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
This car seat is designed to be used with a Chicco travel system, but it can also be used as a stand-alone infant seat with an included vehicle base. It includes a removable newborn insert that will make your baby extra comfy in the early weeks, but can be taken out as they grow. One nice feature of the Chicco KeyFit 30 is that the seat cover, newborn inserts, and shoulder pads are machine-washable.
Chicco KeyFit 30 Infant Car Seat Details:
- Weighs 9.2 lbs.
- Dimensions: 24 inches (height) x 17 inches (width) x 27.5 inches (depth)
- Can be used for babies 4 to 30 pounds and up to 30 inches in height
- Force-multiplying LATCH tightener for easy fastening
- Bubble leveler to ensure the seat is reclined correctly
- One-pull harness tightening
In front-impact crash testing, this infant car seat is among the safest, and it’s also relatively lightweight (you’ll be thankful when baby gains a few pounds). Hundreds of 5-star reviews on Amazon praise the Chicco KeyFit 30’s easy click-in and out system, high-quality fabric that is easily removed for washing, and compact yet comfortable design.
“The reason I purchased the KeyFit 30 was because every baby website says that this is the easiest carseat to operate and use. I can’t speak to other manufacturers of course (as I haven’t tried them) but the Chicco KeyFit works as billed. Installing the car seat adapter in my car was super easy – helped by the fact that modern cars have the tools built into the seat to latch in the seat. The adapter has a bubble level to assist with install. If the bubble is off, they have provided an accessory on the back of the adapter to level it, very useful. Getting the seat in and out is super easy. I do find that reattaching the zip attachments (the hood and the pseudo-blanket) are a bit challenging, not impossible just challenging. The car seat is super comfortable.”–Todd, Amazon review
Best Convertible Car Seat
The Graco 4Ever DLX is just what it claims to be: 4 carseats all in one. You can use it right from the newborn stage, all the way up until your baby becomes a “big kid.” (I know, it’s hard to imagine, but it will happen!)
Graco 4Ever DLX 4-in-1 Convertible Features:
- Seat dimensions: 22.75 lbs, 20 x 21.5 x 24 inches
- Specifications: Can hold a child from 4 to 120 lbs., up to 10 years
- 6-position recline
- Seat fabric can be removed in under 60 seconds (without taking out the car seat!) and is completely machine-washable, which is totally amazing
- Seat can be used as a rear-facing harness car seat (4-40 pounds), a forward-facing harness car seat (22 – 65 pounds), a high back belt positioning booster (40-100 pounds), and finally, a backless belt positioning booster (40 – 120 pounds)
Parents say this seat is super comfy. The only negative mentioned is that the seat is on the heavier side (understandably) and some reviews mention that it’s trickier to install, but once it’s in there, you’re set for life.
“This car seat is better than I expected. Its got enough room for my daughter to grow and is really easy to install. My favorite feature is the head rest how it can be adjusted to fit exactly to my daughter’s size. The cushions in the seat make it super comfortable so my daughter isn’t uncomfortable.”–Amber Cox on Amazon
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
It’s hard to know where to start with the features of the UPPAbaby Mesa car seat. First of all, it installs in seconds and it has a parent-friendly indicator on the base that will turn green when you’ve installed it correctly and at the right position.
Using the car seat outside of the vehicle is also very easy–it clicks in and out of Uppababy’s Vista stroller without an adaptor. It can be used with the stroller in an outward or parent-facing position, and features one of the best SPF shade canopies on any car seat. Plus, it has major street cred as the only car seat to pass federal safety ratings without the use of flame retardant chemicals.
The combo also comes with a toddler stroller seat, bug net, rain cover, and a comfy bassinet that’s approved for overnight sleep (so you can snap it onto the stroller for naps, or purchase the bassinet stand and keep it bedside). The Vista stroller’s claim to fame is that it can accommodate a toddler and newborn at the same time, but the Mesa also attaches adaptor-free to the UPPAbaby Cruz stroller, a more compact option for solo-child families.
UPPAbaby Mesa Car Seat Features:
- Weighs 9.9 lbs, 37 x 36 x 25 inches
- Can be used for a baby 4 to 35 lbs. and up to 32 inches in height
- Side impact protection
- No rethread harness
Despite all of its features and its popularity among the celebrity crowd, be warned that the UPPAbaby Mesa car seat-stroller combo also comes with a higher price, over $1,170 for the pair, so t’s definitely an investment you’ll want to be sure of before you buy.
“Best infant seat! So easy to install. Easy to access videos for reference. App with great info. Worth the money for sure. I’ve had other car seats and this is by far the best. Took just 2 minutes to install with the latch system.”–Amazon review
Best Car Seat in Safety Ratings
German engineering translates to high-tech safety features in the Cybex Aton 2 Sensor Safe like a unique side-impact protection system and an adjustable load leg that absorbs and distributes force away from precious cargo while still being lightweight. Installation is easy, which also equates to added safety, since an alarming percentage of car seats are not installed properly.
Along with safety in a crash, the Cybex also has a “smart” chest clip, so it will alert your phone if it senses an unsafe situation in the harness, such as the clips becoming unfastened, if you leave the baby in the car, or if the temperature becomes too hot or too cold. One other smart feature? A designer canopy is extra-long with UPF to block out all harsh weather for baby.
Features of the Cybex Aton 2:
- Weighs 9.3 lbs, 25 in length, 17.25” height
- Can hold a child from 4 to 35 lbs. and up to 30 inches in height (approximately the size of an 18-month-old)
- Removable newborn insert
- Smart chest clip
- XL canopy
- Load leg base
This car seat is on on the pricier side, but if it’s within budget, there’s no reason not to opt for this luxurious car seat with a 5-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and top marks from multiple independent crash tests. Also, if you plan on utilizing the smart chest clip, you’ll need to check that it’s compatible with your car: it will work in most cars from 2008 and newer, or those with a OBD II port.
“Great baby car seat. It’s easy to put the seat in and out of the car. The straps on the seat are easy to use and adjust. The whole set up time was amazingly short and assuring. the design and features give assurance that my son is safe in his car seat. I have recommended it to all my friends.”–Target.com review
Best Rotating Car Seat
Oh, look, it’s another super innovative car seat by Cybex–we are starting to see a trend here. Like the Cybex Aton 2, the Cybex Sirona S SensorSafe is also packed with safety features, such as a chest clip featuring SensorSafe 2.0 technology, that connects to both your car and smartphone to alert you of unsafe conditions arise.
But the Sirona takes safety even one step further: it can even call emergency services to prevent a car seat death and has linear Side-Impact Protection (L.S.P.) to absorb 25% more force in a side-impact collision and a 12-position height adjustable headrest with an integrated no-thread, five-point padded harness. Installation is also a breeze, and only requires a one-time vehicle belt installation for both rear-facing and forward-facing modes. Not too shabby, right?
But personally, my absolute favorite feature of this car seat is the magnetic buckle holders. There is nothing more difficult than trying to wrangle a toddler into a car seat, only to discover that the harness straps are shoved underneath their tiny, diapered butt and you have to start the entire process over again. The magnets let you place the buckle straps securely aside while you get your child in, then fasten them. Genius.
Cybex Sirona S SensorSafe Details:
- Weighs 30.4 lbs; 25.5″ x 20″ x 25″ dimensions
- Can hold: a 5–40 lb. rear-facing with included infant insert; or a 22–65 lb. or 49″ tall child in forward-facing mode
- Like the Anton, it features the load leg brace for extra stability
- Magnetic buckle holders
- 12-position recline
- Steel-reinforced frame
Despite its sleek look, be sure you don’t mistake the Sirona for an infant seat–it’s actually a convertible car seat, so you won’t be able to take in and out of a vehicle base. And be prepared for a pretty steep price for all the luxury and safety feature you’ll get with this pick.
“Love this car seat! So easy on my back and easy to install also not as big as I thought. A lot of reviews said it was extremely big and I don’t think so at all I gave a 2014 equinox & it fits perfect!!”–BuyBuyBaby review
Let's See How They Stack Up
Chicco Keyfit 30
24 x 17 x 27.5"
Graco 4ever DLX
20 x 21.5 x 24"
Cosco Scenera Next
17.63 x 15.75 x 30.25"
37 x 36 x 25"
Cybex Aton 2
25 ̋ L x 17.25 ̋ W x 15.25 ̋ H
Cybex Sirona S
25.5″L x 20″ W x 25″ H
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.
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Reviewed by Chaunie Brusie, RN, BSN…