Lucky for you, we scoured the internet to find the top-rated car seats on the market in 2021.
And here’s a mama to mama recommendation: Don’t leave this baby to-do for last. You’ll need a car seat to bring baby home from the hospital, so it’s a good call to install your car seat well ahead of time, to make sure you get the hang of it and just in case your little one makes an early appearance.
Let’s Talk About:
- What to look for in a car seat
- Infant car seat vs convertible car seat: what’s the difference?
- Do you need an infant seat?
- Car seat safety basics
- How to install a car seat
- Best infant car seat: Chicco KeyFit 30
- Best convertible car seat: Graco 4Ever DLX 4-in-1 Convertible
- Best travel car seat: Costco Scenera Next
- Best stroller combo car seat: UPPAbaby Mesa Infant Car Seat
- Top Safety Rated car seat: Cybex Aton 2
- Best rotating car seat: Sirona S by Cybex
- Don’t forget the accessories!
What to Look For in a Car Seat
When you’re choosing the best car seat for your baby, you’ll want to keep things like safety rating, your budget, and your family’s needs in mind. Here are some additional features to look for:
- Function. Right off the bat, it can help you narrow down your car seat search if you know what type of purpose you have in mind for your car seat–is it something you need for your primary vehicle that won’t be moved around a lot? Or is it a seat that will be transported a lot, meaning a more lightweight option might make more sense?
- Safety. All car seats sold in the U.S. have to meet basic federal safety standards, but there are additional safety tests and ratings performed by individual car seat manufacturers as well as independent testing agencies, like Consumer Reports.
- Size. Car seats can vary quite a bit in size and if you have a smaller vehicle, or need to fit 3 car seats across in your back seat, size is going to be an important consideration. Check both the depth and width of the seat to be sure it will actually fit–and don’t forget to account for an older child who needs access to a buckle if needed.
- Cleanability. Honestly, we’re not even sure that’s a real word, but let’s go with it, because learning your car seat is impossible to clean is not something you want to learn the hard way–trust me on that one. So look carefully if the seat fabric can be easily removed and thrown in the washing machine, if the straps are removable and washable, if all those tiny crevices can be vacuumed, and if snack holders–while convenient–can be taken off and washed. You’ve been warned.
Infant Car Seat vs Convertible Car Seat
If you have heard the terms “convertible car seat” and infant car seat and aren’t totally sure what the difference between the two is–don’t worry. It can be confusing at first.
Essentially, an infant car seat is any kind of car seat with a handle that can move in and out of the vehicle, while a convertible car seat does not have a handle and stays secured into the vehicle at all times. If you register for a travel system for your baby shower, you will get a stroller with an infant car seat and base for your car; many strollers have a feature that allows an infant car seat to click directly into the stroller.
Infant car seats can only be used for newborns and young babies (the seat will specify height and weight limits), while convertible seats can be used from the newborn stage up through toddlers, and some even convert into booster seats. If you choose to buy an infant car seat, eventually, once your baby outgrows it, you will have to purchase a convertible car seat as well.
Do You Really Need an Infant Car Seat?
The short answer is, absolutely if you plan on going anywhere outside of your house on a regular basis with your baby in the early weeks and months. Even if you only plan on dropping your older kids off at school or just taking a few quick walks around the neighborhood, an infant car seat can be an absolute lifesaver for easy in-and-outs of your vehicle or transportation.
Having an infant car seat can also be convenient because it provides a separate area for your baby when you’re out and about in public, away from prying eyes, hands, and wayward air droplets. I always appreciated using the infant seat while visiting the doctor’s office, for example, and knowing that she was protected with her car seat cover on away from any germs.
All that said, however, you don’t need an infant car seat if you plan on mainly hanging out at home. A convertible car seat can absolutely work for a newborn–you’ll just have to be comfortable transporting them in and out on your own and potentially using a baby carrier if needed instead of a stroller.
Car Seat Safety Basics
We always recommend that you get your car seat officially inspected and installed by a licensed car seat technician (you can search for one local in your area, or ask your pediatrician for recommendations), but you can keep this general car seat safety tips in mind as you travel with your little one:
- Keep your child rear-facing as long as possible. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) official stance on rear-facing is that children should be in a rear-facing car seat until they outgrow the car seat’s restrictions for rear-facing. Most of the time, car seats are designed to be rear-facing until around age 2, but more car seats are now on the market that allow for extended rear-facing even through the preschool years.
- Make sure the safety harness is adjusted correctly. You’ve heard of the “car seat police” of social media and while are in full support that no-mama shaming is ever allowed, we also value the importance of educating all parents on car seat safety. Your child’s car seat harness should never be twisted or bunched up and always lay flat across their chest, fitting snugly. Imagine a line that extends from each armpit: that’s where the car seat straps should always be positioned. Your car seat manual will include detailed instructions and Consumer Reports has an excellent guide and visuals on car seat harness safety if you need more guidance.
- Beware of the danger of hot cars. You have probably heard about the danger of leaving kids in cars and thought, “Well that will never happen to me!” but it’s always best to be prepared with a plan to lessen the risks. Make a habit of checking in with your partner or caregiver whenever someone is traveling with the baby, stash your phone in the backseat near the car seat so you have a safeguard, or use an app or car seat with technology with a reminder. Having a plan in place will help give you all peace of mind.
- Never leave a sleeping baby in a car seat. This is a tough one to hear, I know, because many of us have done it as parents, but the AAP recommends that you should never leave a baby sleeping in a car seat. Obviously, there’s not much you can do if you’re driving and your baby falls asleep, but be sure to institute safety checks to monitor their breathing–especially for newborns–and move your baby to a separate, flat sleeping surface as soon as possible.
- Don’t dress your baby in winter coats, snow suits, or bulky clothing. The AAP explains that anything bulky–such as a winter coat or even a thick jacket–could interfere with the fit of your baby’s car seat straps, so they should be avoided. Only thin jackets and clothing can be used in the car seat. For cold weather months, preheat your vehicle or use a car seat cover or blanket over the car seat to keep your baby warm. (Just be sure not to leave the blanket on them unattended, as that could pose a suffocation risk.)
How to Install a Car Seat
You should always follow the instructions that come with your car seat for proper installation, as the directions do vary based on the type of latch, seat belt placement, and sometimes, vehicle that you have. If you have acquired a used car seat (it’s always recommended that you buy new, just as a reminder!), you can usually find the manual and instructions for the model online. And when in doubt, we recommend visiting the NHTSA site for full installation safety tips. They have tons of helpful information, from a tool to find a local car seat safety inspector to a guide on checking if your vehicle will fit the car seat you’re planning on purchasing.
Now that you’re equipped with all the information you could possibly want to know about car seats (maybe more than you wanted?), let’s dive in to Truly Mama’s picks for the best car seats of the year.
Truly Mama’s Picks for Best Car Seats
Best Infant Car Seat
The Chicco KeyFit 35 looks and feels the same as its predecessor—the popular KeyFit 30—but this upgrade boasts added features that accommodate your child for longer. Your infant can safely use the KeyFit 35 up to 35 pounds and 32 inches.
Chicco KeyFit 35 Infant Car Seat Features
- It’s simple and easy to install. When the carrier is properly inserted in the base, you’ll hear the tell-tale “click.” The easy-to-read level lets you know when the seat has been properly positioned.
- Top safety features. In addition to the LATCH system, this infant car seat includes an anti-rebound bar. This prevents additional car seat movement in the event of a crash. The additional height and weight limit also means your child can stay rear-facing for longer.
- Slim fit. This car seat has a narrower design than some and fits well in smaller vehicles. The KeyFit 35 is a good option if you require three car seats across.
- Additional features: removable, washable seat cover; no-rethread harness; fits in most strollers with the KeyFit adapter
Things to Consider
The KeyFit 35 is difficult to install using only a seat belt. So unless you plan on purchasing multiple bases or moving the base each time, this car seat isn’t the best option for switching between cars.
Chicco also makes a GREENGUARD Gold Certified version of this car seat: KeyFit 35 Zip ClearTex Infant Car Seat. This certification means the materials in this product produce low chemical emissions. This car seat is also one of the easiest to clean, featuring an easily removable, machine-washable cover.
Best Convertible Car Seat
The Britax One4Life will safely take your child from birth to big kid. (I know, it’s hard to imagine, but it will happen!) If you’re looking to purchase only one car seat, definitely consider this one!
Britax One4Life ClickTight All-in-One Features:
- Extended height and weight limits. Rear-facing limits: 5 to 50 lbs or 49″ (whichever comes first); Front-facing limits: 22 to 65 lbs; Booster limits: 40 to 120 lbs or 63″ (whichever comes first)
- Easy installation. The ClickTight system is unique to Britax car seats. Users access it under the seat pad in order to thread the seat belt for a tight front-facing fit. In the rear-facing position, this one features the LATCH system.
- Lots of adjustable positions. This seat reclines in 9 different positions to ensure your baby is at a developmentally appropriate angle. Additionally, the straps and headrest move together to 15 different positions. You’ll never have to rethread the straps as your child grows.
- Washable. The cover is machine washable and the removable cupholders are dishwasher safe.
Things to Think About
One of the only negative things users have to say about this is the weight limit. A 120-pound limit seems like a dream to a parent, but older children who haven’t hit that limit might feel a bit self-conscious. The Britax One4Life might take you so far, and then your child may ask to switch to a backless booster.
Best Travel Car Seat
The Cosco Scenera NEXT is an affordable and ultra-lightweight car seat that’s a good option for those on a strict budget. However, it’s also a worthwhile purchase for avid travelers looking for a car seat they can bring on an airplane and/or use in rental cars while abroad. It would also make a smart buy if you need a second or even third car seat for your partner or another caregiver to cart around.
Learn More About the Cosco Scenera NEXT:
- Dimensions: 6.8 lbs, 17.63 x 15.75 x 30.25 inches
- Weight limit: can fit a child from 5 to 40 pounds and up to 40 inches in height rear-facing
- Can be used forward-facing from 22-40 pounds
- 3 buckle positions
The affordable price of this car seat means that you won’t find bells and whistles here: it’s a pretty basic car seat. And some parents have said that little ones outgrow it relatively quickly because of limited recline options and low shoulder straps, but it boasts high reviews on all retailer websites and has strong safety ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It also fits comfortably three-across in most backseats, so it’s a great option for growing families.
“Love this car seat. I got this to put in my car so I did not have to keep exchanging my daughters back and forth. This seat is wonderful. The material is soft and all those sticky treats wash right off. There are no crevices that food or liquid can get stuck into, plus the cover easily comes off so you can throw it into the washing machine.”–Walmart.com reviewer
Best Stroller Combo Car Seat
This Graco travel system scored almost perfect tens across the board in durability, flexibility, and ease of construction. The included Graco infant car seat is the SnugRide 35 Lite Elite, which is rear-facing from 4-35 pounds and up to 32 inches. This car seat also includes an anti-rebound bar (for extra safety measures during a crash) and a headrest and harness that adjust together.
Graco Modes Nest2Grow Travel System Features:
- 4 Strollers in 1. While the car seat is specifically for infants, the stroller can grow with your needs. There are 15+ ways to configure this stroller. It can be used as an infant car seat carrier, an infant carry cot, a toddler stroller, and a double stroller! That’s right—this expands into a double stroller for anyone planning to grow their family. The system includes everything you need to expand the stroller from a single to a double.
- Adjustable seat positions. The stroller seat is reversible so your child can face you or the world. The Slide2Me seat adjusts to three different height positions for optimal views of baby smiles. It also features an adjustable handle for the comfort of different users.
- Compact fold. The Modes stroller features a one-step mechanism to fold it into a self-standing compact position that’s easy to store.
Best Car Seat in Safety Ratings
According to BuyersGuide.org, the car seat with the highest safety rating is the Graco 4Ever DLX 4-in-1 Toddler Car Seat. With an impressive 9.9 safety score, this convertible car seat exceeds all safety standards. Safety features include a steel-reinforced frame, a 5-point harness, side-impact protection, and energy-absorbing foam.
Aside from safety, the Graco 4Ever DXL has a ton of other things going for it.
Graco 4Ever DLX 4-in-1 Features:
- 4 Car Seats in 1. Like other convertible car seats, this one grows with your child. It goes from rear-facing, forward-facing, high-back booster, to backless booster and can accommodate children from 4 to 120 lbs.
- Easy installation and adjustments. In addition to the InRight LATCH system, this car seat also has clear labels and indications to ensure proper, easy installation. Like many of the other car seats above, the Graco 4Ever has a no-rethread harness for quick adjustments.
- Comfortable and Cleanable. Plush padding and multiple recline positions give added comfort to this car seat as do the adjustable harness and headrest. The RapidRemove cover comes off without uninstalling the seat and is machine-washable.
Best Rotating Car Seat
A rotating car seat is a beautiful thing. It just makes life a little bit easier. When it’s time to put your child in the car, swivel the seat toward you, buckle them in, rotate it back, and go! Rotating car seats are especially helpful when your child is rear-facing.
The Evevnflo Revovle360 Extend is an upgraded version that allows for extended rear-facing time. While most car seats have a rear-facing weight limit of 40 lbs, the Revolve360 Extend is safe for children up to 50 lbs in the rear-facing position. The 360-degree rotation technology is easy enough to maneuver with just one hand!
Evenflo Revolve360 Extend All-in-One Features
- It grows with your child. Not only is the rear-facing limit extended, but this seat also converts to a front-facing and booster seat for children up to 120 lbs.
- Once-and-done install. Most car seats require you to reinstall it once the child outgrows the rear-facing position. The Revovle360 Extend only needs to be installed once. Simply rotate it to the forward-facing position when the time comes without the hassle of unbuckling anything.
- On-the-go recline. This car seat reclines just like any non-rotational car seat. No need to do anything special to adjust the recline for your child’s comfort.
- High safety rating. The Revolve360 Extend is tested at energy levels roughly 2x the federal crash test standard and exceeds those safety standards. In addition, it’s rollover tested, temperature tested, and side impact tested.
Let's See How They Stack Up
Chicco KeyFit 35
28" x 16.5" x 24"
Britax One4Life Clicktight All-in-One Convertible Car Seat
20.5 x 19.5 x 25''
Cosco Scenera Next
17.63 x 15.75 x 30.25"
Graco Modes Nest2Grow Travel System
50.38 x 26.38 x 50.25''
Graco 4Ever DLX 4-in-1
20 x 21.5 x 24''
Evenflo Revolve350 Extend
21 x 19.8 x 25.9''
Don’t Forget the Accessories
While you should never add anything to your baby’s car seat that it doesn’t come with (it could make the seat unsafe or cause it not to work properly), there are some accessories you might want to consider including for your vehicle that could make for a smoother ride. Here are some useful items to have on hand:
- Hand Sanitizer. Hand sanitizer with a pump for easy dispensing makes it convenient for the whole family.
- Emergency packet of diaper, wipes, and an extra outfit. Create a car emergency stash with this quick-change kit, add in a few spare diapers, and an old onesie, and you’re all set for unforeseen diaper blowouts.
- Mirror for the seat. I finally got a car seat mirror for my baby’s seat headrest so I could see her baby’s face from the driver’s seat. It was a life-saver when I had to take a long drive solo with her and needed to make sure she was safe.
- Infant car seat cover (only to be used outside of the car, of course)
- Over-the-seat organizer. This is a great place to stash those emergency wipes, spare toys, outfits, or snacks.
- Extra floor rug or mat. I bought a cheap black rug for the middle aisle of my minivan (yes, I’m a minivan mom and I’m proud of it) and it’s incredibly useful for toddlers tromping in and out.
- Car seat cover. This is a great option to shield your baby from the wind and sun during transportation. You can even get one that will double as a nursing cover!
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