight and age limit
Whatever car seat you’re buying, make sure you check the weight and age limit carefully. All babies and children are different sizes, so you don’t want to choose a model which won’t last as long as another.
Easy to clean
Read the customer reviews and check YouTube videos carefully on how you can clean the car seat covers. Sometimes it’s very fiddly and frustrating! Ideally you want something which is machine washable and easy to spot clean. It’s easy to overlook this feature as you’ll likely be focused on the design most of all.
If you can stretch to an all-in-one car seat, that will save you money in the long term. However, it is more expensive to pay this upfront cost. If you don’t have the budget for this, you may be forced to choose an infant carrier.
This should be way down your list of priorities, but if you’re spending a lot of money on a product you want something which looks nice! Most car seats are black or grey, as this usually blends well with the car upholstery. However, by all means choose something brighter as there are many other colours to choose from.
Easy to attach and detach
There’s nothing worse than struggling to put your infant in a car seat when you’re in a rush. Maybe the straps won’t connect properly, or they’re hard to tighten or loosen. Also, for infant carriers make sure they are easy to attach and detach from the car seat base. Do your research and check customer reviews carefully.
What different brands are there?
Here are some of the main brands of car seats available to you.
Founded in the Netherlands in 1984, Maxi-Cosi are one of the most trusted car seat brands. They have a number of infant carriers, forward-facing car seats, convertible and 3 in 1 options.
As a family, we’ve used the same Maxi-Cosi Cabriofix for my daughter (who is now 5) and my son (who is 20 months old). We are very happy with it, particularly on its compatibility with our stroller. It’s super lightweight and when our children were babies it was so easy to keep them in the car seat when we transferred them from the car to the stroller. We later transitioned both of them to the Maxi-Cosi Pearl which is a forward-facing car seat suitable until children are about 4 years old. We were able to use the Maxi-Cosi 2way fix base with both car seats (This seems to have been replaced with the Maxi-Cosi FamilyFix base now.)
- Related Post: Maxi Cosi Cabriofix vs Pebble
This company might not have the worldwide recognition like Maxi Cosi or Graco, but they specialise in making car seats. They are a Norwegian company founded in 1919 where they started off producing horse saddles! However, since 1963 they have been making car seats. They are generally more popular in Europe than in the US.
- Related Post: Maxi Cosi vs Besafe Car Seats
Like Maxi-Cosi, Graco are one of the first brands parents think of when it comes to car seats. The company was founded in1942 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They have a full range of car seat products and they generally receive positive reviews from many customers.
Evenflo aren’t quite as well known as Graco or Maxi-Cosi, but they still produce a number of well designed car seats. The company also has a long history, going way back to 1920 where they specialised in baby feeding products. These days they also produce car seats and other baby products.
- Related Post: Evenflo vs Graco Car Seats.
You might also want to consider Chicco and Britax. They have a number of good options for newborn babies up to older children.
Chart – Popularity of car seat brands
Here’s a chart showing the popularity of car seat brands based on the number of monthly searches in Google.
Car seats – Facts and statistics
Here are some interesting facts about car seats which every parent should read!
- Rear facing car seats are 5 times safer than forward facing ones.
- In a 30mph crash, the force exerted is 50kg in rear facing position, compared to 300kg in a forward facing position.
- The risk of serious injury in a high impact crash; 8% in rear facing, 40% in forward facing.
- In Sweden, children have to be in a rear facing car seat until they are 4, but many parents use them until they are 5 or 6. Between July 2006 and November 2007, no Swedish child under the age of 6 was killed in a car crash. If only other countries could boast such a statistic!
- Rear facing car seats reduce the chances of having a serious injury or death from a car crash by up to 90%.
Other things to consider about car seats
Here are some other aspects you may want to think about when you’re buying a car seat.
Should car seats move side to side?
You may think that car seats should be fixed in a rigid position without any wiggle room, but they are designed to move a little. This is because in the event of a collision the car seat can move with the force, which reduces some of the impact on your baby. However, this movement should not be more than 1 inch.
What’s the difference between LATCH and ISOFIX?
LATCH is a safety system for car seats mainly employed in the US since 2002. It stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH). It involves using lower seat anchors and a tether anchor, which can extend from the car seat to the car roof, floor, or behind the main car seat.
ISOFIX is a safety system used in the EU and UK for infant car seats. The car seat attaches to lower seat anchors which are built into the vehicle. Unlike the LATCH system, there is no tether behind the car seat.
- Related Post: Learn more on the difference between LATCH and ISOFIX
What is i-Size?
i-Size is an EU regulation founded in 2013 which is designed to make car seats easier to fit, safer in side on collisions and to keep infants in a rear facing position for longer (15 months rather than 12). i-Size car seats should fit with the ISOFIX anchors found in most vehicles.
Can baby car seats ruin leather?
Many manufacturers claim that car seats won’t leave any indentations if you have leather seats in your vehicle, unless you install them too tightly. However, in reality car seats and their bases are fairly heavy, with parts sticking out which can easily leave marks. You should really look at car seat covers and use some conditioning product on your leather seats to reduce the risk of marks.
How can you get stains and smells out of your baby’s car seat?
Usually if you act fast, you can clean your baby’s car seat with a damp cloth and a touch of soap or washing up liquid. However, sometimes you may need some baking soda and vinegar. Always check the instruction manual and see what they recommend for spot cleaning and whether the covers are machine washable.
Poop is one of the most unpleasant things to clean up if your baby has an accident in the car. Click here to learn more on how you can remove this.
Do you need a baby car seat cover?
Many families don’t bother with car seat covers for their child’s car seat, but they can be a good idea if you are worried about stains and spills. Just check with the car seat manufacturer so you know if it’s safe to place a cover over the top of the seat and under your child.
Graham is a father of two who founded Dadometer to share his parenting journey with other moms and dads.