Photo by Marianne Merawi
With all the choices out there, it can be hard to know what car seat will be best. All seats sold in the United States pass the same strict crash tests and are considered safe; the "safest seat" is the one that fits your child, fits your vehicle, and that you will be able to install and use correctly every time.
Most parents start with an infant carrier-type seat and move the baby into a rear-facing convertible seat when they outgrow the infant seat, but there's nothing wrong with using a convertible right from the beginning, provided it fits your little one appropriately. Convertible seats get the name from the fact that they can face the rear of the vehicle, and then "convert" to forward-facing when the child outgrows the rear-facing mode.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the NHTSA recommend that children remain rear-facing until age 2, and as close to age 4 as possible. Rear-facing is five times safer than forward-facing for young children. Fortunately, all of the seats featured here will allow the average child to rear-face until age 4, and will accommodate virtually any child until at least age 2.
So before you go shopping, take a look at these options. One of them may be exactly what you're looking for.
The Safety 1st Guide 65 is a popular choice for parents who want to keep their children rear-facing longer, without paying a premium price. Like many much more expensive convertible seats, the Guide 65 can be used rear facing until the child reaches either 40 pounds or 40 inches—the height and weight of an average 4-year-old. It includes some nice features, like a headrest that can be raised and lowered for the child’s comfort.
Relatively narrow One of the least expensive seats that will accommodate the average child to age 4 rear-facing (American Academy of Pediatrics and NHTSA recommend rear-facing to at least age 2 and as close to age 4 as possible) Compact front-to-back for babies over 22 pounds Made in the USA
Deep recline required for babies under 22 pounds Not very padded Can be difficult to install rear-facing Won’t fit newborns
Photo by Marianne Merawi
Here it is: the elusive “all-in-one” that actually does it all well. The Safety 1st Elite 80 Air is the only seat of this type available. While other seats also claim to be all-in-one and say they’re “the only seat you’ll ever need,” they tend to fall short in one regard or another. The Elite 80 is likely to fit average-size newborns appropriately; it can be used rear-facing until 40 inches or 40 pounds; forward-facing until 52 inches or 80 pounds, and as a belt-positioning booster up to 57 inches or 100 pounds. While you would need a backless booster seat once your child outgrows the Elite 80 in booster mode, those are quite inexpensive, so you could potentially get a great value out of the Elite 80. On the other hand, this seat takes up an enormous amount of space both in width and depth, particularly rear-facing. It would be a poor choice for small or even mid-size vehicles. If it’s a good fit for your car, though, the Elite 80 is definitely one to consider.
Only car seat currently on the US market that can rear-face, forward-face, AND function well as a belt-positioning booster Cushy and comfortable No-rethread harness makes straps easy to adjust Built-in cup holders Made in the USA
Very heavy, wide, and bulky Expensive Straps can be stiff and hard to tighten Requires significant recline which takes up a lot of front-to-back space
Chicco is a relative newcomer to the US convertible car seat market. The NextFit arrived last year and has quickly become a favorite amongst parents interested in long-lasting seats for extended rear-facing. Its tall shell will allow almost any child to rear-face until they reach 40 pounds, which is the weight of an average 4-year-old. The NextFit is also surprisingly compact front-to-back and will fit well in most vehicles. As a bonus, it has a really cool space-age look to it, so your little one can feel safe, comfortable, and highly futuristic all at once.
High height and weight limits for both rear- and forward-facing (American Academy of Pediatrics and NHTSA recommend rear-facing to at least age 2 and as close to age 4 as possible) Very easy to install Multiple recline options to achieve a comfortable angle for child Compact front to back – allows for extended rear facing in very small vehicles No-rethread harness makes straps easy to adjust Adjustable headrest makes seat more compact for smaller children and then can extend as they grow Lock-offs make seat belt installation easier Sleek-looking and comfortable Fits most newborns well
Difficult to tighten harness High sides can make it hard to get child in and out of seat Heavy Expensive
Photo by Marianne Merawi
Maxi-Cosi seats are popular in Europe, and parent company Dorel has introduced a few to the US market in recent years as well. Their sleek, stylish seats have also done well here in the States, and the Pria is no exception. Its thick padding seems very comfortable, and it has a sliding headrest and adjustable recline for an easier install. It is relatively compact front-to-back and likely to fit well in most vehicles. Along with most of the other seats by Dorel, it is made in the USA, whereas most other brands of child restraints are manufactured in China. While it isn’t the longest-lasting seat on the market as far as fitting larger and taller children, it is a good choice for parents who want a quality car seat that is safe, comfortable, and easy on the eyes.
No-rethread harness makes straps easy to adjust Will accommodate the average child to age 4 rear-facing (American Academy of Pediatrics and NHTSA recommend rear-facing to at least age 2 and as close to age 4 as possible) Adjustable headrest makes seat more compact for smaller children and then can extend as they grow Comfortable fabric and stylish design TinyFit option provides good fit for preemies and small newborns Strap covers to prevent straps from irritating child's neck Built-in cup holder Made in the USA
Harness is initially stiff, difficult to tighten and adjust High sides can make it hard to get child in and out of seat Relatively wide and heavy Expensive Despite recline options, may need pool noodles or rolled towels to achieve appropriate angle
When Diono (then called Sunshine Kids) designed the Radian, they clearly thought outside the box. The Radian family of seats includes three different models (the R100, R120, and RXT) that share some rare, clever, and very useful features. They are narrow, which makes them easy to fit 3-across, even if you don’t drive a tank (as in, I’ve heard of people fitting three of them across the back of a Civic—they’re that narrow). Radians are also low-profile; the lower sides facilitate easy loading and unloading of the child, and they are particularly handy in two-door cars where space to maneuver a baby up and over the side is limited. All models of the Radian also fold flat and can be carried backpack-style or with an included shoulder strap, making them a great choice for travel (that is, if you’re pretty strong—the seat weighs in at around 30 pounds).
The RXT model provides some extras not found on the other, less expensive Radians. It has memory foam padding, head wings for extra side-impact protection, an infant insert, and a cup holder. Parents of heavier children will be attracted by the 45-pound rear-facing weight limit, 5 pounds higher than the vast majority of other convertibles. On the downside, some people—myself included—find the ratcheting harness-adjusting mechanism difficult to tighten adequately. Overall though, if you can afford the rather hefty price tag, the Radian RXT is one of the best-quality and longest-lasting convertible seats available; try it and you’re almost certain to love it.
Very narrow – can fit 3 across in many mid-size cars Plush and comfortable Low sides make it easy to get child in and out of the seat With angle adjuster (sold separately and for use with babies who can sit unassisted and have good head control) is compact enough to fit rear-facing in almost any car High height and weight limits for both rear- and forward-facing (American Academy of Pediatrics and NHTSA recommend rear-facing to at least age 2 and as close to age 4 as possible) Folds up and comes with a shoulder strap for travel Will fit average-size newborns
Very expensive Ratcheting harness mechanism is difficult to operate Low rear-facing belt path can make installation tricky Difficult to attach cup holder Not useful as a booster—the booster mode is outgrown at the same height as the five-point harness Heavy
Photo by Marianne Merawi