Your Guide to the Perfect Toddler Car Seat
Your baby is getting so big! So, it stands to reason that you might be thinking it’s time to trade your infant car seat for one that’s more toddler-friendly. But what makes a car seat toddler-friendly? And, more importantly, what makes a car seat toddler-safe? Here, we break it down for you:
The Three Types of Toddler Car Seats
First, a little rewind to when you bought your very first car seat—you got one of these three types:
- Infant-only car seat: can only be used rear-facing and, well, with infants
- Convertible car seat: can change from rear-facing to forward-facing, which allows tots to stay safely rear-facing longer
- All-in-one car seat: similar to a convertible car seat, but with the added bonus of morphing into a booster seat
When to Move Your Kiddo to a Toddler Car Seat
Here’s the deal: You want to keep your child in a rear-facing car seat for as long as humanly possible. If you’re in a front-end crash (the most common type), the hard shell of the rear-facing seat absorbs the majority of the impact, all while continuing to support your little one’s wee head, neck, and spine. (Once you turn your child to forward-facing, the car seat’s harness works the hardest to restrain your child, which can cause severe jolting, potentially causing head and spine injuries.) That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urges parents to keep kids rear-facing until they’ve outgrown the weight or height limit of their car seat. That means you should go by scale and stature, not age. (News flash: The forward-facing-by-age-2 advice is outdated and unsafe!)
The good news? If you’ve got a convertible or all-in-one car seat, your kiddo can likely remain rear-facing safely and comfortably until they reach 40 or 50 pounds. Remember, before you trade your rear-facing seat for a forward-facing one, ask yourself:
✔ Has my child outgrown their seat? Again, that’s determined by weight and height, not age.
✔ Is it lawful? Did you know it’s against the law to place a child under the age of 2 in a forward-facing car seat in over a dozen states? It’s true. To see the laws where you live, consult SafeRides4Kids.
✘ Is my kiddo cramped or complain-y? Toddlers often have a long list of dislikes, from the way you peeled their banana to the color of today’s sippy cup. Fickleness shouldn’t dictate safety. Plus, feet touching the car’s backseat, is not an indicator that your tot should be turned forward-facing, according to the AAP, which notes that children are pretty darn flexible and they can easily get comfy in a rear-facing seat. (PS: Lots of rear-facing car seats can be installed fairly upright once your tot has good head and neck control, which allows for more leg room.)
What to Look for in a Toddler Car Seat
If your child has for-sure outgrown their rear-facing seat, you’ll need a forward-facing seat with a five-point harness and a top tether. (Top tethers secure forward-facing toddler car seats, keeping them from tipping forward in a crash.) These seats often keep a child safe and comfortable up to roughly 65 pounds. While there will always be considerations like budget, ease-of-install, and comfort, know this: All car seats for sale in the U.S. meet federal safety standards in a 30-miles-per-hour crash test. With that, here are some buying tips:
- Check height and weight limits. Even if your tot has outgrown their current rear-facing seat, that doesn’t mean they can’t be rear-facing in their new toddler car seat. Numerous toddler seats have a rear-facing weight limit up to 50 pounds.
- Look for fit. Not all toddler car seats fit in all vehicles! For example, some all-in-one car seats may be too large to safely fit in compact vehicles. Because of this, you’ll want to measure the available space in your car’s backseat before deciding on a toddler car seat. (And consider the potential need for fitting more than one car seat back there.) Also, try out the car seat in your vehicle before purchase, if possible. Alternatively, make sure the store you buy from has a good return policy in case you run into fit issues.
- Consider side-impact protection. Right now, there are no government standards for side-impact testing in the U.S. for car seats. (That should change by 2022, fingers crossed.) That means each car seat manufacturer may test side-impact differently. That said, it’s still a good idea to look for a toddler car seat with some sort of added side-impact protection.
- Consult the experts. Ask friends; talk to folks who are driving your same car and using the car seat you have your eye on; and pay a visit to the Car Seat Check at Cars.com, where certified child passenger safety technicians test vehicles’ ability to accommodate different car seats.
- Investigate ease-of-install. Many toddler car seats are designed to work with a car’s LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system. This is an easy-to-use collection of car and car seat connectors and hooks that make safe insulation easier. For more insight, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has ease-of-use ratings for each car seat they review.
Be mindful of hand-me-downs. Like milk, avocados, and tween trends, toddler car seats expire. The usual lifespan of a car seat is 6 years. To make sure yours is still fresh, check Date of Manufacture (DOM) on one of the many, many labels affixed to the car seat. (The serial number is often on the same label.) If the car seat is used, but not expired, you should still walk away if the seat in question...
- Has cracks
- Is missing the DOM label or any parts
- Has been in even a minor car accident
- Has been recalled. To learn about recalls, visit the car seat section of NHTSA's
Extra Toddler Car Seat Features to Consider
We know that all car seats meet federal safety standards, which is awesome. But some parents may want to consider extra features that can up safety, comfort, or ease-of-installation. Some extras to consider include:
- Anti-rebound bar: If in an accident, this helps the car seat stop moving sooner than it would have if the bar wasn’t there.
- No-rethread harness: A convertible car seat with a no-rethread harness means that you can easily adjust the seat without reconfiguring the seatbelt.
- Removable and machine washable seat pads: This makes cleaning up inevitable backseat accidents and spills way easier.
- Headrest wings: Necessary? No. Totally helpful (and comfy) when your tyke dozes in the car? Yes indeed.
- Attached cup holder: If you don’t want to be passing back sippy cups and water bottles, this is a key feature for many.
Toddler Booster Seats
Booster seats are the last stop on the way to seatbelts—and there is no rush to get there! Typically, kiddos may be able to graduate to the booster when they’re at least 4 feet 9 inches tall. That’s usually between the ages of 8 and 12. (But each state’s booster seat laws differ, so check.) With this type of safety seat, the booster literally boosts your child up so that the lap and shoulder seat belts fit across their body properly. Your growing child may be booster-ready if:
- They surpass the height or weight limits of their forward-facing car seat.
- Their shoulders extend above the top harness slots.
- The tippy tops of their ears have reached the tippy top of the car seat.
By the way, many booster seats are LATCH compatible. Just know this: The anchors are meant to hold the booster seat in place, not the child. The car’s own seatbelt is what keeps your child safe.
More Car Seat Tips:
- The Only Car Seat Safety Checklist You Need
- How to Stop Car-Seat Struggles…for Good
- Is It Safe for My Baby to Sleep in a Car Seat?
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.