At the 2016 ABC Kids Expo, our team discovered a new car seat manufacturer with a very unique offering. The Sentry Guardimals combination seats aim to appeal to children who have favorite stuffed animals with characters including a bear, a tiger, a monkey, and a puppy. In addition to its unique and friendly designs, with its widest point measuring 17.5 inches, the Guardimals seemed to be a promising new seat for three across situations.
CSFTL Quick Stats
- Forward facing weight range: 22 – 50 pounds
- Forward facing height range: 29 – 48 inches tall
- Highest harness position: 17.5 inches
- High back booster weight range: 30 – 100 pounds
- High back booster height range: 38 – 57 inches tall
- Backless booster weight range: 40 – 120 pounds
- Backless booster height range: 40 – 57 inches tall
- Lower anchor weight maximum: 45 pounds
- Expiration: Harness and high back booster- 6 years from Date of Manufacture; Backless booster – 10 years from Date of Manufacture
- Narrowest point: 15 inches
- Widest point (without cupholder): 17 inches
- Widest point (with cupholder): 21 inches
- Highest harness slot: 17.5 inches
- Highest belt guide position (high back booster mode): 20 inches
The prototype unveiled at ABC Kids was rather unfortunate looking but the manufacturer heard this feedback and the current version of this seat features more realistic eyes, making the bear character appear much friendlier. The bear seat we were sent to review is lightweight and soft – perfect for a sleepy passenger to lean against. My glee at the furry cover, however, was short lived. When I opened the manual (the first step to installing any new seat!) I noticed complicated installation instructions as well as mention of an insert that was not included with the seat. This phantom insert was also not included in the seat diagram later in the manual.
Normally, this is the part of a review where we talk about a car seat’s unique features or note a few things that caught our attention. Unfortunately, we found an alarmingly large number of issues that we’d like to share here instead. We spent a good deal of quality time reading the manual, checking the seat for labels, installing the seat, uninstalling the seat, and evaluating the overall ease of use.
It seems as if the manual wasn’t proofread at all before the seat started shipping. For a seat that’s already being sold, our biggest fear in this situation is that caregivers won’t be able to install and use the seat correctly. Let’s walk through the issues we encountered.
Top Tether Storage
Most car seats have a dedicated spot on the plastic shell of the seat for top tether storage. The Guardimal’s top tether stores on the outside of the seat’s cover. Over time, this could well lead to the cover ripping in that spot. Also, this protrusion could get in the way of a secure installation with the rear entry installation method, which does not allow the use of the top tether.
Our soft bear requires a bit of assembly. When I picked up the back of the seat to attach it to the base, I saw the lower anchors were not permanently attached to the seat — that’s a requirement of the FMVSS 213 Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard for Child Restraint Systems.
While this may not be a safety concern in and of itself since vehicle seat belt installations are also an option, it is troubling to see a seat that is already being sold not complying with federal regulations.
In addition, lower anchor straps that aren’t permanently affixed to the seat can be difficult to keep track of for parents who prefer to use lower anchor installations or who plan to use lower anchors in booster mode later on.
Storage Pockets and Cleaning
The Sentry Guardimals have handy pockets on the back of each paw on the armrests. These may be great storage for the little toys children like to carry around but my concern is that they might result in parental profanity should a child choose to save a snack for later in one of these non-machine washable pockets.
Installation — Manual is Confusing
When I opened the manual to the installation section, I was surprised that the instructions were so short. To confirm my suspicions that these instructions could lead to misuse, I showed other parents this section of the manual. I was met with quite a bit of confusion since so many installation steps seemed to be missing from the instructions. Upon further reading, I discovered that the first few pages of the manual are only summaries for each installation method. The full instructions follow a few pages later.
When using the harness, there are two ways to route either the lower anchors or the seat belt. The front entry method requires the use of the tether. The tether is not used with the rear entry method but, at CSFTL, we always recommend using the tether as we know that tethers are an essential safety feature of forward facing car seats.
Like the Baby Trend Hybrid 3-in-1 combination car seat, the Sentry Guardimals offers a variety of installation methods. While in theory this variety could provide a number of options for challenging situations, in practice we’ve found that so many options almost invariably lead to misuse.
Harness Catches on Pocket
When the seat was installed, the storage pocket interfered with tightening the straps because the splitter plate would catch on it. When we tried to loosen the straps, the splitter plate got caught on the bottom of the seat where it meets the back.
Vehicle Seat Belt Installation: Front Entry Belt Path not Labelled
The front entry routing method is different than the belt path on most forward facing harnessed seats. Unfortunately, the belt path isn’t labelled on the seat at all. It’s only listed in the manual.
The seat belt is routed around the front of the seat with the shoulder belt over the armrest and the lap belt under the armrest. Then, it is inserted into a slit in the fabric and through the opening to the back, passed behind the seat, and pulled to the front of the seat through a second slot in the seat’s fabric before being routed under the second armrest and buckled.
This method resulted in excessive twisting and straightening. It also used most of my vehicle seat belt and introduced a lot of friction, making it difficult to tighten the seat belt and get less than 1 inch movement at the belt path.
Now that we’ve listed the challenges with this seat, we’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming and continue with our review.
Lower Anchor installation: Front Entry
Using the lower anchors with the front entry method was nearly identical to installing with the vehicle seat belt using this front entry method. Without a vehicle shoulder belt to contend with, I didn’t deal with as much twisting and friction on the lower anchor webbing as I did using the vehicle seat belt.
Rear Entry Installation
The rear entry installation method is similar to a typical installation, however it cannot be used with the top tether. Since the top tether is a critical part of forward facing harnessed car seats, we can’t suggest this installation method.
I could not get a secure install using this method with either the seat belt or the lower anchors. If a car seat moves more than one inch when checked at the belt path, it’s not a safe installation.
We’ve removed the cover to show how the vehicle seat belt is threaded in this type of installation.
Fit to Child: Harnessed Mode
3 Years Old
Our 3 year old model weighs 34 pounds and is 39 inches tall. She fits nicely in the harness and still has plenty of room to grow. She likes the smooth adjusting harness and the grippy covers. If she were an escape artist, the design of the cam lock would prevent her from being able to loosen her straps to get out.
The crotch strap is routed differently than most combination seats in the United States. It’s routed through the inner slot and the strap is routed back and up through the outer crotch buckle slot. The manual doesn’t mention this so it’s especially important to note when you need to take the seat apart.
6 Years Old
This model is 6 years old, weighs 49 pounds, and is 45 inches tall. The manual states there are four harness positions, but the seat itself only has three pairs of slots. Even without a fourth harness slot, our 6 year old model’s shoulders are still under the top slot, so he still has time in the harnessed mode of this seat.
High Back Booster Mode
Challenge: Label Doesn’t Match Manual
The manual lists high back booster weight limits at 30-100 pounds and 38-50 inches tall. However, the seat’s label gives a maximum height limit of 57 inches. The backless booster limits are 40-100 pounds and 42-57 inches in the manual but 40-120 pounds and 40-57 inches on the seat’s label.
When we contacted the manufacturer regarding this, we were directed to follow the labels on the seat. This kind of inconsistency can only lead to misuse.
Fit to Child
6 Years Old
We were pleasantly surprised to see how well the high back booster mode fit our 6 year old model. The lap belt was low on his hips and the shoulder belt made full contact with his torso, landing perfectly in the center of his shoulder. Since he can be trusted to sit properly 100% of the time, high back booster mode is a safe choice for him. For the backless booster mode and kids who may feel too old for a stuffed animal seat, the feet paws, (Sentry’s name for them) can be removed. They’re simply attached by hook and loop strips that are inserted through two slots in the seat for each one.
Without Shoulder Belt Positioner
The fit for the backless booster was rather disappointing. Due to the design of the seat, our 6 year old had difficulty sitting up straight and not slouching. When he was sitting up with his bottom firmly against the back of the seat, the lap belt was too low on his thighs and didn’t even touch his pelvis.
With Shoulder Belt Positioner
Without the positioner, the vehicle shoulder belt was too close to his neck and hovered over his shoulder. This was fixed by using the shoulder belt positioner that’s attached to the seat.
Important Information: Where to Find
FAA Approval The Sentry Guardimals is FAA approved when used in harness mode. The FAA approval sticker is located on the back (left) side of the base.
Manual Storage The manual stores in a black mesh pouch at the back of the seat.
Date of Manufacture The date of manufacture is on a sticker at the bottom of the seat base.
Lower Anchor storage The manual says that the lower anchors store on the back of the seat, however, there aren’t any places to clip them in to the back of the seat. Also, storing them there would make a secure installation nearly impossible since that location would place the adjuster in between the Guardimal seat and the vehicle seat back.
The Sentry Guardimal has a lot of potential. It’s narrow, lightweight, and the soft characters are likely to appeal to many children. But there are many drawbacks: the complicated installs, the confusing and conflicting manual, and the poor belt fit in backless booster mode.
We are very concerned that caregivers will misuse this seat. Car seats are only safe when used properly every time, so this presents a serious safety concern.
We have reached out to the manufacturer and they have taken our concerns into consideration. They are currently rewriting the manual and we hope that this will clear up much of the confusion we encountered. We are anxious to see the seat continue to evolve and improve. We absolutely look forward to seeing the updated manaual and updated versions of this seat. Until we’ve had a chance to review those updates, we can’t recommend the Guardimals at this time.