How to Choose the Best Infant Car Seat

An infant car seat is one of the few pieces of baby gear that is an absolute must-have purchase. Since it is a life-safety device  it is an important decision for you and your baby.
Article By:
Juliet Spurrier, MD and Wendy Schmitz

Last Updated:
Friday

After testing 15 of the most popular infant car seats on the market, we discovered that not all seats are created equal, despite their ability to pass basic Federal crash testing requirements. The goal of this buying guide is to help parents sort through the myriad of products available by providing guidance on what to look for before making an infant car seat purchase.

Be sure to read our complete review of infant car seats to learn more about the models that won awards and why. Also, don't skip our special article on How to Avoid Infant Car Seat Installation Mistakes.

Why Buy an Infant Car Seat?


You will need to purchase an infant car seat if you ever plan to put your baby in any kind of motorized vehicle. It might honestly be one of the only must have items on your baby gear list (okay diapers too, but you get the point).

The video below, by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, provides an excellent overview of the role infant car seats play in protecting your infant, as well as safety tips on proper installation.



Size and Weight Limits


Most of the car seats we reviewed are marketed as suitable for babies up to at least 30 lbs weight and height of 32 inches. Plus, the marketing of higher-end seats frequently tout a larger weight capacity closer to 35 lbs or 40 lbs leaving many new parents wondering if they need this extra capacity (the notable exception here is Graco's cheapest entry level seat that only works up to 22 lbs, a limit we think is inadequate).

So, is a car seat capacity up to 30 lbs and 32 inches enough? Or, should you buy a seat with a higher weight capacity such as 35 or 40 lbs?

The answer is that 30 lbs and 32 inches is plenty. It is really only the height limit that matters. The higher weight capacity figures are pretty much just marketing hype you can ignore.

Weight Capacity over 30 lbs is Mostly Irrelevant
We recommend you switch your baby to a rear-facing convertible car seat in the 9-12 month age range. During that age window it is the height limit of car seats that your baby is likely to exceed. Twelve month old baby boys at the 95% percentile are only 28 lbs, well within the upper limits of many car seats. Many car seat manufacturers use higher weight limits in the sales and marketing materials, implying that a capacity of 35 or 40 lbs is better than 30 lbs. For the vast majority of babies, any weight capacity over 30 lbs is just marketing you can ignore.

The average baby boy will reach 30 inch length in about 12 months. Girls will get there in about 14 months (source: CDC).
The average baby boy will reach 30 inch length in about 12 months. Girls will get there in about 14 months (source: CDC).
Let us break it down for you. According the the CDC baby boy age vs weight growth charts (pdf), even a 95th percentile baby boy will weigh under 28 lbs and be just shy of 32 inches length on their 12 month birthday (95th percentile means they are growing faster than 94 kids out of every 100). So, you can see from CDC data that your baby is likely to exceed the height limit long before they exceed the weight limit.

So, let's focus on length limits.

Most of the car seats we reviewed (10 of 15) offer a maximum length of 32 inches. The average baby boy will reach 32 inches and 26 lbs at 18 months age, and the average baby girl will reach 32 inches and 25 lbs around 19 months. This makes a seat with 32 inch length and 30 lbs capacity more than adequate.

But, 4 of the 15 seats only offer a maximum of 30 inch length, including one of our Editors' Choice winners, the Chicco Keyfit 30. Is 30 inches length enough?

Yes, but if your baby grows taller faster than most, a 30 inch length limit might mean moving up to a convertible seat a bit sooner. That isn't a problem, but it's something to be aware of. The CDC stats show that the average boy baby will reach 30 inches length in about 12 months, and girls will get there about 14 months old. A fast growing, 95th percentile boy will reach 30 inches in about 9 months.

Most parents switch from an infant seat to a convertible car seat sometime in the 9 to 12 month age range. So, with seats rated for at a length of at least 30 inches, the infant seat will serve its purpose in the age range that most matters, and you can simply move up to a convertible seat when it's the right time for your baby without stressing about it.

We'd advise that you essentially ignore size and weight capacity as a key consideration in your car seat purchase decision. The limits just don't matter, unless you are seriously considering that low-end Graco seat with the unusually low 22 lbs capacity (please don't buy it).

The Safety 1st onBoard 35 Air
The Safety 1st Alpha Elite 65
 

Types of Car Seats


There are two basic kinds of car seats, the infant style car seat (above left) and a convertible car seat (above right). Both varieties can be used with infants and have some similar features and functions, but they are not the same. There are pros and cons to each style of seat thanks to their designs and overall limitations.

Infant Car Seats


Infant car seats look and behave somewhat differently than convertible car seats. Because they are designed with smaller babies in mind, they have features that support little bodies and make your life with an infant more convenient.
Each infant style seat has a detachable base that normally stays in the car  like this one seen with the Graco SnugRide Click Connect 35
Each infant style seat has a detachable base that normally stays in the car, like this one seen with the Graco SnugRide Click Connect 35
  • Separate Bases/Detachable Seats — With an infant seat the base and the seat are detachable, and this simple feature is very convenient with an infant. The way it works is you install the base in your car, more or less permanently. The seat is then clicked on to the base. This is a nice feature that allows parents to leave the base in the car properly installed while having the freedom to remove the carrier to keep baby restrained or asleep. The carrier can be carried via the handle, or it can be placed in a compatible stroller. Most strollers offer a range of car seat adapters, and you might also consider a lightweight car seat frame stroller. We find the ability to click the car seat into a frame stroller or a full size stroller to be very convenient for running quick errands without having to wake baby for a seat/carrier transfer.
  • Rear Facing Only — Infant seats always face the rear of the vehicle (required by law), which is a safer position to be in in the event of a head on collision (the most common type of crash).
  • Canopy
    The B-Safe 35 has a very nice looking canopy
    Infant seats usually offer a canopy to help block the sun from baby's sensitive peepers. This can come in handy both in the car and on the move outside the car while being carried or attached to a compatible stroller. Convertible seats do not have canopies, and it is ill advised to fashion one of your own for safety reasons.
  • Smaller Weight and Height Restrictions — While some of the infant seats now have a larger weight range than they used to (4-40 pounds), their range is still less than convertible car seats because the seat is specifically designed for smaller bodies as opposed to trying to fit all body sizes. This might seem like a limiting factor, or a reason not to purchase one, but it is really part of what makes this kind of seat special and better for newborns and smaller babies to travel in.

Convertible Car Seats


The Peg Perego Primo Viaggio Convertible
The Peg Perego Primo Viaggio Convertible
We recommend that you move from an infant seat to a convertible car seat once your baby is 9 to 12 months old (refer to our Convertible Car Seat Review for more info). However, the manufacturers of convertible seats offer compatibility with infants as small as 5 pounds and up to 40-70 pounds depending on the model. The word "convertible" comes from the ability to initially use the seat in a rear-facing position, and then later flip the seat around to "convert" it to a forward facing seat. The ability to use a convertible seat with an infant may tempt you to consider buying just a convertible car seat and skip buying an infant seat entirely. We urge you to not do that. In our opinion an infant seat is better designed for the size of a young infant and a lot more convenient to use. The ability to keep the separate base of an infant seat installed in the car, and simply click-in or out the car seat carrier is very convenient. In comparison, using a convertible car seat with an infant is a hassle, in that you must always put them in or take them out of the harness system every time you transition to or from the car.

BabyGearLab Recommends Infant Seats for Infants
We at BabyGearLab feel that an infant seat is the best choice for newborns because they are much more convenient to use, and are specifically designed for smaller bodies, and thus offer a better fit. Switch to a convertible car seat once your baby outgrows their infant seat, usually around 9 to 12 months of age.

Overview of the Basics


Infant car seats come with a detachable base that gets semi-permanently installed in the car. The car seat carrier clicks-in to the base. The base shown above is for the Britax B-Safe 35 and includes a tightness indicator that turns green when installed properly
Infant car seats come with a detachable base that gets semi-permanently installed in the car. The car seat carrier clicks-in to the base. The base shown above is for the Britax B-Safe 35 and includes a tightness indicator that turns green when installed properly
Even though all seats have passed crash tests, they are not all created equal. In the following sections, we will cover the common features you should consider when looking at different infant car seats.

Infant Seat Safety
Never Never Never leave baby unattended in an infant car seat. Injury and death have occurred from accidents related to car seat carriers being left unattended while baby slept. In addition, never leave the carrier on a soft surface like a bed or couch to avoid a rollover suffocation hazard, or on a high surface like a countertop to avoid a fall.

Crash Tests


As you would expect, crash tests play a key role in the basic performance of car seats, and also in differentiating products. To that end, each car seat must pass a Federal crash test safety standard administered by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). In order to pass, each seat must be subjected to crash testing in a facility designed to simulate collisions using a sled and crash test baby dummies. These sled based tests utilize data from sensors implanted in the test dummies that measure the amount of force exerted on dummy baby's head and chest based on a 30 mile an hour collision simulation.
We contracted with the same national testing facility used by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) for crash tests  and also obtained NHTSA's crash test data for analysis. Above you see the Phil and Teds Alpha seat on the test sled with a 12 month old crash test dummy strapped in.
We contracted with the same national testing facility used by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) for crash tests, and also obtained NHTSA's crash test data for analysis. Above you see the Phil and Teds Alpha seat on the test sled with a 12 month old crash test dummy strapped in.

The good news for parents is that these Federal safety requirements ensure that every seat sold in the US provides at least a basic level of crash protection, and thus can be considered safe.

Yet, even though every seat on the market has passed the minimum Federal safety requirement tests, some have passed with better results than others. In our review of competing car seats, you will see that we combined our own crash test data with data obtained from NHTSA's crash tests, and analyzed these tests in a side-by-side comparison format to demonstrate how each seat compares to the Federal maximum for G forces and how each seat compares to the others.

Given that some seats perform better in crash tests than others, we gave higher scores to those seats that provide an extra margin of protection in crash test results. We think that matters and deserves to be one of the factors you take into consideration in your purchase decision.

Installation
Improperly installed car seats can cause infant injury or death in auto accidents. It is not enough to have and use a car seat, you must use it properly and consistently.

Side Impact Protection Claims: Let the Buyer Beware


Some of the seats in this review claim side impact protection (SIP) is included in the seat's design. We suggest consumers remain skeptical about these SIP claims as there is no set standard on what it means for a seat to have SIP, and the term means different things to different manufacturers. While a plan for potential side impact testing of car seats has been suggested, there is currently no common standard or test available to determine safety of side impact features. In addition, the term is one filled with ambiguity. For example, Safety 1st claims SIP in the case of a side collision and cites independent tests they have paid for to determine the efficacy of their design. Alternatively, Graco claims SIP and independent testing, but their definition of SIP means the harness will keep your child in the seat in the event of a side collision. Yet, we think most parents would consider keeping the child restrained in the event of a side-impact to be a basic feature offered by all products, rather than a specific side-impact protection feature.

The UPPAbaby has a shell inside a shell design with an air gap to help absorb more collision energy. It also has dense foam  comfort padding  and additional side impact protection padding where baby's head goes
Safety 1st has a comfortable soft-foam layer between the baby and the energy-absorbing hard foam. On the side wings  they have built in additional energy absorption pockets which they claim provides additional side-impact protection.
 
The photos above show some of the side impact features highlighted in the marketing of some of the seats we reviewed. In order from left to right they are: UPPAbaby Mesa 2014 and the Safety 1st onBoard 35 Air.

Certainly extra safety features are a bonus, but we want parents to be aware of the somewhat "Safety washing" that is happening in the marketing of side-impact protection in the industry. Because there is no industry standard, and each manufacturer really means something different when they say pretty much the same thing, it means the terms used to describe "side impact" have no meaning in and of themselves. This requires us, or parents, to do further research to determine how each company is choosing to define the term, and how each is claiming to have tested their design, if they are claiming it was tested at all.

We feel that manufacturers are using side-impact protection as a marketing claim, and we'd much prefer that there was an actual standard for these claims to create a focus for each manufacturer's design engineers. For now, in our efforts to determine how the seats were tested or what most manufacturers meant when stating the seat offers SIP, we came up disturbingly short in locating compelling information or evidence to support the claims.

Side Impact Crumple Zone


Flipping out the light grey section on the Cybex handle is supposed to increase side impact safety and decrease seat intrusion during an accident. This feature can only be used when the seat next to it is empty  to avoid injuries to other passengers
Flipping out the light grey section on the Cybex handle is supposed to increase side impact safety and decrease seat intrusion during an accident. This feature can only be used when the seat next to it is empty, to avoid injuries to other passengers
The Cybex Aton 2 has a hard plastic "lever" that can be opened and used on any side where a person is not sitting next to the car seat. This simple addition has helped them earn an ingenuity award and it potentially helps absorb external forces generated by a side collision before they reach the seat, thereby creating something of a crumple zone in the event of an accident. We have no way of knowing how well this feature works or if it will work predictably in a real crash as opposed to a simulated sled crash test.

Seat Construction


Every seat is essentially made up of the same kinds of materials and basic design. There aren't large differences between the seats we tested in this regard. They all have a hard plastic shell with a dense foam padding as the second layer. Next, they either have softer comfort style padding and/or a fabric cover, and some of the seats also offer additional inserts to help position baby more comfortably or safely. These inserts can be on top of the fabric or under the padding and cover. Some seats also offer additional or larger pads around the head area presumably for impact protection; some explicitly state this is the purpose of the additional head wings, while others do not. This makes it difficult to tell if the feature is intended to improve safety or merely give the illusion of improved safety.

Our view is that the differences in seat construction that really matter are the ones that show up in crash test performance, as well as those that affect the baby's day-to-day comfort.

External Shell


The external hard plastic shell of all the car seats we tested is the first line of defense in an accident. The shell provides structural support and contains the inner layer of energy absorbing hard foam inside. In this way, an infant seat works much like a bike helmet, which also uses an exterior shell of hard plastic combined with a layer of energy absorbing hard foam between the shell and your head.

Foam


Most of the seats incorporated dense foam as their energy absorption material for crashes. The Cybex (shown here) also offers a under the fabric newborn foam insert to help give baby a safer  more comfortable ride
Most of the seats incorporated dense foam as their energy absorption material for crashes. The Cybex (shown here) also offers a under the fabric newborn foam insert to help give baby a safer, more comfortable ride
  • Hard Foam — All the seats we looked at have stiff foam as their primary energy absorbing material that helps protect baby in the event of a crash. This foam is similar to that found in many bike helmets and is the industry standard for impact protection. The primary difference between seats is how much and where the location of foam is inside the shell. Most just have the hard foam on either side of the head or encompassing the side and back of head. A few had foam inside the entire shell encompassing all parts of baby. We particularly liked that the Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 has a hard foam headpiece in addition to hard foam in one piece throughout the seat, as well as under the bottom and leg areas.
  • Soft Foam — Some seats offered a softer foam around the head portion of seat in addition
    Safety 1st has a comfortable soft-foam layer between the baby and the energy-absorbing hard foam. On the side wings  they have built in additional energy absorption pockets which they claim provides additional side-impact protection.
    Safety 1st has a comfortable soft-foam layer between the baby and the energy-absorbing hard foam. On the side wings, they have built in additional energy absorption pockets which they claim provides additional side-impact protection.
    to the hard foam. Soft foam won't do much in terms of impact protection crash, but can add comfort in normal day-to-day use. Safety 1st has soft foam surrounded by a plastic bag called "Air Side Impact Protection" that they claim to have had tested by an independent lab to determine its efficacy in decreasing injuries related to side impact crashes. However, most soft foam is either for looks to mimic some types of impact resistance, for added comfort for baby, or for help in correct positioning of baby like infant inserts for smaller newborns.

Extra Padding


On top of the foam and standard seat padding there might be extra padding that can be anything from an infant insert piece that helps position small infants properly, to padding on the harness to help keep baby's head positioned and/or avoid rubbing on the straps. The Cybex Aton 2 offers a stiff foam infant insert that goes underneath the car seat padding and is unique in the group. The trick will be remembering to remove it when baby outgrows it.

The Three Ways to Anchor the Car Seat


There are three different methods used to strap a car seat down in a vehicle. We'll give you an overview of each and the most common reasons to use one over the others. You'll find more detailed information in our article, How to Avoid Infant Car Seat Installation Mistakes.
  • Installing the Base with LATCH connectors — Since 2002, most cars in the US have been required to include LATCH connectors on the left and right side rear seat positions (but not the center seat). LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren (LATCH). This type of connector was invented to provide a simple and reliable method of attaching car seats to vehicles. We recommend using LATCH connectors when they are available, since they are usually the best and simplest way to assure a tight and secure connection. Most parents place their child in one of the side seats where LATCH anchors are located, typically the right rear passenger side to make it easier for the driver to see the baby.

This diagram showing LATCH system lower anchors appears in Graco's car seat manual. Unlike most other manufacturers  Graco documents in their manual that their seats can be LATCH-connected in the center position so long as your Vehicle Owners Manual allows use of the center seating position and the anchor spacing is 11" or greater between the inner LATCH connectors on the left and right side. Unfortunately  most car manufacturers don't allow the use of the inner LATCH anchor points to place a seat in the center.
This diagram showing LATCH system lower anchors appears in Graco's car seat manual. Unlike most other manufacturers, Graco documents in their manual that their seats can be LATCH-connected in the center position so long as your Vehicle Owners Manual allows use of the center seating position and the anchor spacing is 11" or greater between the inner LATCH connectors on the left and right side. Unfortunately, most car manufacturers don't allow the use of the inner LATCH anchor points to place a seat in the center.
  • Installing the Base with a Seat Belt
    Phil and Teds Alpha is shown above installed in the center seat in a vehicle that lacks LATCH support in the center  by using the belt on the base. The Phil and Teds Alpha and the Peg Perego both earned top scores of 9 of 10 in ease-of-installation with the seat belt.
    Phil and Teds Alpha is shown above installed in the center seat in a vehicle that lacks LATCH support in the center, by using the belt on the base. The Phil and Teds Alpha and the Peg Perego both earned top scores of 9 of 10 in ease-of-installation with the seat belt.
    In order to place the car seat in the center seat, installing the car seat base with the seat belt is usually required. Only a minority of vehicles offer LATCH system connectors for the center seat; often the seat belt is the only option. Center seat installation is worth considering; placing the car seat in the center has been shown to reduce injury by more than 40% compared to placing the seat in one of the side positions. We found very large differences between competing car seats in terms of ease-of-installation with a seat belt. For those parents who are interested in placing the car seat in the safer center location, finding a car seat that makes this easier is important.
  • Installing the Car Seat without the Base — For urban parents
    Parents who frequently ride in taxi cabs or use services like Uber  will want to look for a car seat that offers easy installation without the base  just using the seat belt.
    who expect to take taxi cabs or rides on Uber cars with their baby, learning how to install the car seat without the base, using just the taxi seat belt, is an important urban parenting skill to master. In addition, this is the method of installation you would use if you bring your infant car seat on an airplane. It is worth noting that many parents just hold their baby on their lap for airplane travel, and baby carriers are popular for use in airplane travel. Most airlines allow you to bring a baby under 2 years old on the plane for free, as long as you hold the baby on your lap. But, the FAA recommends using an approved car seat for air travel as the safest way to travel with your baby, but that will require buying an extra plane ticket and installing the car seat without the base using the airplane seat belt.

Visual Installation Indicators


The level on the Britax B-Safe uses a green strip between two arrows to indicate the proper angle for recline during installation
The level on the Britax B-Safe uses a green strip between two arrows to indicate the proper angle for recline during installation
Every seat has some kind of level indicator on them to help you determine when the seat is properly installed. Some also include other indicators for things like determining if the anchor is sufficiently tightened.

A level indicator can look like a traditional level used in construction with liquid and a bubble, or it might just be a small ball that rolls and indicates the seat is level when it falls within a pre-marked zone in its path. No matter what the level looks like, it is important to use it directed, because it helps indicate when you have the seat properly installed. Some less expensive seats might have a line on the side of the base that should be parallel with the ground beneath the car when installed correctly. The easiest way to use these is by standing back from the car to assess the line compared to the ground.

The level indicator on the Phil and Teds Alpha for proper recline adjustment is a free moving ball that works consistently well
The bubble level indicator on the Peg Perego works well and is easier to use than some of the other seat indicators in the group
The little red ball in the Cybex Aton 2 level indicator had a tendency to "catch" in our tests and wasn't as reliable or consistent as the bubble indicators on other seats
 
The photos above show some of the different level indicators available on the seats we reviewed. In order from left to right: Phil and Teds Alpha, Peg Perego, and the Cybex Aton 2.

Height Adjustment


The Graco SnugRide Click Connect 40 has a non-rethread height adjustment you adjust from the back by squeezing the red side buttons and sliding the assembly
The Graco SnugRide Click Connect 40 has a non-rethread height adjustment you adjust from the back by squeezing the red side buttons and sliding the assembly
Being able to easily adjust the harness height on the seat can mean the difference between an infant that is secure in the seat, and one that is not. If a seat is easy to adjust as your baby grows, then there is less chance for error or avoidance.

Seats that Require Rethreading the Harness to Adjust Height (yuck)
The strangely placed rear tighten and loosening system on the back of the Graco SnugRide Classic Connect is ridiculously complicated compared to the more traditional pull strap and release button found on all the other seats we looked at. It also functions as the rethread slots for harness height adjustment
The strangely placed rear tighten and loosening system on the back of the Graco SnugRide Classic Connect is ridiculously complicated compared to the more traditional pull strap and release button found on all the other seats we looked at. It also functions as the rethread slots for harness height adjustment
The most difficult seats to adjust for a growing baby's height are those seats that require you to "rethread" the harness straps to make the adjustment. Rethreading means a car seat requires that you remove the shoulder straps from slots in the seat back to reinsert them at a different height slot to adjust for your growing baby's height. It can be an annoying process, but it isn't really difficult if you adjust it with baby out of the seat because it only requires adjustment occasionally. The big downside of this is you may not notice it needs adjustment until baby is in the seat and it can be a hassle to take baby out of the seat to adjust the height. Some parents might even be tempted to wait to make the adjustment until the next trip. Unfortunately, this often leads to a cycle of forgetting and planning to do it the next time, over and over while baby being transported in a harness that doesn't fit correctly.

Seats that Make it Easy to Adjust the Height (Non-Rethread)
The harness height adjustment on the Mesa can be done from the front with baby in the seat. It does not require any rethreading of the harness straps
The harness height adjustment on the Mesa can be done from the front with baby in the seat. It does not require any rethreading of the harness straps
The non-rethread harness height adjustment offered on the Peg Perego
The non-rethread harness height adjustment offered on the Peg Perego
Our favorite seats for height adjustment allow you to make the height adjustment without the need for re-threading the harness straps from one slot to another or detaching the straps from the splitter plate. This type of harness can usually be adjusted with baby in the seat, so it can be performed "on the fly". Peg Perego and UPPAbaby both have nicely designed non-rethread harness systems that are easy to adjust.

Harness Tightening and Release


An above padding release button  like this one on the Nuna Pipa  can make loosening the harness easier
An above padding release button, like this one on the Nuna Pipa, can make loosening the harness easier
After the shoulder height is properly adjusted, baby is in the seat and buckled in, you can tighten the harness by pulling on the trailing strap at the foot of the seat. This maneuver should be easy, and in theory it is, but some of the tightening straps were harder to pull than others, and one had a totally different tightening system altogether.

You can tell the harness is tight enough when you are unable to pinch harness fabric at the shoulders between your fingers.

Most of the seat harnesses we tested were loosened by pressing a button near the foot of seat. The buttons should be somewhat stiff to prevent little hands from making their own adjustments, but they shouldn't be so hard to push that an adult can't do it with 1 thumb. Some of the seats had buttons visible on top of the seat fabric. The remainder had the button hidden under padding or fabric (see exception below with the Graco SnugRide Classic Connect).

We found the Graco SnugRide Classic Connect to be the hardest seat to tighten/loosen in our review, earning a 1 for this test. Their odd method of tightening on this seat requires parents tighten each side individually from the back while wiggling the front as you adjust. It can take several stabs to get it right and you have to go from back to front over and over which can take up to 4 times longer than the more traditional pull strap method. This is a huge hassle. So even though several other models scored a 3 for ease of tightening and loosening due to stiffness, they are still preferable to the odd Graco. Note that this is not something that Graco does on every seat. For example, the slightly more expensive Graco SnugRide Classic Connect 30 was easy to tighten and loosen, earning a 9 of 10 on this same test that the less expensive Graco scored so poorly on.

Buckle


The buckles on the seats
The buckle on the Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 is easy to use
The buckle on the Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 is easy to use
we tested are all remarkably similar. Some of them even look like they came off the same assembly line, but there is a noticeable difference in how difficult they are to use. All the Graco models used the same buckle and we feel it is much stiffer and harder to push than most of the competition. If you have any thumb strength or structural issues whatsoever in your hands, you might want to consider avoiding the Gracos which all earned 3s for ease of buckle use. Alternatively, the Recaro Performance Coupe and the Peg Perego both scored a 9 and were easy to open and close.

Weight of the Carrier


When doing research on the various car seats it seems like every manufacturer claims they make the lightest seat. Weight is important because you might be carrying baby and seat from place to place, or required to lift baby up higher than your waist for some SUVs and trucks. Obviously, not all the seats can be the lightest, but a few were what we considered to be prohibitively heavy. The Graco SnugRide Classic Connect is the lightest of the group at 7.06 pounds, but unfortunately it didn't score well overall or in most metrics. The heaviest seat in the review is the Orbit Baby at 12.5 pounds. Alternatively, the top scoring seats overall had weights closer to the average of the group around 9.4 pounds. Our Editors' Choice winners the Peg Perego and the Chicco Keyfit 30 were 9.58 and 10.06 pounds respectfully, while the Best Value seat, the Safety 1st, is 9.46 pounds.

Other Features


Sometimes the difference is in the details, or the beauty and the devil depending on how you look at it. While many of the seats sort of look the same, function the same, and even smell the same, the details of each help some stand apart from the pack. If a seat offers a feature that others don't, or is giving attention to features that might increase potential safety, then we feel they should be recognized. In a product group so heavily regulated it can be difficult to tell one seat from another, or decide why one is better than the last, without looking at the features and functions that help them get ahead and stand out in a crowd.

Canopy
The canopy on the graco 40 isn't very big and while it has a peek-a-boo window we weren't impressed by its closure design that allows the sun to peek in as well
The canopy on the graco 40 isn't very big and while it has a peek-a-boo window we weren't impressed by its closure design that allows the sun to peek in as well
Having a canopy is one feature that sets infant seats apart from convertible seats. All of the seats we reviewed offered some kind of canopy, but they varied in size and additional features like a peek-a-boo window and ventilation or an ability to be hidden or stretched the full length of the seat for added protection. We think the larger the better for protecting little ones from the sun, and a peek-a-boo window might be nice to have, but it isn't a deal breaker if it doesn't. Both Britax seats had the largest canopies in the group, but the UPPAbaby has a unique hard cover storage for the canopy when it isn't being used that helps make the seat's overall fit and finish impressive.

Anti-Rebound Bar and Load Leg
The Peg Perego offers a solid anti-rebound bar on its base
The Peg Perego offers a solid anti-rebound bar on its base
This photo shows the Cybex Aton 2 load leg in action
This photo shows the Cybex Aton 2 load leg in action
While the jury is still out on whether or not an anti-rebound bar or load leg really offers additional protection, physics seems to support the general idea and claim that they do. We kind of liked the idea of them, favoring the anti-rebound bar over the load leg if we had to choose, but we also feel that at least for now there isn't enough information available for us to feel like the absence of these features is a deal breaker. For now we think it is a nice feature to have on an otherwise high scoring seat like the anti-rebound bar found on the Peg Perego, but we wouldn't overlook a high scoring seat in favor of a lower scoring option that had the bar or leg. The UPPAbaby and the Chicco both lack these features and still managed to rank in the top three with relatively high crash test scores.

LATCH Storage
If you are using the seat belt instead of the LATCH Lower Anchors to attach the base, good LATCH storage is important to tuck it all away so that it doesn't get in the way when installing the infant carrier onto the base for a secure fit. Not all storage options are great, and we preferred the versions that keep the straps out of the way of any connection points. The UPPAbaby has nice retractable anchors that keep the straps ratcheted away and the anchors tucked in side pockets. There is absolutely no chance these straps will impinge on the carrier's ability to attach to the base.

Stroller Compatibility
We suggest parents pick the car seat that best meets their needs first, then consider the strollers that are compatible with their seat as a 2nd step. The car seat selection is frankly a more important decision to ensure your infant's safety, and you are not likely to paint yourself in a corner when it comes time to pick a stroller.

Once you've narrowed down your seat choice, take a look at stroller compatibility as a final step. Our Best Stroller Review can help you look at options, and you might also look at our Stroller and Car Seat Combo Review for at which seats work best in combination with which strollers. Alternatively, a growing number of parents skip a stroller for the first 6-12 months by wearing their baby in a personal baby carrier. This travel option is easy, great for bonding with baby, decreases baby crying and distress, and keeps both hands free for shopping or pushing carts. There are several great carrier options in our The Quest for the Best Baby Carrier review that can also save you money by avoiding the purchase of a stroller.

On Board Manual Storage
The onboard manual storage for the Peg Pergo is in a handy compartment on the back of the carrier
The onboard manual storage for the Peg Pergo is in a handy compartment on the back of the carrier
There should be a location on each seat where you can store the seat manual for easy access on the go. This helps ensure you have the answers at your fingertips should a problem or question arise concerning installation or use. It is important to utilize this storage location as intended and to keep the manual where it is supposed to be. Some of these are in nicer locations than others with better accessibility or increased protection from spills and accidents that could make it hard or impossible to read (i.e. spit ups, and spills).

How do I decide which car seat is best for my baby?


With so many seat options and a variety of features to choose from, the task of buying a car seat can feel overwhelming. We've broken down the process into easy to consider steps that will help you decide which seat is best for your needs.

Step 1: Consider Where You Will Install the Seat


As we noted above, there are three ways to anchor the car seat, and each method relates to a different type of usage pattern.

Urban Parents


If you live in a major city, and expect to take your baby in cabs or Uber, you will want to consider a car seat that is easy to install without the base, using the taxi's seat belt. Only about half the seats we tested performed well in this regard, and since this type of installation can be more challenging, we'd suggest urbanites closely consider the Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 and the UPPAbaby Mesa, both of which are exceptionally easy to install in a taxi compared to competing seats.

Center Seat or Side?


The next key question is where the seat will be located in your car, and in the balance here is the question of whether the seat base is going to be anchored using the LATCH system (on a side seat location) or using the seat belt (in the center).

The safest location for the infant car seat is in the center seat, as accident research shows a 43% lower risk of injury for seats placed in the center. But, that center location will only be safe if you can properly anchor the seat securely and tightly. And, given that research shows more than 80% of infant car seats have at least one serious problem with installation, wise parents will take ease-of-proper installation seriously (as we do). About 39% of parents place the infant seat in the center location.

But, it is worth noting that most parents, 61% of us, place the infant car seat on one of the side seats, most often the right rear passenger side which allows the driver to see the baby more easily. The side seat is more convenient for loading baby in and out of the vehicle, is often the only option for multiple kids, and for those driving vehicles built after 2002, allows the use of the much easier and safer LATCH anchor system.

Most cars do not allow use of the LATCH connectors in the center seat. So, if you are going to place the seat in the center, it usually means you are going to need to master to relatively difficult process of anchoring the base using the seat belt. Some car seat bases are much easier to install using the seat belt than others. We'd recommend you look at our review section on Ease of Installing the Base with the Seat Belt, and if you want to go for the center seat location, narrow your selection down to one of the seats that makes this anchoring option simpler. This is another area where the Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 delivered standout performance, and deserves a spot on your short list.

For those who decide to place the infant seat on one of the two side seat locations with LATCH, which is what we recommend due to the increased simplicity and more reliable installation process using LATCH, the quality options are wider. Many seats in our review were fairly easy to install using LATCH anchors, and 6 of 15 seats scored 7 of 10 or higher in our Ease of Installing the Base with LATCH tests. Three seats tied for first place with impressive 9 of 10 scores: the UPPAbaby Mesa, the Chicco Keyfit 30, and the Cybex Aton 2.

Safely Installing the Car Seat
Making mistakes when installing a car seat or strapping baby is so common we have dedicated another article to this topic. It is crucial that a seat is installed correctly for it to work properly. Thus, we advocate that you consider ease-of-installation and ease-of-use as critical factors in your purchase decision.


Step 2: Consider Ease-of-Use


Getting the base installed safely is half the battle. But, the other element is the daily process of taking your baby in and out of the car seat, and getting them safely harnessed in.

Not all seats performed equally on ease-of-use, and so if you emerged from Step 1 above with a handful of car seats on your short list, take a look at our ease-of-use ratings to narrow down further.

The top performers on ease of use, the Recaro and Evenflo seats, offered strong performance with 8 of 10 scores, but were relatively weak in other areas, finishing below average in overall performance.

We'd suggest you look to the 2nd place finishers, three seats tied with 7 of 10 scores, that all performed will across the board: the Chicco, UPPAbaby, and Peg Perego.

Step 3: Compare Crash Test Performance


Every seat in this review has passed the minimum requirements for crash tests as outlined by the Federal Government and thus offer a basic, safe, level of protection. But, some seats perform better significantly better than others in crash tests, and thus can be considered to offer an extra margin of protection.

Once you've narrowed to a handful of seats based on ease of use and installation considerations, we'd recommend you consider crash test results to further narrow down your selection. While many parents would consider crash test performance the most important factor, we feel that given that over 80% of parents improperly use or install the car seat, that you first consider installation and ease-of-use. It doesn't matter how safe a seat is if it isn't used correctly.

To evaluate the crash tests of each seat in this review we analyzed their crash test results to compare how well each seat did in relation to the required minimum score, as well as how each seat performed compared to the other products in the review. If you've narrowed down your list to a few finalists, choosing the seat which offers an extra margin of protection in crash test results can help you make your final selection.

Step 4: Consider Stroller Options


Choosing the right car seat is a more important decision than choosing a stroller. But, after you narrow down to one or two finalists for your car seat we suggest you consider compatible strollers. Take a look at our comprehensive review of the Best Baby Strollers, where you'll find details on which car seats are supported by which strollers. We also like the option of using a car seat frame stroller, which are lightweight and really convenient for the first 9 to 12 months while you baby remains in their infant seat. Check out our Stroller and Car Seat Combo Review for more info.

Also, keep in mind that an increasing number of parents delay buying a stroller for 6-12 months, and use a baby carrier instead. Wearing your baby can create a higher level of intimacy and bonding with your baby, and is fun for both parent and baby. Read our review on The Quest for the Best Baby Carrier for more information.

Step 5: Check the Expiration Date


All seats have an expiration date and it should be located somewhere on the seat for easy reference. This seat by Phil and Teds has a 6 year use life before it expires.
All seats have an expiration date and it should be located somewhere on the seat for easy reference. This seat by Phil and Teds has a 6 year use life before it expires.
Last, car seats expire. The foam used for crash impact absorption protection actually has a shelf life, and after a certain period of time should be destroyed and no longer used as a car seat. If you consider obtaining a used car seat, perhaps as a hand-me-down from a friend or relative, make sure it has not already expired, and that it won't expire in the 9 to 12 months you'll need it.

It is important to purchase a new car seat if the car seat you have is ever involved in an accident. Even if the seat seems fine, the energy absorbing foam may have been compromised and that entire seat should be discarded. Better safe than sorry. In addition, car seats also expire (thanks in part to the break down in the foam used for energy absorption) and should never be used past the expiration date displayed on the seat.

Conclusion


The Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 comes with 2 removable insert cushions that can be adjusted to improve the fit and comfort for babies of various sizes
The Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 comes with 2 removable insert cushions that can be adjusted to improve the fit and comfort for babies of various sizes
Buying your first car seat can be almost as overwhelming as the idea of having your first baby, but once you narrow down the options in a logical fashion it certainly doesn't have to be. With a manageable size list, you'll be cruising home with a new seat before you know it, and with any luck you'll be doing it with a smile on your face.

Optional Reading: Car Seat Lingo


To help you delve deep into all things car seat, we want to provide a little insight into the terminology you might see or hear when reviewing information about them. This can help keep you on the right track and ensure that you really understand what you are reading so you can interpret the information as easily as possible. The terms below are those you might encounter in this article, other car seat related articles on our site, or on manufacturer websites. The terminology and definitions used here are taken from the National Child Passenger Safety (CPS) Certification Training Program manual, some definitions may have been slightly altered to increase readability, but the intent/meaning remains the same.
  • FMVSS 213 — Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard #213. This is the safety standard that details the safety guidelines car seats need to meet or exceed in order to be sold. Every car seat on the market has met or exceeded these safety standards. On some level, no matter which seat you purchase, you are getting a seat that has already passed relatively stringent guidelines.
  • Buckle — Where the harness system connects and locks in place.
An easy to use chest clip and buckle  like that found on the UPPAbaby Mesa  can make harnessing easier
An easy to use chest clip and buckle, like that found on the UPPAbaby Mesa, can make harnessing easier
  • Harness — The harness consists of the straps that keep the child in the car seat and spread out crash forces. Two harness types that meet FMVSS 213 requirements: 5-Point: Harness has five points of contact that includes one over each shoulder, one on each side of the pelvis, and one between the legs with all five coming together at a common buckle. 3-Point: Harness has three points of contact that includes two shoulder straps coming together at one buckle in the shell or on a crotch strap. NOTE: NOT to be confused with 3-point (lap-and-shoulder) vehicle belt.
The Cybex Aton2 has one the easiest buckle to undo on its 5 point harness
The Cybex Aton2 has one the easiest buckle to undo on its 5 point harness
  • Retainer Clip — Plastic buckle or clasp that holds shoulder straps together over the child's chest and should be positioned at the child's armpit level.
  • Harness Adjuster — The part used to tighten or loosen the harness.
To adjust the harness on most seats  you use the pull strap to tighten and the release button to loosen located near the foot of the carrier. This is the UPPAbaby Mesa  but most of the seats we reviewed offer a similar setup
To adjust the harness on most seats, you use the pull strap to tighten and the release button to loosen located near the foot of the carrier. This is the UPPAbaby Mesa, but most of the seats we reviewed offer a similar setup
  • Harness Slots — Parts of car seat where the harness goes through the seat shell for shoulder height adjustment or crotch strap adjustment related to the height of the child.
  • Shell — Molded plastic and/or metal structure of the car seat or booster seat that is typically located on the outside of the seat or structurally inside covered by the seat padding.
This shows the layers present on the Recaro Performance Coupe. Form let to right they are comfort padding  fabric  seat padding (dense foam)  and outer shell
This shows the layers present on the Recaro Performance Coupe. Form let to right they are comfort padding, fabric, seat padding (dense foam), and outer shell
  • Seat Padding — Padding that covers the shell and/or frame of the seat, typically consisting of a dense foam.
  • Padding — Additional padding or inserts some manufacturers provide to increase child comfort that have been crash tested with the seat. You should never use padding with your car seat that did not come with the specific seat. It could alter the seats performance during a crash.
The Safety 1st onBoard 35 Air comes standard with a positional infant head pillow and bolsters
The Safety 1st onBoard 35 Air comes standard with a positional infant head pillow and bolsters
  • Level Indicator — The part of the car seat that helps identify correct rear-facing installation angles. It can be a green to red indicator, a ball level, or more of a traditional bubble level.
A bubble style level on the Recaro is effective and works well
A bubble style level on the Recaro is effective and works well
  • Belt Path — The location on a car seat where the seat belt or lower anchor connector is placed to secure car seat to the vehicle.
The belt path on the Recaro is relatively easy to use with larger openings than some of the competition.
The belt path on the Recaro is relatively easy to use with larger openings than some of the competition.
  • Recline Adjuster — This feature allows car seats to be reclined for rear facing seats, and semi-reclined or upright for forward-facing use.
There are a variety of recline adjustment options in the seats we tested. This adjustable knob moves the recline foot up and down on the Graco SnugRide Click Connect 35
There are a variety of recline adjustment options in the seats we tested. This adjustable knob moves the recline foot up and down on the Graco SnugRide Click Connect 35
  • Splitter Plate — A metal plate that connects two ends of the shoulder harnesses to a single piece of webbing used for adjustment; found on the back of the seat.
  • Lock-Off — Built-in belt-locking feature on car seat that works with certain types of seat belts based on the same concept as a locking clip.
Many of the seats we reviewed offered a belt lock off to help secure the base of the seat to the vehicle seat belt. This is the option on the Graco SnugRide Click Connect 40
Many of the seats we reviewed offered a belt lock off to help secure the base of the seat to the vehicle seat belt. This is the option on the Graco SnugRide Click Connect 40
  • Locking Clip — A locking clip holds the car seat in the proper position during normal driving when no other locking mechanism is available.
The locking clip included with each seat can help secure the base to the vehicle belt in 1 position by preventing the base from sliding across the belt
The locking clip included with each seat can help secure the base to the vehicle belt in 1 position by preventing the base from sliding across the belt
  • Lower Anchor Connector — Connectors attached to the car seat that are used in place of the vehicle seat belt to secure the car seat or booster seat to the vehicle utilizing U shaped hooks located between the seat back and bottom cushions on the vehicle. These connectors can be flexible (attached to a belt) or rigid (stiff connectors with no belt).
The Phil and Teds Alpha has the more traditional style anchor clip that work well but are a little harder to detach than the more seat belt like anchor with a push button release
The Peg Perego has anchors that resemble slim seat belts that push onto the U anchor on the vehicle and release by pressing the red button. We feel this anchor style is easiest to use. You can also see the anchor storage location in this photo
The Nuna Pipa is the only seat in the group that offers the rigid LATCH anchors that have no straps to tighten. This makes the Nuna easy to install correctly every time
 
The photos above show the different various anchor styles in this review.
  • Tether Connector — A piece of belt webbing with a hook connector that anchors the top of a car seat to the vehicle and keeps restraint (car seat) from tipping forward on impact. It can provide extra protection and it is most frequently found on forward-facing seats.
  • Detachable Base — This is a separate car seat base that is installed in the vehicle, while the car seat carrier portion of the seat can be removed from base.
The Recaro Performance Coupe tied for the highest ease of use score with the Evenflo Embrace LX  but unlike the Evenflo  it also scored relatively well for comfort and quality
The Recaro Performance Coupe tied for the highest ease of use score with the Evenflo Embrace LX, but unlike the Evenflo, it also scored relatively well for comfort and quality
  • Adjustment Foot — A part of the detachable base that can be adjusted to help a rear-facing car seat to be installed at the correct angle.
The Chicco recline foot can help parents find the right installation angle
The Chicco recline foot can help parents find the right installation angle
  • Carry Handle — The handle attached to a rear-facing car seat that can be used to carry the seat with or without a child in it.
This shows the Peg Perego seat with the carry handle in the upright carry position. While many of the handles have multiple position options only some are allowed during driving and only 1 is allowed for carrying with baby in the seat
This shows the Peg Perego seat with the carry handle in the upright carry position. While many of the handles have multiple position options only some are allowed during driving and only 1 is allowed for carrying with baby in the seat
  • Foot Prop or Load Leg — Pole or leg that extends from the base of a rear-facing car seat that is used to reduce excessive forward and downward rotation of the seat in the event of a crash.
The load leg on the Cybex Aton 2 (shown here) is similar to that found on the Nuna Pipa. Both can potential improve seat performance in the event of a crash
The load leg on the Cybex Aton 2 (shown here) is similar to that found on the Nuna Pipa. Both can potential improve seat performance in the event of a crash
  • Anti-Rebound Bar — This is a hard bar or high back on some rear-facing car seats that may help to reduce movement of the car seat towards the rear of the vehicle seat in a crash. This decreases the rebound effect of the seat.
The Graco 40 has a footrest for baby 's feet. This is not a structural element and does not serve as a anti-rebound bar like some competing seats such as the Peg Perego offer. However  the Graco does offer a high-back base which may offer some anti-rebound protection.
The Graco 40 has a footrest for baby 's feet. This is not a structural element and does not serve as a anti-rebound bar like some competing seats such as the Peg Perego offer. However, the Graco does offer a high-back base which may offer some anti-rebound protection.

  • LATCH Guides — These are plastic pocket squares that come with some car seats that when used help create an opening between the back and seat cushion to give better access to the U LATCH points on the vehicle.
The Cybex is the only seat in this review that came with LATCH guides
The Cybex is the only seat in this review that came with LATCH guides

Dr. Juliet Spurrier is founder and Mom-in-Chief at BabyGearLab
Juliet Spurrier, MD
About the Author
Dr. Juliet Baciocco Spurrier is a board certified pediatrician, mother of two, and founder of BabyGearLab. Juliet earned her Bachelor of Arts degrees in Anthropology and Italian Literature from the University of California at Berkeley and her Medical degree from Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington DC. She completed her pediatric residency at the Doernbecher Children's Hospital at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, OR, and subsequently practiced pediatrics in both the Pacific Northwest and Silicon Valley. Juliet serves as Mom-in-Chief at BabyGearLab, where she oversees all baby product review activity, assuring that each review delivers on our commitment to quality.

 
Unbiased.