How to Choose the Right Car Seat for Your Child

Whether you need a car seat for a newborn, 1-year-old, or preschooler, this age-by-age guide explains your child's car seat needs, and how to pick the best option for your family.

A car seat is one of the most important gear purchases you’re going to make as a new parent. It is one of the only products you will ever buy for your child that has the potential to actually save their life. Not only that, but you can’t bring your baby home from the hospital without it.

Wondering where to start? There are three basic types of car seats for infants and toddlers: rear-facing, forward-facing, and convertible (which convert from rear to forward-facing).

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children should remain in a rear-facing car seat for as long as possible, until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by their seat. (Previously, the AAP advised that children should remain rear-facing until at least age 2, but the latest recommendation removes the specific age milestone encouraging parents to keep their child rear-facing longer—if their car seat weight and height limitations allow.)

As your child grows, you’ll need to change the direction that their car seat faces and how they sit in it—and you may need to buy a new seat. Check out this age-by-age guide to keeping car travel safe for your little one.

Car Seats for Newborns and Infants

There are two kinds of car seats for infants: infant-only and convertible. Both types of seats are equally safe for newborns and infants, so the kind you choose depends on your budget and personal preference.

Infant-only Car Seat

An infant-only car seat can be used until your baby weighs 20 to 22 pounds, or their head is within 1 inch of the top of the seat. They are generally lighter in weight and designed to be portable.

Many parents prefer the convenience of an infant car seat because the seat can be removed from the car without having to unstrap and possibly wake a sleeping baby. The car seat base remains strapped into the vehicle; the carrier simply snaps in and out of the base.

Infant-only seats are also convenient because they can click onto a stroller base. If you choose an infant-only seat, consider buying one that is part of a travel system or one that is compatible with your preferred stroller (many have adaptors available).

Convertible Car Seat

A convertible car seat may also be used from birth, but infant-only seats tend to fit small newborns better. If you’re opting for a convertible car seat, look for one that is certified to be rear-facing until the baby weighs at least 30 pounds.

Convertible seats are a great option if you want a product that will last through the years since they can be installed as either a rear- or forward-facing seat. Plus, most have limits that will allow children to ride rear-facing for two years or more.

However, convertible seats are not designed to be portable; instead, they remain fixed in the car.

Car Seats for Toddlers

When your child outgrows the limitations of their rear-facing car seat, they should use a forward-facing car seat with a harness for as long as possible (until they reach the seat’s height or weight limit). When buying a car seat for a toddler who has outgrown their rear-facing seat, you can either turn their car seat around to face forward (in the case of a convertible car seat), or you can choose from a forward-facing only car seat or a combination car seat.

Forward-facing Only Car Seat

A forward-facing car seat is similar to a convertible car seat in that it uses the same five-point harness system and is not intended to be portable like an infant car seat. Unlike a convertible car seat, however, a forward-facing car seat only faces forward and cannot be used rear-facing for babies or smaller toddlers.

Many forward-facing only car seats can accommodate children up to 65 pounds or more, but always refer to the manual of the car seat you choose for maximum height and weight limitations as these recommendations are not universal.

Combination Car Seat

A combination car seat functions as both a forward-facing car seat with a five-point harness for toddlers and preschoolers as well as a booster for bigger kids. Typically, combination car seats function with a harness until the child reaches 40–65 pounds. After that, you can remove the harness and the car seat converts to a belt-positioning booster, which can be used for kids up to 80-100 pounds with your car’s lap and/or shoulder belt.

Car Seats for Preschoolers

When your preschooler has outgrown the limitations of their forward-facing car seat with a harness, they should transition to belt-positioning booster with the lap and/or shoulder belt in the car. This type of booster seat fits kids up to 80-100 pounds, and in general, most kids need boosters from about age 3 or 4 to at least age 8.

Keep in mind that children need head support: Use a high-back booster if the car has a low backseat. A backless booster can be used if the car’s seat has a built-in headrest.

Once You’ve Bought Your Car Seat

Practice buckling the seat into your car well before your baby’s first ride. You don’t want to be rushed when it comes to ensuring a safe installation, and it can take a few tries to feel confident with a new car seat.

You can even schedule an appointment with a certified child passenger safety (CPS) technician, who is trained to teach caregivers how to get their chosen car seat safely installed in their vehicle. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) maintains a directory of inspection stations.

When fitting your child into their car seat, make sure the harness straps fit snugly on their body. Use the lowest harness slots for a newborn infant. Keep the straps in the slots at or below your baby’s shoulders for the rear-facing position. Make sure the harness straps fit properly over the shoulders and between the legs.

Dress your baby in clothes that keep their legs free and avoid puffy, bulky clothing like winter jackets. Never place anything in or around the car seat that is not directly approved by the manufacturer, as this could interfere with how the car seat works and could place your baby at risk. That includes blankets, coats, and car seat strap padding.


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