Convertible Car Seats 101

Convertible Car Seat 101

If you are a first-time parent, the whole car seat purchase thing can seem overwhelming. This page gives you the basic intro to buying a convertible car seat, whether you are a first timer or a veteran parent who needs a refresher.

Just what is a convertible car seat?

There are three basic types of car seats: infant, convertible and booster. This page focuses on convertible seats—we cover infant car seats here.

Convertible car seats can be used for both infants and older children (the basic seats go up to 40 lbs., but newer models top out at 65, 70 and even 80 lbs.)—infants ride rear facing; older kids over two years of age ride facing forward. Hence the “convertible” moniker: these seats can be used BOTH rear-facing and forward-facing.

Why do newborns and infants up to age 2 ride rear-facing? That’s because safety studies show this is the safest position to protect these children. Older kids have more developed neck and upper torso muscles and can ride forward-facing.

Unlike infant car seats that have a stay-in-the-car base, convertible seats are semi-permanetly installed in a vehicle.

What is the safest seat?

A car seat has one basic function—to keep your baby safe in a crash. All 50 states require you use a car seat and the federal government requires all car seats sold to meet minimum safety standards.

So what does that mean in the real world? That means EVERY convertible car seat—from the $40 special at Walmart to the $500 import from Europe—is safe to use.

Are all car seats equally safe? No—some offer more enhanced side impact protection, for example. Remember this truism: the SAFEST car seat is the one that fits your child, your vehicle and is used correctly. Hence, a $500 convertible seat that isn’t installed correctly or adjusted to fit your child is unsafe, despite the whiz-bang features.

And that’s the rub: surveys reveal that as many as 80% of car seats are not used correctly. Either they are mis-installed or mis-adjusted. So a car seat that is EASY TO USE is safer than one that isn’t, in our opinion.

Example: how easy is it to adjust the harness straps? This is critical to making sure your baby is safely secured in the seat. It doesn’t matter whether you seat is $60 or $600, if the harness isn’t tight and adjusted to your infant, the seat is unsafe.

Hence, convertible seats that have no-thread harnesses (that is, the harness doesn’t have to removed and rethreaded to adjust the height) cost extra, but might be worth it since you can adjust them on the fly. Seats that lack this feature are perfectly safe .. . but just require more work as a parent when your child grows.

Crash tests: what we look for

We look at crash test results from Consumer Reports and the NHTSA for our recommendations. Here’s how Consumer Reports describes their testing:

A rating of the potential for each seat to limit injury and movement of a child in a crash based on simulated frontal crash tests using child sized dummies.

All the seats recommended on this site are rated “very good” or “excellent” for crash protection based on Consumer Reports testing.

The NHTSA also crash tests seats; we look at their data to help refine our ratings.

9 Things No One Tells You About When Shopping for A Convertible Car Seat

How easily does it recline? Many convertible seats have a recline feature for napping infants. Of course, how easily the seat reclines varies from model to model—and reaching that lever in a rear facing seat may be a challenge. Check it out in a store before you buy.

No-twist straps. Better car seats have thicker straps that don’t twist. The result: it is easier to get a child in and out of a seat. Cheaper seats have cheaper webbing that can be a nightmare— “twisty straps” are a key reason why parents hate their car seats. Our top picks on this site avoid the twisty strap issue.

Look at the chest clip. The chest clip or harness tie holds the two belts in place. Affordable seats have a simple “snap-in” clip. More expensive seats have a puzzle buckle—which can be more tricky to open, which of course is a plus and a minus. How easy is it to adjust the harness clip? This is a critical safety issue, as the harness buckle must be correctly positioned.

Are the instructions in Greek? Before you buy the car seat, take a minute to look at the set-up and use instructions. Make sure you can make sense of the seat’s documentation. All the seats we recommend are easy to install, but it doesn’t hurt to download the instructions before buying and giving them a quick look-see.

Is the pad cover machine-washable? You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but a surprising number of seats (both convertible and infant) have covers that aren’t removable or machine washable. Considering how grimy these covers can get, it’s smart to look for this feature. Also check to see if you can wash the harness.

Will the seat be a sauna in the summer? Speaking of the seat pad, check the material. Plush, velvet-like covers might seem nice in the store, but think about next August. Will your baby be sitting in a mini-sauna? Avoid velvet-like covers if you live in an area with hot summers.

Does the seat need to be installed with each use? The best car seats are “permanently” installed in your car. When you put baby in, all you do is buckle them into the seat’s harness system. Yet a few models need to be installed with each use—that means you have to belt the thing into your car every time you use it. Suffice it to say, that’s a major drawback.

Watch out for hot buckles. Some inexpensive car seats have exposed metal buckles and hardware. In the hot sun, these buckles can get toasty and possibly burn a child. Yes, you can cover these buckles with a blanket when you leave the car, but that’s a hassle. A better bet is to buy a seat with a buckle cover or no exposed metal.

How heavy is it? This is a critical factor for infant car seats, but also important for convertibles. Why? If you buy one seat and plan to move it from car to car, choosing a seat that weighs less than a small refrigerator might be prudent.

Have questions on buying a convertible car seat? Contact us. We’d love your feedback.