Locating the right 2020 infant car seat for your family is vital. We've crash-tested 44 seats, including the 14 infant car seats we purchased for this review. Our commissioned crash tests and hands-on use provides the information you need to help you choose the best safety seat for your baby. After extensive side-by-side testing with every product, we analyze metrics including crash tests, installation methods, carrying weight, and more. We've finished the leg work, so you have all the details you need to choose the best car seat for your goals and budget.Jump to: Buying Advice for Infant Car Seats
Best Infant Car Seat with Crash Tests of 2020
Best Overall Infant Car Seat
Cybex Aton 2
The Cybex Aton 2 is a high-quality option with some of the best crash test results in our review, which makes it an infant seat we highly recommend. This option combines a top-ranked crash-test analysis with a sleek design and added safety features such as a load leg and "side-impact crumple zone." This Cybex has an easy to install LATCH system (that can potentially translate to increased safety), making the Cybex Aton 2 an excellent choice for many families.
While the Aton 2 offers impressively easy LATCH installation, some of its daily functions are somewhat less easy to use. This Cybex also has a higher than average price tag, so families on a tight budget will need to plan or add this seat to their registry. The Aton 2 is also compatible with several impressive strollers, and we suggest selecting an option that clicks in place instead of being strapped in place. Overall, if you have the budget for this car seat, and safety crash test results and easy installation are what you want, then the Aton 2 (with the load leg) should be a top option on your shortlist.
Read review: Cybex Aton 2
Great for Longevity
The Chicco Fit2 is a high-quality option with a perfect score for installing via LATCH, making it a good option for anyone who is concerned about installing their car seat correctly (studies indicate this can influence potential safety in an accident). This innovative Chicco might potentially work for several months longer than the average seat in our review given its taller height range. This stylish product includes easy to use features and thicker comfort padding, all of which makes it a choice that you and your baby might enjoy for longer.
We love this Chicco, but it might not be the best option for families who live in the city or may need to carry it for longer periods. This carrier has a higher than average weight, and we suspect most parents will want to avoid carrying it very far. Luckily, you can avoid carrying it by pairing the Fit2 with a compatible award-winning frame stroller. This pairing can offset the burden, creating an excellent combination for city dwellers who have the space for extra gear. While the Fit2 has a higher price than the average product, it might be justified as you could potentially use the seat for longer, delaying future costs. Overall, the Fit 2 is an impressive long-term option for families looking for longevity and ease of use.
Read review: Chicco Fit2
Top Performer, but Limited Stroller Compatibility
Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35
The Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 has impressive scores for crash test results, installation, and comfort/quality that helps earn it a top spot in this competition with stiff competitors. This Peg has an 8 of 10 for crash test result analysis and is one of the easiest car seats to install. Easy installation can potentially translate to a safer riding experience as many documented injuries sustained in real-world crashes are directly related to installation errors as opposed to the design of the seat itself. This Peg is lightweight, easy to carry, and has simple features that work well.
Unfortunately, this safety seat isn't compatible with very many strollers outside of the Peg Perego brand, which more or less locks you into Peg products or babywearing (which we love and is a viable option). This seat also has one of the highest prices in the competition, which potentially makes it a non-option for anyone on a tight budget. However, the Primo Viaggio does have the quality and comfort you'd expect for the higher cost, and we think it can easily please parents who are unconcerned with stroller pairing and travel systems.
Read review: Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35
Best Bang for the Buck
Chicco KeyFit 30
The Chicco Keyfit 30 has a good overall score and a budget-friendlier price than much of the top-ranking choice in this review. These qualities make it an impressive value in our minds. This Chicco includes a high score for ease of installation and possesses some of the best crash test results in the review. This option has an easy to use LATCH system and unique features that help make installation as straightforward as it can be and parents love that this potentially translates to an overall safer riding experience as statistically many crash-related injuries are a result of errors in installation or use. Combine this with an attractive design and wide compatibility with a large variety of stroller brands, and you get a car seat parents swoon over.
The Keyfit 30 is somewhat more challenging to install without-the-base, though it isn't a chore. The carrier weighs over 10 lbs, which while average, is still somewhat heavy if you'll need to carry your baby very far in the carrier component. These hiccups make this Chicco less than ideal for those who use public transportation or frequently commute. Still, we believe its better ease of use and crash test performance results easily override these minor misgivings if you use a stroller or wear your baby, and own a car where the base can live. Overall, we feel the Keyfit 30 is a budget-savvy standout that is hard to beat if finances are an influencer, and even if they aren't.
Read review: Chicco Keyfit 30
Best for the Smallest Budget
Baby Trend EZ Flex-Loc
The Baby Trend EZ Flex-Loc is one of the least expensive choices in our review, but there is much to love about this wallet-friendly safety seat than just the lower price tag. The Flex-Loc is a straightforward option that is easy t install using two methods including installation sans base, which is good since it is also lightweight, and therefore, a potential contender for travel or commuting.
Thise Baby Trend option only has average scores in the majority of our tests with some features being somewhat challenging compared to the competition. It also includes thinner padding and fabric that isn't as soft as we'd like. While not the best overall choice in this review, this seat is an economical choice that could act as a potential second seat, grandma's go-to, or for those on the tightest budget who need to keep costs down without sacrificing everything.
Read review: Baby Trend EZ Flex-Loc
Best for Urban Life
The Doona is a truly unique safety seat that also doubles as a stroller creating an innovative all-in-one choice. This highly-functional design makes this product a standout for those living an urban lifestyle using taxis, Lyft, and Uber. You can quickly install the Doona in a vehicle and be ready to stroll within moments of arriving at your destination, which makes it a game-changer in a world of similar options. This product is easy to use, easy to install sans base and meets a need that no other car seat can giving you safer possibilities to transport your baby than forgoing a seat (which is surprisingly legal on public transportation in many cities).
This carrier's higher price and heavier weight might be a potential turn off for some suburban parents, but it is tough to beat for city folks who may otherwise skip using a car seat in public transportation, or who don't want to mess with a carrying a second product (compatible stroller). However, its lower crash analysis results might make it a less desirable option for those who don't absolutely need an all-in-one solution. Still, we believe this seat/stroller is an excellent choice for traveling from your loft to a cab to the sidewalk with ease. We believe the Doona fills a niche in a way no other car seat can. If you live in a world where you may be tempted to legally forgo a car seat, the Doona is a significantly better, safer, and more convenient solution than skipping a safety seat.
Read review: Doona
Why You Should Trust Us
With over 5 years and 500 hours of hands-on infant car seat testing and crash tests, BabyGearLab is in a unique position to provide details on how the seats compare to one another and how they fare in crash testing compared to the federal guidelines and the competition. Our expert panel was led by Dr. Juliet Spurrier, Board-Certified Pediatrician, mother of two, and founder of BabyGearLab. Dr. Spurrier's background in urgent care pediatrics informed her concerns with crash-related injury and the common safety risks of improperly installed car seats. As a result, our testing includes crash testing each car seat, as well as hands-on evaluation of ease-of-installation, and everyday use, to create a comprehensive 360-degree assessment of the factors that impact safety and practical day-to-day use.
Our test protocol was developed by Certified Passenger Safety Technician, Bob Wofford. It is designed to assess how difficult or easy each car seat is to install correctly for maximum safety. We consulted with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) experts about their testing protocol and resulting crash test data. For our crash testing, we hired MGA Research, the national testing laboratory that holds the compliance contract for the NHTSA crash testing protocol used to assess the safety of every car seat sold in the US. Every product in our review has been crash tested to the same exacting standards, and we include the actual data from every seat for your review and transparency. Our Senior Review Editor, Wendy Schmitz, mother of two, has been leading the analysis of our infant car seat test results since 2014. Wendy has examined, compared, and rated the detailed performance of more than three dozen competing safety seats.
Our process and assessment starts with crash testing each safety seat with MGA and continues with more than 200 hours of in-house testing and real-world use. We put each option through its paces, using them in and out of multiple vehicles, installing seats with LATCH and seat belts, carrying them, and assessing every functional and design detail. While others rely on second-hand review research and make recommendations based on popularity or manufacturer-supplied free products, BabyGearLab performs an extensive, side-by-side comparison to provide details to help guide your final choice. To ensure complete unbiased independence, we purchase two of each product in our review, one for crash testing, and another for hands-on and real-world analysis. Our review process provides the most current details on infant car seats (without outside pressure) to help you make the best decision about which choice is the right option for your baby and lifestyle.
Jump to: How We Tested Infant Car Seats
Analysis and Test Results
We ran side-by-side analysis and testing over multiple months on every product in our review including in-house testing, crash testing, and real-world use.
We perform our tests under the supervision and guidance of a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) certified Child Passenger Safety (CPS) Technician. We perform comprehensive testing that we use in combination with Crash Test data to determine how each product's performance regarding measured forces of impact during crash tests. While each product conforms to the minimum safety guidelines required by the federal government, they are not all easy to use and install, nor do they all have impressive crash-test results.
Finding the best infant car seat for you with a wallet-friendly price tag might be easier than you think. Multiple contenders in this review sport a lower list price than much of the competition. The Chicco Keyfit 30 is an easy-to-use car seat that performs well overall with better crash tests results than the average seat. The Baby Trend EZ Flex-loc also performs well with one of the lowest prices in the review. Several other award winners have higher prices, but their features and performance or crash test analysis make them a good value if their strong points are the most important to you.
Crash Impact Tests and Ratings
A key part of our testing is the analysis of the crash test results we commission. We also have a relationship with NHTSA to utilize their crash test data for analysis.
In our analysis, we focus on the options that provide an additional margin of safety, relative to the competition based on an analysis of the crash test sensor data. For example, if a seat's sensor measures significantly lower impact forces (better) in the head sensors of the crash test dummy, resulting in a lower Head Injury Criteria (HIC) score, we believe the seat offers a higher margin of protection than competitors with higher (more forces) HIC scores.
We analyzed the crash sled tests data of each car seat to determine how they perform compared to competitors and the federal safety standard. We include graphs comparing the actual crash test data in each product review and summarize them below.
So, what matters most when analyzing crash impact test results?
- Risk of a head injury (HIC score)
- Risk of a chest injury (G clip score)
This image uses the crash test data for HIC scores and displays the % below the NHTSA maximum of 1000 HIC score for each car seat in the review. We focused on examining how large of a margin of protection each product offers below the federal maximum HIC score of 1000. Products that are further left (with higher bars) can be considered as providing an additional margin of protection.
This picture shows the % below the federal maximum Chest (G) Clip score of 60 that each seat achieved. As with the HIC score, we focus on how large a margin of protection each option provides below the federal maximum Chest (G) Clip score of 60 in their crash test. Seats that are further left (with higher bars) are farther below the Federal maximum Chest score and can be considered as providing an additional margin of protection.
Analysis of child auto crash injuries shows that head and chest injuries present the two highest risks for serious or fatal injury.
Additional Crash Safety Features
Some products in this lineup have additional features that could potentially impact overall safety. Overall, we didn't factor these features or claims in our analysis because there is little to no real-world or test data available to support or analyze the claims or features. While you might be intrigued by an option that brags about side impact protection (SIP) or an anti-rebound bar, we suggest that you avoid making a selection based only on these features or claims as information about efficacy is shockingly lacking. Also, there are no agreed-upon definitions for most of the terms batted about in the industry, nor are there universally accepted tests to investigate the claims and features. We think it is smarter to stick to the crash test data analysis when comparing the potential safety of each seat instead of buying into an unsupported or unexplained claim.
In an effort to evaluate the load leg safety feature, we compared crash test data from the Cybex Aton2 and the Peg Perego Nido using the load leg and without the load leg. Testing results indicate that using the load leg improved crash test performance and could potentially impact real-world crash scenarios for the Aton 2, but not the Nido. Begging the question of what is the real efficacy of this type of feature? The Aton 2 has a HIC score of 340 using the load leg and 521 without the leg (a lower number is better); these results indicate a higher margin of protection when using the leg with the Aton 2. Alternatively, the Nido has a HIC score of 573 with the load leg and 430 without it, indicating a more significant margin of safety not using the leg with the Nido. So, while there may be some validity to the concepts of features like the load leg, we don't think parents should be swayed by every safety advantage manufacturers' claim. With the information and details we have, we can't account for the difference in efficacy from seat to seat and leg to leg. What we can say is all other factors during testing were identical and the results speak for themselves and create some overarching questions.
Crash tests and results are important, but most parents don't know that improper installation and misuse of infant car seats are a significant cause of injury in car accidents. In our conversations with safety engineers at NHTSA, they emphasized that car seat misuse is a more significant safety issue than the differences between the crash test performance of each seat. A NHTSA study showed that 84% of infant seats exhibited critical misuse, either in the installation of the seat or restraint of the infant. A study of 267 families by Portland's top Children's Hospital shows that "95% of parents made at least one error in either the positioning of the infant or installation of the car safety seat." These kinds of mistakes could place their infant at an increased risk of injury in a crash.Given the critical importance of proper installation to keep your baby safe, we strongly encourage you to seek help for installation. It is vitally important that you install and use your car seat correctly every time with NO exceptions. To ensure that your seat is correctly installed, seek advice from a professional car seat inspection technician (it's free!). Also, consider consulting an expert when you move the seat to a new vehicle or position.
Best Rated Seats in our Crash Test Analysis
Using crash test result analysis, we rate each product on a 1-10 scale to identify the products that, in our opinion, offer an extra margin of safety, over and beyond the required protection for all seats.
The Cybex Aton 2 (with load leg) earned our highest crash test rating of 9 of 10. The Aton 2 has impressive crash test results, with the lowest G clip result in this review and the second-lowest HIC result. Given its performance in other test metrics, we think the Cybex Aton 2 is an excellent choice for parents who concerned with crash test sensor data and analysis as its results indicate that it offers an extra margin of protection over other seats. Also notable for offering additional protection are the Chicco KeyFit 30 with the lowest HIC result, and the Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35.
Ease of Installation with the LATCH System
Studies show that more than 7 out of 10 car seats are incorrectly installed or the baby was improperly restrained, and 93% of parents make mistakes on car seat use on the way home from the hospital. This information is why we believe that ease-of-installation and ease-of-use are critical considerations and encourage parents to include these metrics in their review process prior to making a buying decision as it encompasses more than just making life easier.
The easiest way to install a car seat, and thus the method we recommend, is the Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) system. The good news is that your infant car seat and vehicle are likely LATCH-compatible on the left or right side of the back seat. Nearly every car seat, and most vehicles manufactured since September 1, 2002, have the LATCH system. According to NHTSA, over 60% of parents place their infant car seats on the left or right side. Most choose the passenger side so that the driver can more easily see their baby. The middle position is also popular (but often lacks LATCH anchors).
The LATCH system should make correctly installing a car seat easier by reducing the chances of mistakes.
During testing, we discovered that some seats are significantly easier to install with the LATCH method over other methods. Part of what makes one seat easier to install with LATCH is the connector type. Lower cost seats use clips, but the easiest-to-use products provide click-in push-button style connectors (both are safe, just different in ease of use).
The Cybex Aton 2 uses a push-button connector that clicks onto the LATCH anchor point (above left). The Chicco Fit2 earned a 10 of 10 for the LATCH installation. The top-scoring seats all have unique LATCH anchors or tightening systems that make installation significantly more manageable than other contenders. This group includes the UPPAbaby Mesa with its self-ratcheting LATCH straps that help it earn a 9, the Nuna Pipa with rigid LATCH connectors, and the Britax Endeavours.
Our Child Passenger Safety Technician swiftly installed the UPPAbaby Mesa using LATCH. After clicking the Mesa to the LATCH anchor bars, you push down on the base and the straps self-retract to tighten. Once adequately tight, the indicator turns green, it could not be easier than this.
Tightening and Loosening Straps
LATCH connectors are only the first part of the strap equation for infant car seat installation. Whether or not the straps on the connectors are easy to tighten and loosen is also important. We love the UPPAbaby Mesa's self-retracting straps and the Chicco Keyfit 30 also sports an easy to adjust strap, while the Graco LATCH straps are more challenging to tighten and loosen than most of the competition. We prefer products that didn't require body weight to tighten or struggling to complete a secure attachment, including the Nuna Pipa and Chicco Fit2.
Best Rated Seats for LATCH Installation
The top LATCH installation score goes to the Chicco Fit2 and Nuna Pipa with perfect 10s. The UPPAbaby Mesa, Chicco Keyfit 30, and the Cybex Aton 2 all tied with impressive 9s. Theoretically, studies indicate that easy installation can translate to a potentially safer experience in an accident as injuries from real-world crashes are often related to installation mistakes or harness use errors. The Baby Trend seat earned a 7, making it a higher scoring, inexpensive choice many parents will be able to easily install.
Ease of Installation with a Seat Belt
If you'd like to use your car seat in the center of your vehicle's back seat, which is considered the safest location for a car seat, then on you'll probably need to master seatbelt installation in most vehicles. Our tests give you the information to determine which products make this process a breeze.
Certified Child Passenger Safety (CPS) Technicians are a free nationwide resource in the US who can help you learn to correctly install your infant car seat . We can't recommend this service enough.
A Seat Belt Lock-off is Key
Some of the seats are significantly easier to install using a vehicle belt than others, and the "lock-off" features are why. About half of the safety seats in this review have a base with a lock-off for the vehicle belt. A lock-off prevents the base from sliding up and down the seatbelt. Good lock-offs help create a more secure feeling seatbelt installation, than LATCH installation. So, if your car lacks LATCH anchors, or you want to install the car seat in the middle seat, then you will likely need to install the seat using the vehicle belt.
The Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 and the Peg Perego Nido have the best belt lock-off systems in our tests.
Best Rated Seats for Seat Belt Installation
The lock-offs on the Graco SnugRide SnugLock 35, Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35, and the Peg Perego Nido make installation a breeze compared to seats without a lock-off or with challenging lock-offs. The lock-off on the Chicco Keyfit 30 is harder and makes this type of installation frustrating. We struggled to get the vehicle belt in the lock thanks to strap curling and bunching. Despite this, with all else being equal, we still prefer a challenging lock-off over no lock-off. We believe a lock-off is critical to achieving a secure installation using the vehicle belt with the base.
The majority of bases lacking a lock-off didn't perform well in our tests. In general, they feel less secure because they often slide on the shoulder portion of the vehicle belt, resulting in the seat tilting which feel unstable. The Baby Trend EZ Flex-Loc wants to flip up and it could loosen up over time as you drive and seat bounces.
Look up. It might be in the ceiling! Some SUVs and wagons have a center seat belt in the ceiling that can be easily overlooked if you aren't used to that many passengers.
Ease of Installation Without the Base
You might be wondering, why do I care about installing the seat without the base?
The answer is simple: taxis, Uber, buses, and airplanes; this installation method is a useful solution for any parent that frequent public transportation.
In our opinion, if you don't expect to take your infant on public transportation very often (or ever), then you can ignore this section and move on to Ease of Use. However, if you think you will travel with your baby or need to install the carrier in a car that isn't your own, then this section might be essential to your buying choice.
For those living in urban areas, who frequently travel by taxis or services like Uber, learning to install your seat without the base is critical. Also, for traveling on airplanes, the FAA recommends using an approved car seat calling it the safest way for babies to fly. If you use an infant seat on a plane, then you'll likely want to install it without the base to avoid carrying the base through the airport.
There are two belt paths for installing a carrier without the base, European, and American. Every seat uses at least one way, and some allow both. If your carrier has the European path, but your car only has a lap belt, then you can use the American method without impacting overall safety.
The American pathway threads the seatbelt across the leg portion of the carrier through the designated pathway. This path is straightforward and creates a secure attachment that passes safety regulations in the US. This style does not utilize the shoulder strap on the vehicle belt even if it is there.
The European path also routes the vehicle belt across the lower part of the carrier, and it wraps the shoulder portion of the strap around the back of the carrier under a retention clip. We think the shoulder belt offers a more secure feeling that results in less carrier shifting. We can't say it truly is more secure, only that it feels that way.
We believe the European belt path offers a more secure feeling connection with less movement than the American method thanks to the shoulder belt holding the back snug to the vehicle seat. However, the American path is more straightforward and quick to perform. The Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 (above left) uses the European path, while the Graco SnugLock 35 (above right) features the American method.
Best Rated Seats for Installation Without the Base
The Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 and Peg Perego Nido use the European color-coded belt path with easy lock-offs that help them earn 10s. This result means they have the highest scores in our tests for two installation methods! Depending on your installation method of choice, either seat could easily meet your requirements.
If you live in the city and use taxis or Uber, we encourage you to consider the top-ranked options in this metric as you'll typically need to install your seat without the base to avoid lugging both components around town. The Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 and the UPPAbaby Mesa have impressive scores for ease of installation without the base and are potential contenders for public transportation. The Doona only earns an 8 for installation without using the base, but it converts to a stroller when you reach your destination which eliminates the need for additional gear, making it an excellent choice for urbanites looking to decrease the hassle of baby transportation. In fact, we feel that the Doona is one of the best options for city dwellers thanks to the strolling capabilities.
Ease of Use
At first glance, the infant seats seem similar and look like they function virtually identical. Not so. The contenders in this review are different when it comes to our test results for ease of use. Buckles, harness adjustments, handles, and carrier release mechanisms can be simple or frustrating and everywhere in between.
While it is tempting to leave your sleeping little one in a carrier when you reach your destination, this action could be potentially dangerous and is definitely not recommended. Babies sleeping in car seats, swings, and bouncers have a higher risk of positional asphyxiation. Positional asphyxiation happens when the baby's body position prevents breathing. This issue can happen when the baby's head falls forward and potentially blocks their airway. A 2015 study of children under two years old who died in a sitting or carrying device, showed that slightly over half of the 31 deaths involving car seats were a direct result of positional asphyxiation. To avoid potentially dangerous issues, always remove your baby from the car seat and put them to sleep on their back, in a crib or bassinet.
Buckle Release Buttons
Some seats have stiff, hard to use buckles. Getting your baby out of the carrier can be challenging if the buckle requires two thumbs. We think the Graco buttons are hard to use, and some also have challenging chest clips. The Peg Perego Nido and Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 have buckles we dream about that virtually fall apart when you push them. However, the Nido chest clip is stiff and can create pain. Removing your baby swiftly and without complication is a must, and we favor products with easy buckle and chest clip combos.
For harness tightening and loosening in our tests, the Doona impresses. The strap pulls smoothly, and the release button requires less pressure than the competition. The Peg Perego Nido and the Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 harnesses are also easier to use.
Adjusting the Harness as Your Baby Grows
Adjusting shoulder straps height has two methods. One is an involved process where you detach the shoulder straps from a splitter on the back and rethread them through a higher slot before sliding the straps back on the splitter (above left). The other method is more straightforward and includes disengaging the height adjustment assembly (usually with a button or lever) and sliding it up or down (above right). The latter can occur with your baby in the seat immediately when you notice a need. The former typically requires an empty carrier and can be challenging to thread and adjust depending on the straps, the slots, or padding. We feel parents are more likely to maintain a correctly fitted harness if it is straightforward, quick, and is immediate when there is a need (i.e., when you first put your baby in the seat). Making immediate changes when the need arises is better than waiting for a more convenient moment. For these reasons, we believe non-rethread harnesses are better and theoretically safer for little ones.
Only a few options are the non-rethread harness style. They can operate from the front or back, depending on the design. The Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 and Peg Perego Nido earned the highest scores with 10s and smooth moving, easy to operate assemblies. The UPPAbaby Mesa received a 9. The Chicco Fit2 has an 8 for its sliding assembly. The most challenging shoulder strap height adjustment is the Cybex Aton 2 with a challenging strap and splitter connection.
The Chicco Keyfit 30 and the Chicco Fit2 carriers are the easiest to attach to the base with a 9 of 10 in our tests. They both fall smoothly into place, and we didn't experience mistakes. The UPPAbaby Mesa comes in a close second. The most challenging to connect is the Cybex Aton 2, but it includes a visual indicator when the carrier is on correctly, so while more challenging, the indicator helps prevent a misconnection.
Most of the handles in this review are similar and unremarkable. They operate by squeezing or pushing buttons simultaneously on side pivot points and rotating the handle to the desired position. The number of positions and which positions are allowable for driving varies from seat to seat (see your manual), but the operation is similar. The major issue is the handle/canopy collision we found in several seats. This problem is most prevalent in the Graco seats, though the Peg Perego Nido also struggles. All of the Graco handles and canopies we've ever tested are the same height, which makes it challenging to use the handle when the canopy is open. It is a silly design flaw, but it is annoying and not necessary. We hoped they'd alter the design in newer seats, but the Graco SnugRide SnugLock 35 remains the same. Other problems involve sharp plastic where fingers grip. The most comfortable handle is the UPPAbaby Mesa. The most unique may be the BabyTrend EZ Flex-Loc with its odd, triangle-shaped padded grip at the top.
LATCH storage can impede your ability to connect the seat carrier to the base. Designs that limit or prohibit efficient and correct seat installation lost points. Many of the cheaper options in this review have straps that can hinder a carrier connection.
Best Rated Seats for Ease of Use
The Doona earned top results for ease of use with an 8 of 10. Right on its heels are the Chicco Keyfit 30, UPPAbaby Mesa (above left), and Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35, Peg Perego Nido, and the Chicco Fit2 with 7s.
For comfort and quality, we compare the materials and how well they are assembled and blend together. We consider details such as padding, fabric, and canopies, and how these translate to comfort, use, and longevity.
All of the seats have similarities such as dense foam for impact protection and a hard plastic shell. However, some have thicker padding or softer fabrics. Overall, the seats with superior comfort with attention to detail are top performers for comfort and quality.
Best Rated Seats for Comfort and Quality
The most impressive for comfort and quality is the Nuna Pipa (above left) with a 9. Other standouts include the Chicco Fit2 and the Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 with 8s. These products have thicker padding, softer fabric, and a better overall finish than competitors.
We considered the weight of the base and the carrier of each product. Some of the bases are seriously heavy, but we only factored the weight of the carrier in our scoring because the base usually stays in the car. If a carrier is too heavy, it will be challenging to carry for long.
Best Rated Seats on Weight
The carrier weights vary between 8.48 lbs for the Graco SnugRide SnugLock 35 (above left) and 16.8 lbs for the Doona; the average for the group is 10.5 lbs. This vast difference can make the Doona feel like a non-starter for carrying. However, this unique car seat doubles as a stroller, which means you won't need to carry it if you don't want to. While we don't believe that weight is the top consideration for most families, we do think it is relevant and can help break a tie. The Best Value Winner BabyTrend EZ Flex-Loc is only 8.63 lbs, making it a good choice if you need to carry the seat for longer periods or plan to travel with your infant seat.
After testing 13 of the most popular infant car seats on the market, we discovered that not all car seats are created equal, despite their ability to pass basic Federal crash testing requirements. The goal of this buying guide is to help you sort through the myriad of products available by providing guidance about what to consider 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.
Why Buy an Infant Car Seat?
You will need to purchase an infant car seat if you ever plan to put your baby in a 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 touts a larger weight capacity closer to 35 lbs or 40 lbs, leaving many new parents wondering if they need this extra capacity.
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? And, what about the Chicco Fit2 that claims to work "for 2 years"?
The answer is that 30 lbs and 32 inches are plenty. It is really only the height limit that matters. The higher weight limits are pretty much just marketing hype you can ignore.
We recommend you switch your baby to a rear-facing convertible car seat at around 9-11 months age. Within 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 most 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.
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 are good up to 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. But, keep in mind that your baby will switch to a convertible car seat when age 9-12 months, so don't need to pay extra or worry about weight capacity over 30 lbs.
Some of the seats only offer a maximum of 30-inch length, including the award-winning Chicco Keyfit 30. Is 30 inches 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 keep in mind. The CDC stats show that the average boy baby will reach 30 inches long 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 nine 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 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.
An exception to the norm in infant car seats is the Chicco Fit2 that boasts a useable period of "for 2 years" according to their marketing claims. This seat has a height limit of 35 inches (3 more than the average seat), and the carrier can switch positions to a more upright posture once your baby can crawl or walk. While we can see that this seat will work for a longer time than the average infant car seat, it is unlikely to last for 2 years for most children as only babies at or below the 50th percentile will reach 2 years old and still be under 35 inches. So, while you might like the idea of a 2-year solution, it isn't likely to last for 2 years and is not the best reason to purchase this seat. The Fit2 is an award winner and has lots of reasons to add it to your shortlist of options, but we want to caution you to put the 2-year claim out of your head and focus on the growth of your child instead.
Overall, we advise that you largely ignore size and weight capacity as a critical consideration in your car seat decision. The limits don't matter enough to stress about. The bottom line is that at some point, you will need to purchase a new car seat; whether that happens at 9 months or 18 largely depends on your baby's growth rate, not the car seat limits. Once you switch, your little one will be in their convertible car seat until they reach those limits, as well. So, whether it is 9 months in an infant seat and 2 years in the convertible or 18 months in an infant seat and 1 1/4 years in a convertible, you'll still be purchasing two seats before your child is ready for a booster.
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 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 the design has smaller babies in mind, they have features that support little bodies and make your life with an infant more convenient.
- Separate Bases/Detachable Seats — With an infant seat, the base and the carrier/seat are detachable, and this 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 then clicks onto the base. This design feature allows you to leave the base in the vehicle correctly installed and gives you the freedom to remove the carrier with a baby inside. The carrier can be transported via the handle, or connected to a compatible stroller. We find the ability to click the car seat into a stroller to be very convenient for running quick errands without disturbing the 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 — Infant seats usually offer a canopy to help block the sun from baby's sensitive peepers. A canopy can come in handy in and outside the car while being carried or attached to a stroller. Convertible seats do not have canopies, and it is ill-advised to create one for safety reasons.
- Smaller Weight and Height Restrictions — While some of the infant seats now have a more extensive weight/height ranges than they used to, 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 design might seem like a limiting factor or a reason not to purchase one, but it is part of what makes this kind of seat special and better for newborns and smaller babies than convertible options.
Convertible Car Seats
We recommend that you switch from an infant seat to a convertible car seat when your baby is 9 to 11 months old. However, convertible seats offer compatibility with infants as small as 5 lbs and up to 40-70 lbs depending on the model. The word "convertible" comes from the ability to use the seat in a rear-facing position initially, 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 into buying only a convertible car seat and skip purchasing an infant seat entirely. We urge you not to do that. In our opinion, an infant seat is better designed for the size of a young baby 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, because you must always put them in or take them out of the harness system every time you transition to or from the car.
You will see some seats advertised as "all-in-one," which may have a supported weight range spanning from infant to much older years 65lbs+. These may seem like a good idea at first blush since you buy one seat and use it for many years. But, we do not recommend these "all-in-one" seats. 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, which translates to a potentially safer situation with less margin of error in use. 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
Even though all seats must meet or exceed Federal crash test guidelines, 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.
Never Never Never leave baby unattended in an infant car seat. Injury and death have occurred from accidents related to car seat carriers left unattended while the baby slept. Also, 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.
As you would expect, crash tests play a key role in the basic performance of car seats and also in differentiating products. Each car seat must pass a Federal crash test safety standard. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) administers this test. To pass the standard, each seat is 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 crash test all the types of seats we review: infant, convertible, and booster seats.
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.
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 car seats, you will see that we combined our crash test data with data from NHTSA's crash tests. We analyzed these test results side-by-side to demonstrate how each seat compares to the Federal maximum for G-forces and the competition.
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.
Head Injury Criteria (HIC) Score
In each crash test, there are sensors placed in the chest and head of a test dummy designed to simulate a 22 lbs baby. The Federal safety standard developed by NHTSA uses a scoring factor called the Head Injury Criteria (HIC) score, which is a measure of the likelihood of injury arising from the impact. Each seat must achieve a HIC score of 1000 or lower to pass. The further below the Federal HIC maximum of 1000, the better (lower numbers rule here).
Chest (G) Clip Score
The crash dummy also contains sensors to measure chest impact forces. The data from the chest sensors is used to calculate a second score, called the Chest (G) Clip score, which is an attempt to create a measure of the likelihood of injury to the heart, lungs, and other organs. All seats must achieve a Chest (G) Clip score of 60 or less to pass the Federal safety standards.
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 we tested claim side impact protection (SIP) is part of 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 possible side-impact testing of car seats is in the works, there is currently no universal standard or test available to determine the safety of side impact features. Also, the term is filled with ambiguity. For example, Safety 1st claims SIP in the case of a side collision. They cite independent tests they have paid for to determine the effectiveness 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. 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.
These photos show some of the side-impact features highlighted in the marketing of some seats in this review, including the UPPAbaby Mesa (above left) and the Safety 1st onBoard 35 Air 360 (above right).
Of course, extra safety features are beneficial, but we want you to know of the "Safety washing" that occurs in the marketing of side-impact protection in the industry. Because there is no industry standard, and each manufacturer 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 lack of agreed-upon definition requires further research to determine how each company chooses to define the term and claims to have tested their design, if they are claiming it has undergone tests 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
The Cybex Aton 2 has a hard plastic side-impact "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 Cybex 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. They also have a load leg on the Cybex Aton 2, but our crash test results using the leg and not using the leg indicate that the leg use for this product potentially improves safety for the baby. However, our test comparison of a load leg on a competing seat showed worse results when using the load leg.
Every seat has essentially the same kinds of materials and basic design. There aren't large differences between the seats in this regard, with all of them having 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 lack of information makes it hard to determine if the feature is intended to boost safety or simply 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.
The external hard plastic shell on all of the car seats we tested is the first line of defense in an accident. The shell supplies the necessary structural support and includes 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.
- Hard Foam — All the seats we looked at have stiff foam as their primary energy absorbing material that helps protect the 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 main distinction between seats is the amount and location of the foam inside the shell. Most have the hard foam on either side of the head or encompassing the side and back of the head. A few had foam inside the entire shell surrounding all parts of the 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 offer a softer foam around the head portion of the seat. Soft foam won't do much in terms of impact protection crash, but it can add comfort for normal day-to-day use. Safety 1st has soft foam surrounded by a plastic bag called "Air Side Impact Protection" that they claim was tested by an independent lab to determine its efficacy in decreasing injuries related to side-impact crashes. However, the majority of soft foam is either for looks to mimic some types of impact resistance, for added comfort for baby, or to help in positioning the baby correctly (like infant inserts for smaller newborns).
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 the baby outgrows it.
The Three Ways to Install the Car Seat
There are three methods you can use to install a car seat in a vehicle. We'll give you an overview of each and the most common reasons to use one over another.
- 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 reliable and straightforward 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 ensure a tight and secure connection. Most parents place their child in one of the side seats using LATCH anchors, typically the right rear passenger side, to make it easier for the driver to see the baby.
- Installing the Base with a Seat Belt — To place the car seat in the center seat, installing the car seat base with the vehicle seat belt is usually required. Only a minority of vehicles offer LATCH system connectors for the center seat, so the seat belt is the only option. Center seat installation is worth a thought because studies show it can reduce injury by more than 40% (compared to one of the side positions). We found huge differences between car seats regarding ease-of-installation with a seat belt. For those 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 parents who expect to take taxis or Uber with their baby, learning how to install the car seat without the base, is an important urban parenting skill to master. Also, this is the method of installation you will use if you bring your infant car seat on an airplane. It is worth noting that many parents hold their baby on their lap for airplane travel, or use a baby carrier. Most airlines allow you to bring a baby under two 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
Every seat has some kind of level indicator to help the installer determine when the installation is correct. Some seats provide other indicators that aid in installation.
Level indicators vary and can look like a traditional level using liquid and a bubble, or it could be a ball that rolls along a curved pathway. No matter what the level looks like, it is crucial that you use it as intended because it helps you determine when the car seat is correctly installed. Some, less expensive seats, may include a line on the base side that should rest parallel with the ground beneath the car when properly installed. This style of an indicator is best used from a distance and on a level surface comparing the line to the vehicle bottom not the ground (see your user manual for specific details).
The ability to easily adjust the harness height on the seat can mean the difference between an infant that is secure restrained, 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.
Rethreading the Harness to Adjust Height (Yuck)
The most challenging harnesses to adjust for height are those that require you to "rethread" the straps. Rethreading requires removing the shoulder straps from a splitter on the back of the carrier portion of the seat, pulling the straps through the current slots in the seatback, and reinserting them in a different slot more appropriate to your baby's height, and then reattaching the straps to the splitter. Because shoulder height straps only require occasional adjustment, this likely isn't a deal-breaker, but it can be annoying nonetheless. If you make adjustments with an empty carrier, it is far easier and quicker. The major issue with this kind of adjustment is you may not notice the adjustment need until your baby is already in the carrier. It can be a hassle and time consuming to remove the baby from the seat to adjust the height. We worry some parents will be tempted to wait to make adjustments until the next trip, where they may once again forget or forgo the trouble to a later date. Meanwhile, your baby is sitting unsafely in a harness that lacks adequate protection due to the poor fitting.
Easy to Adjust the Harness Height Seats (Non-Rethread)
Our favorite seats for height adjustment allow adjustments without re-threading the harness straps from one slot to another or detaching the straps from the splitter plate.
This type of harness can usually adjust with the baby in the seat so that it can be performed "on the fly." Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35, Chicco Fit2, and UPPAbaby Mesa all have nicely designed non-rethread harness systems that a breeze to adjust.
Harness Tightening and Release
After the shoulder height is properly adjusted and the 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.
You can determine if a harness is adjusted tightly enough when you can't pinch harness fabric at the shoulders between your fingers.
Most of the seat harnesses we tested loosen by pressing a button near the foot of the carrier. The buttons should be somewhat stiff to prevent little hands from making adjustments, but they shouldn't be so hard to push that an adult can't do it with one thumb. Some had buttons visible on top of the seat fabric, while the rest had the button hidden under padding or fabric.
The buckles in our review are all strikingly alike. 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 Graco models we've tested (past and present) use 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 avoid Graco. Alternatively, the *Peg Perego options are effortless to open and close.
Weight of the Carrier
When researching 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 will need to lift baby higher than your waist for some SUVs and trucks. Obviously, not all of the seats can be the lightest, but a few are what we consider to be prohibitively heavy. The Graco SnugRide SnugLock 35 is the lightest of the group at 8.48 lbs. The most substantial seat in the review is the Doona at 16.8 lbs, but it is also a stroller, so you won't be carrying it far. The average carrier weight is 10.5 lbs.
Sometimes the difference is in the details, or the beauty and the devil depending on how you look at it. While many of the products look and function similarly, and even smell the same, the details help them 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.
Having a canopy is one feature that sets infant seats apart from convertible seats. All of the seats we reviewed offered a canopy, but they varied in size and additional features like a peek-a-boo window and ventilation or 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 useful to have, but it isn't a deal-breaker if it doesn't. The Britax B-Safe 35 has one of the largest canopies in the group. Still, the UPPAbaby has a unique hardcover storage for the canopy when it isn't in use that helps make the seat's overall fit and finish impressive. The Britax B-Safe Ultra has a window with ventilation, which can be useful if you pair the carrier with a stroller canopy.
Anti-Rebound Bar and Load Leg
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 like 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 Primo Viaggio 4-3, 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 Keyfit 30 both lack these features and still managed to rank highly with relatively high crash test scores. The Keyfit 30 earned the most impressive HIC crash test results in the group, and it has no load leg or anti-rebound bar, and it has a budget-friendly price.
The Cybex Aton 2 crash test results with and without the load leg seem to indicate that a load leg offers an additional margin of safety to a seat. This product saw a better head and chest sensor result using the leg than without it. However, when we tested the Peg Perego Nido with and without the load leg, the test results were worse using the load leg. What is going on here? We aren't sure, and as a result, we remain skeptical and don't consider these kinds of features to be mandatory.
If you use the seatbelt instead of the LATCH connectors to install the base, good LATCH storage is essential, so the straps and connectors don't get in the way when attaching the carrier onto the base. Not all storage features are great, and we prefer those that keep the straps contained. The UPPAbaby has useful retractable connectors that ratchet the strap in with the connectors tucked into side pockets. There is no chance these straps will impinge on the carrier's ability to attach to the base.
We suggest you pick the car seat that best meets your needs before you consider compatible strollers. The car seat selection is frankly a more important decision to ensure your infant's safety, and you are not likely to paint yourself into a corner when it comes time to pick a stroller.
When you are ready to find a compatible stroller, our review of the most popular full-size strollers can help you review your options. You should also read our Stroller and Car Seat Combo review, which looks specifically at which seats work best in combination with each stroller. 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. You can check out our review of the best performing baby carriers, with detailed ratings and information.
On-board Manual Storage
There should be a location on each seat where you can store the user manual for easy access. This storage helps ensure you have the answers at your fingertips should a problem or question arise concerning installation or use. It is essential to utilize this storage location as intended and to keep the manual where it is supposed to be. Some of these are in better 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 provided the information and broken it down into steps that will help you determine which seat will best suit your needs.
Step 1: Consider Where You Will Install the Seat
As we noted above, there are multiple ways to install a car seat, and each method relates to a different type of usage pattern.
If you live in a major city, and expect to take your baby in cabs or Uber, you should consider a car seat that is easy to install without the base. Because this type of installation can be more challenging, we'd suggest urbanites consider the Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 and the Doona, both of which are easy to install without the base.
Do you use taxis frequently and want an excellent stroller for pushing your baby around town? The Doona turns into a stroller and could make navigating city life with a baby much more manageable. This unique stroller and car seat combination product earned a Top Pick award for Urban Living thanks to being able to stroll right out of a taxi with nothing to carry or stow.Center Seat or Side?
The next key question is where will the seat be located in your car, and 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 an 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, the center location will only be safe if you can properly anchor the seat securely. 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%) 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. Plus, it allows the use of the much easier and safer LATCH system.
Most cars do not allow the 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 the relatively tricky 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 make this anchoring option simpler. This is another place where the Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 delivered standout performance and deserves a spot on your shortlist. The Graco SnugRide SnugLock 35 and the Peg Perego Nido are also easy to install using the vehicle belt.
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 more extensive. Many seats in our review were reasonably easy to install using LATCH anchors, and several scored 8 of 10 or higher in our Ease of Installing the Base with LATCH tests. The Chicco Fit 2 earned top honors with a perfect 10 during testing. Several high scoring seats tied for second place with impressive 9s, the UPPAbaby Mesa, the Chicco Keyfit 30, the Nuna Pipa, and the Cybex Aton 2.
Making mistakes when installing a car seat or adjusting the harness are 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
Safely installing the base is half the battle. The other element is the daily process of taking your baby in and out of the car seat and safely getting them harnessed in the seat.
Not all seats perform equally on ease-of-use, and so if you emerged from Step 1 above with a handful of car seats on your shortlist, take a look at our ease-of-use ratings to narrow down the options further.
The top performer for ease of use, the Doona, offers impressive performance with an 8 of 10, but it is relatively weak in other areas, finishing below average. While it fills a niche in the market, it isn't the best option for most families. We suggest considering the 2nd place finishers for ease of use because they also ranked well overall. Several seats tied with 7 of 10, but a few perform well across the board, including the Peg Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35, Chicco Keyfit 30, Chicco Fit2, Peg Perego Nido, and the UPPAbaby Mesa.
Step 3: Compare Crash Test Performance
Every seat in this review 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 significantly better than others in crash tests, and therefore, 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 narrow down your selection further. 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. In the end, If you don' t use the seat correctly, it won't matter how safe it is.
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 product performed compared to the competition. 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. The Cybex Aton 2 is a safety winner thanks to impressive crash-test results. It isn't the best choice for all families, but if you want the absolute highest crash-test score, it is a good choice. The Chicco Keyft 30 earned the best HIC score and is also one to consider if safety is on your mind, and your budget is smaller.
Step 4: Consider Stroller Options
Choosing the right car seat is a more important decision than choosing a stroller. But, after you narrow down your list to one or two finalists for your car seat, we suggest you consider compatible strollers if you plan to use your infant car seat in combination with a stroller to create a travel system. Take a look at our comprehensive review of the most popular and highly regarded full-size 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 is lightweight and really convenient for the first 9 to 12 months while your 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.
Step 5: Check the Expiration Date
Last, car seats expire. The foam used for crash impact absorption protection has a shelf life, and after a certain period, should be destroyed and no longer used as a car seat. If you obtain 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.
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 information can help keep you on the right track and ensure that you 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 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 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.
- 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 a 3-point (lap-and-shoulder) vehicle belt.
- 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.
- Harness Slots — Parts of the 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.
- Seat Padding — Padding that covers the shell and frame of the seat, typically consisting of dense foam.
- Padding — Additional padding or inserts some manufacturers provide to increase child comfort that has been crash-tested with the seat. You should never use padding with your car seat that did not come with that seat. It could alter the seat's performance during a crash or cause potential injury.
- Level Indicator — The part of the car seat that helps identify correct rear-facing installation angles. It can be a green to a red indicator, a ball level, or more of a traditional bubble level.
- Belt Path — The location of a car seat where the seat belt or lower anchor connector is placed to secure car seat to the vehicle.
- Recline Adjuster — This feature allows car seats to be reclined for rear-facing seats, and semi-reclined or upright for forward-facing use.
- 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 a car seat that works with certain types of seat belts based on the same concept as a locking clip.
- Locking Clip — A locking clip holds the car seat in the proper position during normal driving when no other locking mechanism is available.
- Lower Anchor Connector — Connectors attached to the car seat that are used in place of the vehicle seatbelt 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).
- 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 the base.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
All infant seats in our review were tested over several months side-by-side to fairly evaluate their performance in each rating metric. Each seat was used extensively by multiple testers and in multiple vehicles. We utilized four very different vehicle makes and models in our primary testing of installation and ease-of-use in an effort to get a general overall feel of functionality and features for installation purposes. Each seat was used according to the manufacturer manual.
At the outset of testing, we engaged with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) and a certified Child Passenger Safety (CPS) Technician to help us develop a set of comprehensive tests on infant car seats. As with all of our reviews, the car seat test plan and testing process are reviewed and overseen by Dr. Juliet Spurrier, our founder, mother of two, and a board-certified Pediatrician.
Crash Testing Process
We researched and analyzed the crash test data in professionally prepared reports based on sled crash tests. BabyGearLab contracted with the same crash test facility used by NHTSA to perform crash tests on car seats in compliance with the same testing protocol used by NHTSA and under the FMVSS 213 standard. We combined our test data with crash test data obtained from NHTSA's own tests to create a comprehensive analysis of each seat.
Crash tests utilize a test dummy with G-force sensors located at various points in the body. We analyzed the data and rated the seats in comparison with one another apples to apples. The more a seat exceeded the Federal safety standards, the better it scored in our analysis. It is important to keep in mind that all of the seats comply with Federal safety guidelines, but each seat responded differently in sled testing and resulted in scores that we believe can help differentiate one seat from another for the purposes of comparison.
Here is one of our crash tests conducted on the Graco SnugRide Click Connect 40.
Testing Ease of Install
We installed each seat in 3-4 different vehicles of varying sizes and manufacturers ranging from a compact car to a passenger pick-up truck. Each seat was installed by at least 2 different testers according to the instructions in the manual that came with the seat. Each installation was audited by a certified Child Passenger Safety technician to determine if they were installed properly. The testers ranked each seat for ease of install compared to the other seats in the group and the scores are averaged across testers for a final score for the metric. These tests were repeated for installation using the LATCH system, the vehicle seat belt, and without the base.
Testing Ease of Use
For ease of use, the seats are used as they would be under normal circumstances and then ranked compared to the other eats in the group. We looked at the buckles and chest clips, tightening and loosening the harness, harness height adjustment methods, ease of attaching the carrier to the base, LATCH storage options and handle and canopy functionality. Each seat was used multiple times to help determine how easy or difficult it really is to use.
For comfort and quality, we compared each seat side-by-side and ranked them as they compared to the other products in the group. We considered padding, fabric, additional positioning inserts, canopy size and durability, and the overall fit and finish of the seat. Feedback from testers was averaged to determine the final score for the metric.
Each seat base and carrier were weighed separately using the same scale by the same tester. The carrier weights were ranked from the lightest to the heaviest and scores were assigned appropriately.
With so many potential safety seats on the market, the one thing we can all agree on is there isn't one product that can meet the needs of every family. With the inability of creating a single perfect car seat for everyone, as goals and needs vary from family to family, we are committed to testing as many top-ranked seats as we can and giving multiple awards to help parents find the right seat for their needs and budget. With our detailed tests and crash testing analysis, we believe we can help you narrow the field of options to a handful of potential contenders that can meet your needs and align with your budget. We think there is something for everyone in our award winners and top-ranked contenders, making this review the only one you need to make a final selection concerning your infant car seat choice.
— Juliet Spurrier, MD & Wendy Schmitz