Toddler Car Seats: A Complete Guide (2023)
As a parent, it can sometimes be difficult to determine what is a real threat to our kids, and what is an overreaction. Is plastic really that bad? What about GMOs? One thing that we know for sure? Car accidents are a leading cause of death in children in the United States. Seeing as car travel is part of daily life for most families, finding the best car seat for your child is one of the most important things you can do to keep your child safe.
Many parents do a lot of research before purchasing an infant car seat as they are preparing for a new baby, but the chaos of parenting can make reading reviews of car seats for older children a bit more difficult. We’ve done the research for you, so you can be confident you are making the best choice for your family by purchasing the right car seat for your 3-year-old.
Of course, child safety is the top priority when choosing a new car seat, but there are several variables to consider to ensure your child is as safe as possible if they are ever in a car accident. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has guidelines on choosing the safest car seat, and the first thing to explore is the type of car seat. To determine which type of car seat is the best option for your family, weight limit, height limit, the number of young children in your family, and the size of your car should all be considered.
A big thank you to guest blogger Erin McMahon of Chicago with Kids. Erin is a Chicago high school teacher and mom to a 4-month-old son and 3-year-old daughter.
Note: Some links may be affiliate links. That means I may make a commission if you use my links to purchase, at no extra added cost to you! I only recommend products that I personally love and believe in. Full disclaimer here.
Types of Car Seats
Rear-Facing Car Seat
A rear-facing seat is most commonly considered an infant seat. While the rear-facing position is considered the safest position, your toddler has likely exceeded the maximum weight limit, so a baby car seat is not the right safety seat for this age group.
A great option for many families is an all-in-one convertible car seat. All-in-one car seats have different positions that you can use depending on your child’s size. This can be a more economical choice because you can have the same car seat for a long time. Convertible seats typically have a rear-facing mode that has a higher maximum height and weight limit, so kids can stay rear facing longer than in traditional car seats. When your kids grow, you can switch them to forward-facing mode, and some models even have a booster mode as well for the big kids.
Forward-Facing Car Seat
A forward-facing seat is typically what’s needed once a child turns three, but there are several options available. In addition to convertible car seats, combination car seats transition from the forward-facing position to a booster seat, but they usually don’t have a rear-facing position.
Booster Car Seat
There are a couple of different booster seats, including a high-back booster and a backless booster. A high-back belt-positioning booster is intended to boost the child so the car’s seat belt fits properly while also providing support for the child’s head. A backless booster does not have head and neck support, so it should only be used in cars that have headrests.
Steel Frame vs. Plastic Frame
There are two different frame types to consider when purchasing a car seat: steel or plastic. Steel frames are generally considered to be the safest option, as they tend to be stronger and more durable. If you’re interested in a steel-frame car seat, The Diono Radian is highly regarded. Steel-frame car seats tend to be heavier than plastic-frame car seats, so they are not recommended if you are looking for a travel car seat. They are usually more expensive as well, so engineered plastic is probably a better option if you are on a budget. Plastic car seats must meet minimum safety standards too, so you can still feel confident that your car seat is safe as long as it’s approved by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Layers of Side Impact Protection
The layers of side impact protection are an important feature of safe car seats, as they absorb energy in the event of a crash. In a side-impact collision, your child will be much more protected with additional layers to protect against head and neck injuries. Maxi Cosi car seats have a side protection system in all of their car seats to keep your little ones as safe as possible.
LATCH system is an acronym for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. All car seat manufacturers are required by law to have a LATCH system on their car seats, so the main thing you need to think about is the ease of LATCH system installation. For car seats to work as intended, they need to be installed correctly. If it’s a complicated installation process, there’s a greater likelihood that your car seat could be installed incorrectly.
Other Great Features
Ease of Use
All big car seat brands perform well on crash tests, so where there are recognizable differences is in their ease of use. Safety is the first priority when choosing a car seat, but the ease of use can make your life less stressful. Baby Gear Lab independently crash tests car seats, and they provide a rating for ease of use, so you may want to add it into the equation.
Ease of installation is important for safety and sanity purposes. Car seats need to be installed properly to be as safe as possible for your little one. They also need to be removed occasionally for various reasons, so it makes your life a lot easier if they are easy to install when you need to put them back in.
Light weight car seats can be much easier to carry on airplanes and move between cars, so if you are a frequent traveler, the weight of the car seat should be an essential part of your decision.
Adjustable headrests can make your toddler more comfortable, but it’s also a safety feature. Making sure their headrest is in the right place can help protect them from head and neck injuries.
Some car seats have a more narrow seat width which can be essential in small cars or if you need room for an additional seat for another passenger.
Washing Machine Friendly
Kids are messy, and they will inevitably get their car seats messy as well. Having washing machine-friendly components on your car seat will save you a lot of headaches down the road.
This is just an added bonus, but cup holders allow kids to keep a water bottle next to them which means you won’t have to constantly pass your beverage back to them.
At this age, all kids should have a five-point harness, but you can choose a car seat with a rethread harness or a no-rethread harness. No-rethread harnesses allow you to adjust the harness without manually rerouting them. There are benefits and downsides to both models. The Safety 1st Grow and Go has a no-rethread harness if that appeals to you.
Here are our Recommendations for the Best Toddler Car Seats:
All recommendations are based on reviews from Consumer Reports and BabyGear Lab which independently crash-test and review the car seats. All of the following car seats meet US safety standards and are approved by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Overall Best Convertible Car Seat: Graco Extend2Fit
The Graco Extend 2 Fit Convertible Car Seat earned the top spot on our overall best convertible car seat for a few reasons. Ultimately, safety is paramount and it scored the highest on crash test ratings. Additionally, rear facing is considered safer than forward facing, and the Graco Extend2Fit allows kids to stay rear facing until they are 50 pounds. This means many 3 year olds can remain in the rear-facing position for longer. The Graco Extend2Fit is reasonably priced, and it has multiple configurations to grow with your child. It’s a great all-in-one option that you can use for several years.
At 19 inches, it is wider than many car seats, so it could be challenging to fit three car seats in a row if that is required for your family. It can be a little more difficult to install than some other car seats, but it is still fairly easy to use. This is the car seat that Siobhán, the owner of Mimosas & Motherhood, uses for her oldest child. The photo is him in this seat, and he loves it!
Overall, the Graco Extend2Fit is affordable, safe, and will grow with your child so it earned the top spot on our list.
Learn More Here >>> Graco Extend2Fit
Highest Quality Best Toddler Car Seat: Nuna RAVA
The Nuna RAVA Convertible Car Seat is a high quality car seat that has deep comfort padding, soft fabric, quality construction, and an aesthetically pleasing design. It performed well on crash test ratings, and it’s sturdier than most other options. It’s also super easy to install.
The quality and attention to detail come at a price, as this car seat was more expensive than most other options. It is heavier than most car seats as well, so it wouldn’t be convenient to carry on a plane or to use as a travel car seat. If quality and safety are your priority, and you don’t mind a heavier more expensive car seat, the Nuna Rava is a great choice!
Best Budget Toddler Car Seat: Evenflo Sonus
According to safeconvertiblecarseats.com, the Evenflo Sonus 65 Convertible Car Seat is a fantastic budget-friendly option. It performed well in crash tests, and it even performed well in a rollover test which is not federally required. it can be purchased for under $150, making it much more affordable than many car seats. Its narrow width makes it great for smaller cars, or if you need to fit three car seats in a row. It’s portable, so it’s easy to bring on planes or while traveling.
It seems a bit less comfortable than some of the other options, and it takes up a lot of passenger leg room in the rear facing position. However, it’s safe, affordable, and a great travel car seat.
Learn More Here>>> Evenflo Sonus
Best High-Back Booster Seat: Britax Grow With You
The Britax Grow With You is our top choice for a high back booster seat. Britax is well respected name in the car seat world, and they are committed to quality and safety. The Grow With You is easy to install, which means it is more likely to be installed correctly for optimal performance.
It is quite heavy, so it’s probably not a seat you want to carry around, and the headrest can be a bit difficult to adjust. These disadvantages are relatively minor, and you can feel confident that the Britax Grow With You is a great booster seat.
Learn More Here>>> Britax Grow With You
Best Budget High-Back Booster: Graco Tranzitions
The Graco Tranzitions 3 in 1 Harness Booster Seat is our recommendation for a safe, easy-to-use budget high back booster seat. You can purchase this high-quality booster seat for less than $150, and it performs well on crash test ratings. Is narrow, lightweight frame makes it easy to carry around, and it has an upper weight limit of 100 pounds!
It does not have a steel reinforced frame so it feels lower quality, but it’s still considered a very safe booster seat for your little one at an affordable price.
Learn More Here>>> Graco Tranzitions 3 in 1 Harness Booster Seat
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Final Thoughts on the Best Carseat for a 3-Year-Old
Hopefully, you’ll never be in a car accident, but selecting the right car seat for your child is one of the most important things you can do to keep your child safe. Convenience, quality, and price should all be taken into consideration as well, and we hope this guide provided you with everything you need to make your decision. When in doubt, be sure to check your car seat manufacturer on the list of approved manufacturers from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Below are some additional reminders to ensure maximum safety for your child. Safe travels!
- Putting the car seat behind the passenger seat is safer for getting your child in and out of the car.
- Kids that are three years of age and older should typically be in a front-facing seat, but they should remain in the back seat of the vehicle.
- It’s always recommended to get your car seat checked by a certified child passenger safety technician, and it’s a good idea to register your car seat so you get notified of any recalls.
- Finally, make sure you check the expiration date on your car seat and make sure to replace it after any accident!
Thank you again to guest blogger Erin McMahon of Chicago with Kids. Be sure to check her out on Instagram too!
A safe car seat is so important! It was wonderful working with you 🙂