Buying the right car seat for your child is maybe one of the most important decisions you can make as a new parent. How tight is tight enough? Front-facing or rear-facing? And how do you install the thing? Every expert we spoke with pointed out that each car seat on the market has passed the same rigorous safety-testing standards, so they’re all — at minimum — equipped to protect your child during a crash. But finding your own best seat depends on the model of your car, your child’s age and weight, and which features make the car seats easier to install correctly and thus safer. (The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration provides a guide to help you figure this out.)
There’s no one-size-fits-all option, which is why we’ve formatted this post a little differently than usual: Instead of naming a best overall pick, we broke the choices down into age groups and types of seats. We asked experts for car-seat recommendations for each stage that would fit a variety of vehicles and lifestyles plus make installation smoother and safer. But ultimately, “the best car seat for any child and family is the car seat that fits the child, fits the car, and that the family will be able to use correctly every time,” says Ben Hoffman, a pediatrician who helps write official American Academy of Pediatrics policies on child-passenger safety.
What we’re looking for
Max weight and height: “From a safety perspective, we recommend that kids stay in the safest car seat until they outgrow it,” says Jennifer Saxton, the founder of Tot Squad and a child-passenger safety technician. “Don’t try to move your kid too quickly to the next car seat because you’re actually decreasing in safety each step you go through that four-car-seat process.” In other words, children should max out the weight or height limit of their current car seat before moving up to the next stage. We listed the maximum weight and height limit of each seat to help you determine which is right for your kid. For car seats that can be used in multiple positions (rear-facing, forward-facing, booster), we listed the weight limits for each.
Price: There are four price points we decided on, denoted as $, $$, $$$, and $$$$, respectively: under $200, under $350, under $500, and over $500.
Best car seats for infants
Best overall car seat for infants
35 pounds, 32 inches | $$
The Uppababy Mesa is a top choice among parents, including Mei Ling Starkey of the blog Family Entourage as well as Saxton and Babylist gear editor Jennifer LaBracio, in large part because it’s easy to install even as your child grows up. “You don’t have to rethread your harness when your child gets bigger,” Starkey says. “You pull the tabs to tighten it and the harness slides right down until it’s right over the child’s shoulder. You can put a tall child in it one day and get a perfect fit or a tiny, tiny child in it the next day.” Parents love that it simply clicks into Uppababy’s Vista and Cruz strollers as well as into the Minu with adapters. (Buying a car seat that matches your stroller is also something our experts recommend.) This car seat can accommodate infants from four to 35 pounds and includes an infant insert and wedge to keep the littlest ones snug and secure.
Best (less expensive) car seat for infants
35 pounds, 32 inches| $$
If you’re looking for a more budget-friendly infant car seat, LaBracio recommends Evenflo’s LiteMax DLX. “It’s consistently a top pick among the child-passenger safety technicians for a safe, affordable infant seat,” she says. “It has a lot of features that are only found in much more expensive seats, like a load leg, which in a seat that’s a hundred dollars is a huge bonus.” (A load leg adds stabilization to the car seat.) Other notable features include a no-rethread harness and adjustable headrest, and it’s lightweight, weighing just under nine pounds, which LaBracio says is “really light” for an infant car seat. It can accommodate infants between four and 35 pounds.
Best midrange car seat for infants
35 pounds, 32 inches | $$
For something in the middle of the two price ranges, the Chicco KeyFit has excellent reviews and was a favorite among the parents we surveyed for its ease of installation. Says Healy, “It’s so darn easy to install.” Allyson Downey, who runs a consumer-review site for child and baby essentials called WeeSpring, says that for her first child, she bought the Chicco KeyFit after doing extensive research. “It had outstanding reviews,” she says. Lauren Brown, Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital’s lead car-seat-safety specialist, says the seat is also a popular choice among parents she works with because the brand has a YouTube video that demonstrates exactly how to install it. LaBracio and Saxton like it, too. Saxton calls it a “tried-and-true, solid car-seat choice.” The Chicco Keyfit 35 is an upgrade of the Keyfit 30 and extends the height and weight limits to 32 inches and 35 pounds, respectively. Other notable features include an anti-rebound bar for added stability, a no-rethread harness and easy-extend harness, and the ability to install the seat without the base for on-the-go travel.
Best splurge car seat for infants
22 pounds, 29 inches | $$
For a truly innovative infant car seat, consider Maxi-Cosi’s Coral XP, which Saxton and LaBracio say is one of the coolest things they’ve seen come out of the car-seat industry in years. The Coral XP is an integrated car seat and carrier in one, featuring a lightweight inner carrier that nests within the hard shell of the car seat and can be removed from the outer carrier and slung over the shoulder by way of an attached cross-body strap. This allows you to remove the baby from the car seat without having to disturb them. “Infant car seats in general are a huge pain to carry around as they’re heavy, bulky, and awkward,” notes LaBracio. “This allows you to pop the insert right out with your baby in it, sling it over your shoulder, and carry it like a weekender bag. It’s amazing. It just makes getting around with your little one in an infant car seat so much easier and quicker and faster.” LaBracio adds that the Coral XP is great for older caregivers who might not be able to carry a big, bulky infant car seat on their own and for running into the store for ten minutes. “You can literally swing this over your shoulder and carry your baby like a bag,” LaBracio says. Saxton agrees, saying, “This is basically like a car seat that you can baby-wear. You can keep the baby close to you, and you don’t have to disturb them and unhook them and do all of those things.”
Best convertible car seats
Best overall convertible car seat for kids
Rear: 40 pounds, 49 inches | Forward: 65 pounds, 49 inches | $$
Convertible car seats, the next step up from an infant car seat, convert from rear-facing to forward-facing modes, and the switch is typically made when your child maxes out of the weight limit of the rear-facing mode. We also suggest the Britax Marathon, which has a ClickTight system that makes it very easy to install in the car. Britax in general was a popular choice among the parents surveyed for this reason. Kenny Fried, the vice-president of Brotman | Winter | Fried tells me, “I swap my car seats from car to minivan, and the extreme simplicity of the ClickTight system is THE feature. Instead of having to thread the seat belt behind the seat and have a pro install it, you lift the inside seat up (like on a hinge) and then pull the seat belt over and click in the seat belt. Takes about 30 seconds to install.” This one also has the no-rethread harness Walker suggested, to fit your child as they grow. LaBracio agrees that the no-rethread harness is a plus. If you wanted even more protection in a crash, you could invest in an attachable anti-rebound bar from Britax that works with its convertible car seats in rear-facing mode; it’s another feature Hoffman recommended for decreasing rebound movement in crashes.
Best (less expensive) convertible car seat for kids
Rear: 40 pounds, 50 inches | Forward: 65 pounds, 50 inches | $
CPS technician instructor Kecia Healy’s pick for an even more affordable (but basic) convertible car seat is the Evenflo Sonus65, which has a rear-facing weight range of five to 40 pounds and a forward-facing weight limit of up to 65 pounds. It also has a compact frame, allowing you to install three of them across most midsize vehicles. “It doesn’t have many bells and whistles, but for less than $100, if you are looking for a spare seat for a second vehicle or a seat that you can travel with,” it’s a good choice, says Healy, who is also a member of the New York State Child Passenger Safety Advisory Board. She adds that it’s worth noting that Evenflo car seats require children to be at least 2 years old to ride forward-facing.
Best midrange convertible car seat for kids
Rear: 50 pounds, child’s head one inch below handle | Forward: 65 pounds, 49 inches | $
LaBracio loves Graco’s Extend2Fit convertible car seat and calls it a “really good value for being under $200.” She likes that it has a high rear-facing weight limit of 50 pounds (with a forward-facing limit of 65 pounds) and says it’s “easy to install, and it’s also a great fit for almost any type of car.” Another notable feature is its four-position adjustable extension panel that gives an extra five inches of legroom, which, as LaBracio notes, means you can have your child seated rear-facing for longer.
Best splurge convertible car seat for kids
Rear: 50 pounds, 49 inches | Forward: 65 pounds, 49 inches | $$$
And if you’re looking for a convertible car seat that does a bit more, consider the Sirona S from Cybex. It’s the first 360-degree rotating car seat to hit the U.S. market, and it swivels from rear- to forward-facing at the touch of a button, allowing parents to get their children out of the seat much more easily. “That feature is really great because it makes it so much easier to get your little one out of the seat, especially when they’re rear-facing,” says LaBracio. This convenience encourages parents to have their kids seated rear-facing longer. Plus, when it’s time for your kid to sit forward-facing, you don’t have to reinstall the whole thing. “You just literally flip the button, swivel the seat back around, and boom,” she says. It also offers an on-the-go recline function, allowing you to adjust the seat up to 12 different positions even when the child is in the seat. The Bump deputy editor Ashlee Neuman, who calls the swivel function “truly innovative,” mentions the safety features as “particularly impressive”: “The load leg stabilizes the car seat, the anti-rebound panel reduces rebound movement in the event of a crash, its linear side impact protection absorbs impact forces, and the SensorSafe chest clip alerts you to a number of unsafe situations (like if you happen to forget baby in the back of the car).”
Best all-in-one car seats
Best overall all-in-one car seat
Rear: 50 pounds, 49 inches | Forward: 65 pounds, 49 inches | Booster: 120 pounds, 63 inches | $$$
All-in-one car seats — seats that convert from infant rear-facing to forward-facing to booster mode, allowing a child to use it from birth to 4 years old and older and up to 120 pounds in weight — are gaining in popularity because of their one-and-done quality. (Instead of buying two or three separate car seats — infant, convertible, and booster — over the course of your child’s first years, the thinking with an all-in-one is that you can buy just one and save money in the process.) However, it should be noted that one of the experts we spoke to wasn’t so keen on them, hypothesizing that the misuse rate of all-in-one car seats is higher than on other car seats; there are so many features and parts that they’re harder to get right. And if you’re going to use one car seat over the course of ten years or so, you should expect to do some work to keep it clean.
Even with those caveats, there are a couple of models out there that are worth mentioning, including Britax’s One4Life ClickTight car seat, which is Neuman’s pick for the best all-in-one car seat. “It’s easy to install thanks to the color-coded belt paths, recline angle indicators, and the brand’s ClickTight technology,” she says. Saxton, who also loves Britax’s ClickTight line, agrees: “That is what I recommend to my personal friends and family.” She adds, “Installing a car seat with a ClickTight system is the easiest car-seat installation on the planet.” And it’s also easy to use once it’s installed, says Neuman, citing its “15 head and neck positions, nine recline positions, and a no-rethread harness.” Plus, like many other all-in-one car seats, it can grow with your child through age 10 as it’s rear-facing from five to 50 pounds, forward-facing from 22 to 65 pounds, and, in booster mode, can accommodate a child that weighs between 40 and 120 pounds.
Best (less expensive) all-in-one car seat for kids
Rear: 50 pounds, 48 inches | Forward: 65 pounds, 49 inches | Booster: 120 pounds, 57 inches | $
Healy is a fan of Evenflo’s EveryStage DLX all-in-one car seat for its even more affordable price and the fact that it uses the brand’s EasyClick Latch system for a tight installation, which she calls “awesome.” It’s rear-facing from four to 50 pounds, forward-facing from 22 to 65 pounds, and, in the high-back booster mode, can accommodate up to 120 pounds.
Best midrange all-in-one car seat for kids
Rear: 50 pounds, child’s head one inch below handle | Forward: 65 pounds, 49 inches | Booster: 120 pounds, 47 inches | $$$
It’s not much cheaper than the best overall Britax above, but Saxton and LaBracio both mention that Graco’s 4Ever all-in-one car seat is gaining in popularity among parents. It’s suitable for use for babies starting at four pounds (with a 50-pound rear-facing limit) and up to 120 pounds in the booster mode. It also has a six-position recline, a feature LaBracio especially likes.
Best splurge all-in-one car seat for kids
Rear: 50 pounds, no height provided | Forward: 65 pounds, no height provided | Booster: 120 pounds, 57 inches | $$$$
“Nuna is really big in the car seat market all of a sudden,” says LaBracio. Saxton agrees, saying that Nuna fans are “die hard.” Both say this car seat will most likely be a popular choice among Nuna fans. “One of my colleagues is testing it out right now, and she loves it so far,” says LaBracio. “She said that it was really easy to install, that the material is beautiful and wipes clean really easily, and that the padding is really soft.” It can be used from birth (starting at five pounds in rear-facing mode) and up to 120 pounds as a booster.
Best booster car seat
100 pounds, 57” | $$$
Booster seats are the last stage in car seats, which is typically going to start around the ages of 7 to 10 years old, though the weight limit for them is around 110 pounds. Some booster seats will be high-back only, backless boosters, or can convert between the two modes; this Clek Oobr one, which Saxton recommends, is the latter. “What I always recommend is a booster with lower anchors, so it attaches to the car,” says Saxton. This model has a rigid latch system, so it’s easy to use, and it has energy-absorbing foam. She also cites the fact that it reclines, so your kid can take a nap. “It’s got some of the best crash-test results and has a high weight limit too.” Neuman agrees, saying, “The safety is outstanding.” LaBracio also likes the Oobr, saying Clek in general makes very durable, well-thought-out products, but she notes that it is an expensive brand.
Best car seats for traveling
While the best and safest car seats are typically sturdier, they’re usually not lightweight, which is why many parents end up buying a separate one for traveling in cars and planes. Saxton adds that for car travel, rental car seats are a no-go because you never know their history (like whether they’re expired, dirty, or damaged). Here, our experts recommend some popular lightweight portable car seats, most of which comply with Federal Aviation Administration standards (if not, we’ve indicated so). Saxton and LaBracio add that it’s always safer for your child to travel on an airplane in a car seat than sitting on your lap (something the American Association of Pediatrics, Federal Aviation Administration, and National Transportation Safety Board recommend travelers do), even if that means buying an extra seat (children under 2 are not legally required to use a car seat in an airplane and usually ride for free). “They strap down peanuts in a plane — why not your baby?” LaBracio says.
Best all-in-one car seat for traveling
35 pounds, 32 inches | $$$$
For an all-in-one traveling unit, you can’t beat the Doona infant car seat and stroller (it’s basically a car seat and stroller in one). Charlie Stein, brand-relations manager at Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, says that he used the Doona for his firstborn and that it made being a first-time parent much easier. “I have had multiple people ask me what it is, particularly because the Doona fits perfectly in airplane seats, and I say ‘Transformers for adults.’” He adds that for car travel, it’s very easy to install, and it clicks to let you know that the car seat is locked in. It does run slightly expensive at $500 for the seat and stroller, but for the streamlined traveling experience, it could be well worth the investment. Saxton, who used it as her everyday car seat (and stroller) when her baby was an infant, agrees, saying that its convenience cannot be beat. One note: Healy says that there’s a bunch of counterfeit and knockoff car seats in today’s market, and fake Doonas are especially a problem. As with all things, she recommends doing your due diligence and purchasing your car seat from reputable retailers.