Before you know it, your baby will need a toddler car seat. It’ll seem like it was only yesterday when you brought him home from the hospital in an infant seat. But those first few years pass quickly. Then it’s time for your little guy or gal to get a whole new view of the world.
The switch from rear-facing to forward-facing is a big milestone in your child’s life. But like every milestone, it brings about a slew of new questions for you. When should you make the switch? Which toddler seats are safest, and which will fit in your car best? Which ones best fit your budget?
We’ll answer those questions and more to help make your choice as simple as possible.
What Types of Toddler Car Seats are Available?
There are two main types of toddler car seats. Decide what you want and what will work for you before shopping.
- Convertible car seats: This is a very popular option that can even be used from the time your child is a newborn. These start out rear-facing, then convert to a forward-facing seat and very often into a booster seat. There are a few drawbacks to convertible seats. Namely, they’re heavy. They don’t have a static base you can install like an infant seat, so switching from car to car means installing and uninstalling each time. They also can’t be used as an infant carrier. But they can save you money in the long run since you won’t need to buy 3 or more seats as your child grows.
- Forward-facing car seats: These will keep your child in a 5-point harness but will allow her to interact with you easier. You can also see her easier in the rearview mirror. Some forward-facing seats are simply one mode of a convertible seat, while others do double duty as forward-facing and booster modes. Very few are only forward-facing.
When should we make the switch from rear-facing to a toddler seat?
The official definition of a toddler is a child who is 12 to 36 months old (1-3 years), but when it comes to toddler seats, this definition has a wider range. The AAP recommends keeping your child rear-facing as long as possible. Car seat manufacturers are making this possible with larger weight limits, up to 50 – 55 pounds. So, it’s now possible for you to keep a 3-5 year old child rear-facing, depending on their size.
We’ll talk more about the AAP recommendations, and which car seats are most appropriate for specific age groups below.
If your toddler is 12-24 months:
In this age range, ideally, your child should remain rear-facing. However, height and weight can vary greatly from child to child. So, the best seat choice in this range is a convertible seat. If your child is on the high side of the growth chart, you can easily switch them to forward-facing when they reach the max weight and/or height limit for rear-facing (at least 24 months and 40+ pounds for most seats).
Check out our list of some of the top-rated best convertible car seats.
You may think that this is a bit long to keep your child rear-facing, but last year, the AAP changed its recommendation to say that kids should be rear-facing for as long as possible beyond age 2. Here is a snippet of that, and you can read the whole article here.
November 2018 issue of Pediatrics (published online Aug. 30), the AAP recommends children remain in a rear-facing car safety seat as long as possible, until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by their seat. Previously, the AAP specified children should remain rear-facing at least to age 2; the new recommendation removes the specific age milestone.
“Fortunately, car seat manufacturers have created seats that allow children to remain rear-facing until they weigh 40 pounds or more, which means most children can remain rear-facing past their second birthday,” said Benjamin Hoffman, MD, FAAP, lead author of the policy statement and chair of the AAP Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention. “It’s best to keep your child rear-facing as long as possible. This is still the safest way for children to ride.”
Best Convertible Toddler Car Seat for Kids 12-24 monthsFor maximum safety and comfort: extended rear-facing (up to 50+ pounds), then converts to harnessed forward-facing. You will need to purchase a booster when the child reaches maximum weight (65+ pounds).
The Graco Extend2Fit is a winner for those who want extended rear-facing for their toddlers. It's very affordable. The 50 pound rear-facing weight limit is one of the highest for the Graco line. It comes with a 4-position leg extension, adding 5” of legroom for your child. You can convert it to a forward-facing seat when your child reaches a minimum of 40 pounds.
Even better, the 10-position headrest allows for a great fit as your child grows. The seat itself has a 6-position recline as well. Included with this seat are Fuss Free Harness Storage Pockets, 2 crotch strap positions, a steel reinforced frame, InRight LATCH system, two cup holders, and a machine washable cover.
This seat also has a 10 year lifespan, comes in 6 different colors and other upgraded versions as well. NOTE: It does NOT convert into a booster, though there are other versions that do (Extend2Fit 3-in-1 & Forever Exten2Fit All-in-One).
This is one truly versatile seat. The compact size allows for good legroom for front seat passengers, even in rear-facing mode. The push-on LATCH system is really easy to use.
As far as safety goes, the performance is excellent, as parents have reported from real-life crash experiences. The Simply Safe Adjust harness moves the harness and headrest height in one motion, no rethreading of straps is required. It also has a fantastic steel frame that feels sturdy but is still comfortable.Disadvantages
The Extend2Fit is bulkier in width than some seats. If you need to fit three children in the back seat, this might not be the best choice. Also, the fit probably won't be snug enough for preemies or newborns under 7 pounds. The seat cover can be hard to remove and replace for cleaning as well.
There are some rules about weight, recline, and use of some features that differ when using the seat rear-facing vs. forward-facing. These can be confusing at times, so keeping the manual on hand is wise. Some parents had trouble getting the harness straps tight while others found seat belt installation in rear-facing to be quite difficult.Compilation of customer opinions
Overall, customers have been satisfied with this product and recommend it, especially for extended rear-facing. It lacks an easy-to-remove cover, which is really the biggest downside, but the affordable price makes up for that if you're on a budget.
Best All-in-One Toddler Car Seat for Kids 12-24 months4-in-1 best seller: rear-facing seat, harnessed forward-facing seat, high back belt-positioning booster, backless booster seat.
Graco 4ever All-in-One
The Graco 4ever All-in-One has been a tried and true favorite for many families who love convertible car seats. Though it’s not perfect, it’s the closest we’ve seen among convertible seats that are often lacking in one area or another.
It is a meant-to-last car seat, meaning that it fully transitions from rear facing (4-40 pounds) to forward facing (20-65 pounds) to both high back belt-positioning booster (30-100 pounds) and backless booster seat (40-120 pounds) easily while retaining its reliability. It has easy-to-use parts, a premium LATCH system, and double cup holders.
The newest versions of this seat come with a wide variety of color options and an affordable price.
Simply put, this is one of the top rated car seats on the market today. A steel frame, impact-absorbing padding, 6 recline positions 10 position headrest, a 5-point safety harness, and a 1-second LATCH system have made it a favorite for ease-of-use, comfort, and safety.
It comes in 8 colors to suit your taste. Switching between modes is easy, and each mode is truer to size than many other convertibles. According to the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), it has a peak crash force that is approximately two times the Car Seat Standard.
The cup holders make it easy to travel long distances (just add a drink and some snacks), and the seat pad (comes in 3 parts) is machine washable for those inevitable accidents. The seat is also FAA approved for air travel.Disadvantages
In some cars, the rear-facing and booster positions proved to be a bad fit due to the larger size of this car seat. You may not be able to fit it in a car with bucket seats, for instance. Legroom for front passengers may be an issue when this car seat fully reclined for rear-facing.
One big complaint involved a rattling sound in the adjustable headrest. Other smaller issues involved straps that can’t be removed for machine washing and some difficulty tightening the safety harness in rear-facing mode.Compilation of customer opinions
At the end of the day, this is one of the best convertibles on the market. Parents love how simple it is to both install and use, its durability, proven crash safety record, and how well it grows with their children. This is truly a forever seat that will become a regular fixture in your car.
If your toddler is 24+ months (and ~40+ pounds):
At this age, a convertible car seat wouldn’t be practical. You should invest in a front-facing, harnessed seat. The best option is a forward-facing/booster combo. Some of these are 3 -in- 1 seats that can convert from a harnessed seat to a belt-positioning highback booster and then into a backless booster seat. Those will give you the most value for the money.
Here’s a little rundown of the different types & combos available:
- Harnessed forward-facing seats: Your child should ride in a 5-point harness seat until she’s outgrown that seat or mode and is ready for a booster seat. You shouldn’t be in a rush to switch to a booster. Most 3 & even 4 year olds aren’t behaviorally ready to sit in a booster seat with only the vehicle seat belt to contain them. You know your child best. If he or she is about to outgrow their harnessed seat AND is mature enough to sit still with the seat belt alone, then you can safely make the switch to a booster.
- Belt-positioning (high back) boosters: These are often the best boosters to transition to after a harnessed seat. They keep kids positioned correctly when they’re asleep and help position the seat belt better on the shoulders of smaller children.
- Backless boosters: These simply boost your child higher so the vehicle seat belt fits better and don’t provide any back or head support. Your child must have some head support from the vehicle behind them in order to ride in a backless booster. They’re best for kids that don’t often fall asleep in the car since they don’t keep them from slumping over. Backless boosters, however, are usually the cheapest type, are very light and easy to move from car to car.
Many of these come in combinations of harnessed forward-facing seat and high back booster or in a combo of all 3. The combos can really grow with your child and easily last through a couple of siblings. Check out our list of the best forward-facing car seats.
Best Toddler Car Seat for Kids 24+ monthsMade in USA; safest car seat for 40+ pound toddlers; harnessed forward-facing car seat and high back belt-positioning booster in one.
Britax Frontier G1.1 ClickTight
Overall, the Britax Frontier G1.1 Clicktight is a fantastic seat and like all Britax products, is made in the USA. It functions as both a harnessed forward-facing seat and a booster, so it would be a good transition from a rear-facing seat.
We found that the Britax Frontier was one of the easiest booster seats to install overall thanks to its ClickTight technology. The headrest has 9 positions to grow with your child. The seat cover is easy to remove and wash or just spot clean. The weight limits (90 lbs forward-facing, 120 pounds booster) and height limits (58 in. forward-facing, 62 in. booster) are quite high. Plus, heavy padding and quality construction mean it will probably last through at least a couple of kids.
The Frontier has won several awards for ease of use, safety, and more from several expert safety groups such as the NHTSA and IIHS.Disadvantages
This booster seat is pretty big and heavy, which wouldn’t be the best choice for frequent vehicle switches or long car trips. Another issue is that adults may need to step in to adjust the harness. It can get stuck against your vehicle seat so it’s hard to tighten. The seat belt can sometimes get stuck in the seat belt guide too.
The Frontier is not cheap. Some found the seat to be a bit narrow, but that hasn't been a universal complaint.Compilation of customer opinions
Overall, customers have been very happy with the purchase of this car seat. If you don’t need to switch vehicles often or while traveling and are ready to invest quite a bit of money in it, then the Frontier is a good booster seat option for you.
Best Belt-positioning 2-in-1 Booster for Toddlers 4 and upBest long-lasting booster for children who hate 5 point harnesses; starts as high back and then transforms to backless booster.
Chicco KidFit 2-in-1
The Chicco KidFit 2-in-1 Booster is a long-lasting booster seat that will grow well with your child for quite some time. It can be used as either high-back (weight limit 100 pounds) or backless (weight limit 110 pounds). It goes up to 110 pounds in the backless version and 100 pounds in the backed version.
It’s not very expensive, comes in 4 color choices, and is one of the easiest booster seats to install.
One of the biggest advantages is the fact that your child can use this as a backed and a backless version. It is easy for parents to install and adjust with 10 height positions for the headrest. It’s easy for kids to buckle themselves into this booster as well. Machine washable seat pad and armrest covers make cleaning easy. The cup holders are collapsible, removable and dishwasher safe.
You can use both the LATCH system and vehicle belt to install this seat, which is rather unusual. However the LATCH connection keeps the seat in place when your child isn’t riding in it, preventing it from being a projectile in a crash.Disadvantages
The seat is made in China, which can increase the chances of quality control issues. When in high-back mode, the seat rattles when the child is not riding in it, so you have to secure it with the seatbelt. The visual appeal is rather lacking compared to other Chicco products. It’s also a bit heavier and wider so it may take up more backseat real estate than the competition.Compilation of customer opinions
Very few parents have major complaints about this booster seat. Besides not fitting well in some smaller cars and vehicles with bucket seats, the Chicco KidFit 2-in-1 is a really good option for most families.
Toddler Car Seat Safety Guide
- Buying a car seat without doing your research. That’s why we’re here. It’s hard to figure out what’s what when shopping around, so we have all the info you need in one place.
- Putting the car seat in the wrong spot. The safest place for a car seat is ALWAYS the back seat, away from airbags. Where you put it back there depends on several things, which we’ll discuss below.
- Incorrectly installing your car seat. First time parents should look for easy-to-install seats that take the guesswork out and make you less prone to make mistakes.
- Incorrect recline angle. Small babies must be at the proper recline so their airways are kept open. Always follow the car seat manufacturer’s instructions on how to properly recline the seat.
- Switching to forward-facing too soon. The AAP recommends keeping your child rear-facing for as long as possible beyond age 2. Many car seats now have higher weight limits to allow for extended rear-facing.
- Too much clothing on your child. Always remove your child’s bulky coats and blankets before buckling them in the car seat, or the straps won’t provide a snug enough fit. Buckle them in, THEN cover them up.
- Switching to a booster seat too soon. If your child is under 4 years old, under 40 pounds, and still needs help buckling in, they are NOT ready for a belt-positioning booster. Wait until he’s mature enough to buckle himself and sit still for the entire ride.
- Using a booster seat incorrectly. Booster seats need both a lap and shoulder belt. The lap belt should lie across the thighs and not the abdomen. The shoulder belt should lie diagonally across the chest and shoulder and not against the neck.
- Switching to a vehicle seat belt too soon. Keep your child in a booster until they are at least 8-12 years old and until they reach 4 feet, 9 inches in height. When they can sit up straight with legs bent comfortably over the edge of the back seat and when the seat belt fits them correctly without a booster, then they’re ready.
Remember – the safest place for kids age 13 and under is always the BACK SEAT!
What is the most comfortable car seat for toddlers?
That really depends on your child’s preferences and how long they’ll be riding. If you take extended road trips, opting for a more plush, padded seat might be best. But if you have a toddler who hates feeling closed in, a less-padded seat might help them feel less constrained.
Car seats with wide wings for good head and neck support are also good choices. Many toddlers fall asleep within minutes after you start the car, so it’s important to keep them from slumping over, especially if they’ll be in a belt-positioning booster. A five-point harness will help to hold them up much better, however, so avoid switching to a booster seat for as long as possible.
One of the most comfortable car seats we reviewed was the Graco 4Ever All-in-One. Many parents reported how comfortable this seat was for their child. Some babies who previously cried in other seats didn’t when they switched to this one.
Where is the safest place for a toddler car seat?
Studies have shown that putting a car seat in the center rear seat is 43% safer than a side position. Most parents, however, put their children in the rear passenger side since this helps the driver keep an eye on the child easier with just a quick glance.
Also, some older cars only have LATCH on the two side seating positions. Keep in mind, though, that it’s perfectly safe to install your car seat in the center rear position with a seat belt installation. Car seats can only be installed with one or the other, and LATCH is not shown to be any safer than a seat belt installation.
The most important thing to remember is to get a CORRECT installation, no matter where or how you install your car seat. If a car seat is installed incorrectly, it won’t protect your child in any position.
What if you have more than one child in a car seat? Where should you place them?
If you’re expecting or already have a second child, where you place them in the back seat depends on a few different things. Namely, the age and weight of your child. Some experts recommend putting the youngest child in the center seating position. They are the most vulnerable due to their more fragile spinal column.
Others recommend putting an older, forward-facing child in the center position with a rear-facing child on the side since rear-facing seats better protect the child’s spinal column. In fact, a rear-facing car seat is shown to be 5 times safer in a front impact crash.
For side-impact crashes, the center seating position is the safest, but these crashes are more rare than front impact crashes. Also, a rear-facing seat isn’t that much safer than a forward-facing seat in the event of a side impact crash.
So, generally, we would recommend putting the youngest child in the center seat. But again, there is no unsafe spot in the backseat so long as the car seat is installed properly. These decisions can all be impacted by different factors beyond a child’s age. If mom had a c-section, for instance, she may have a hard time getting baby in and out of a car seat that’s in the center position.
What if you have more than two children who need to ride in car seats?
If you’re expecting a THIRD child, and all three will be in car seats, the biggest challenge is simply whether you can actually fit 3 car seats in your vehicle. If you have a smaller car, look for car seats with narrow profiles that customers have successfully used in a 3-across configuration.
One good example of a narrow profile seat is the Diono Rainier 3-in-1. It’s a 3-in-1 combination seat that switches from rear-facing to forward-facing and then to a booster. It’s one of the most narrow seats on the market so will usually do well in a multi-car seat configuration. The best thing is, it can fold up and be carried like a backpack, which makes it super nice for traveling.
What car seat is suitable for a 2 year old?
Depending on your child’s size, it’s safest for a 2-year-old to ride rear-facing for as long as possible. Seats such as the Graco Extend2Fit are perfect for this. It has a 50-pound weight limit and a leg extension to keep legs from getting cramped. You can also turn it to forward-facing when the child is at least 40 pounds.
Any rear-facing or combination car seat that allows for extended rear-facing is great for this age since the AAP recommends keeping them rear-facing for as long as possible beyond 2 years old. Also, 2-year-olds should always be in a harnessed seat at this age and never in a seat belt positioning booster. They simply aren’t old enough to be trusted with a regular seat belt.
What car seat is suitable for a 3 year old?
Many 3-year-olds are ready for a forward-facing seat so long as they meet the minimum weight and height requirements. You can start with a combination seat when they’re newborns and switch to forward-facing when they’ve reached the right size range. Or you can get them a combo forward-facing and booster seat after they’ve outgrown an infant seat.
Again, keep them in a harnessed seat for as long as possible. Most 3-year-olds aren’t ready for a seat-belt positioning booster seat. Car seats like the Britax Frontier are great for this age group since they start as a forward-facing harnessed seat with a weight limit of 90 pounds. They can then be converted to a seat-belt positioning booster when you feel your child is mature enough (usually over 4 years old).