A car seat or booster seat that’s properly installed and used correctly can reduce the chance of death in a collision by as much as 71%. That’s not a small amount of risk reduction!
It doesn’t matter how much you paid for a car seat – if it’s not being used correctly, it cannot protect your child properly. No amount of money or number of high-end features will compensate for an incorrectly installed child restraint.
When we consider adding a seat to our Recommended Seats page in the United States or for Canada, we spend a lot of time considering everything that would earn a seat a place on that list. We’re definitely not just looking at price – we consider ease of installation, ease of use, longevity, fit to child, and more. Let’s walk through the main criteria for addition to those lists.
If your child’s car seat or booster seat isn’t on our list, does this mean that your child’s seat isn’t a safe option for them? No! If you’ve selected the quirkiest seat on the market and can install that quirky seat correctly, then it’s a great option for your situation. Our recommendations tend to fall toward seats that don’t require that level of emotional investment.
Ease of Installation
The first step in using a child restraint correctly is ensuring it is installed correctly. If the seat is installed correctly, it will be able to do its job and keep your child safe in the event of a crash. So the first thing we consider when it comes to Recommended Seats is: how easy is it to install this particular seat correctly?
In the CPST course, it’s stressed over and over again that the manual is the single source of truth about installations. We take that guidance very seriously when we consider adding a seat to the list.
We look at the manual quite a lot when we write reviews and when we help caregivers in our Facebook group. A car seat’s manual should include clear diagrams and easy to follow, step by step installations instructions. A good manual, a Recommended Seats manual, doesn’t typically leave the caregiver asking more questions.
Some manuals do this well, while others fall short. While we appreciate when manufacturers add an FAQ section to their websites answering common questions, we feel strongly that those questions really should be addressed in the manual itself – especially if the question is about installation restrictions. A couple of examples are vehicle seat overhang being prohibited and a vehicle headrest being required/not required.
Criteria: Installation Aids
Some car seats come with features that make the installation much easier – like the Britax ClickTight, Graco SnugLock, or Nuna RAVA’s True Tension door for vehicle seat belt installations, the Graco EZ Tight LATCH, or Evenflo EasyClick for lower anchor installations. While these features are not foolproof, they DO make installations easier, and for that they get a big thumbs up from us! Car seats that have these features tend to make their way onto our list pretty often!
Recline Angle Indicator
If the car seat includes a bubble or ball style recline angle indicator that’s easy to read and/or offers a range of recline angles in both rear or forward facing modes to help with the installation in a variety of vehicles, that also scores the seat points because it allows the child restraint to work in more vehicles than a car seat that “sits where it sits”.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to the ease of installation, here’s the bottom line: if we find at any point during our review process that we are struggling to install a seat properly, it is very unlikely that it will earn a spot on our Recommended Seats list.
Ease of Use
The second step in using a child restraint correctly is ensuring that the seat is used correctly on every ride.
If the child is rear facing, that means the harness is positioned at or below their shoulders. If the child is forward facing, that means the harness is positioned at or above their shoulders. If the child is riding in a booster seat, that means the lap portion of the vehicle seat belt is low on the child’s hips, touching their thighs and the shoulder belt is centered on their shoulder.
While we again appreciate it when manufacturers add an FAQ section to their websites answering common questions around harness positioning and adjustment, those questions really should be addressed in the manual itself . This is especially true if the FAQ indicates that something is required on the seat. Examples of this scenario include harness pads being required for forward facing or a harness that can be used for a longer period than most other seats.
Some Recommended Car Seats include no rethread harnesses. This type of harness adjusts by squeezing a handle and pulling the headrest up. This type of harness makes it quite easy to adjust the harness for use by more than one child (no, not at the same time!).
A Recommended Booster Seat might include a wide range of height and width adjustments that help position the vehicle seat belt properly on children of different sizes without too much effort. If a seat can be adjusted to fit the child quickly and easily, it is more likely to earn a spot on our list.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to ease of use the bottom line is: if a car seat’s harness is difficult to adjust, or we struggle to find a consistently good vehicle seat belt fit in a booster seat, it’s unlikely that you’ll find those seats on the list. If we are struggling to adjust a seat or use it correctly, the average caregiver will also struggle and the chances of the seat being used correctly will decrease.
As we said in the introduction, the price point is not something that guarantees safety. While some car seats and booster seats with a high price point contain features that help with the ease of installation and use, that is never a guarantee.
While price is one consideration, we do consider if a seat lasts long enough to make it worth the price tag, whether that price tag is small or large. Many reasonably-priced car seats have a fairly high top harness measurement, meaning that in most cases, they should last quite some time and be a good value over time. Seats in this category tend to make our list as well!
The Bottom Line
When choosing seats for our recommended list, we consider all of these points with a focus is on ease of installation and ease of use.
If a car seat costs $100 and is easy to use and install, we will recommend it over a seat that costs $400 but has installation quirks or lots of rules to follow.
Sometimes seats are left off our recommended list solely because of the price – if there is a seat with the same height and weight limits and a similar ease of use and ease of installation that costs less money, we will recommend the lower priced seat.
Some car seats that are fairly quirky — most of the seats in this category have ever-changing rules or small parts that are only required for one type of installation scenario — yet work in unique situations like three car seats or booster seats across or for travel, do make it onto our list because they fill that particular need. We note the quirks in the listing and in our review so families have some warning about the challenges they’re taking on by selecting that particular seat.
If we included every car seat on the market on this list, the list would have no value. So we consider all of these factors quite carefully.
Just because a car seat isn’t on our Recommended Seats list, that does not mean you need to buy a new seat or that your seat is not safe.
ALL car seats are safe when installed and used correctly.
- If you’ve chosen the most challenging car seat on the market and use it correctly on every ride, then it’s a great choice for your family.
- If you’ve chosen an expensive seat that’s not on our list but that fits your budget and you use it correctly on every ride, then it’s a great choice for your family.
- If you’ve chosen a mid-priced seat that’s not on our list but that fits your budget and you use it correctly on every ride, then it’s a great choice for your family.
- If you’ve chosen an inexpensive seat that’s not on our list but that fits your budget and you use it correctly on every ride, then it’s a great choice for your family.
We put together the Recommended Seats list as a guideline to help caregivers narrow down their options. We know there are many, many car seats on the market. This page is intended as a resource, not as the be-all and end-all list of seats.
If your seat is installed and used correctly and fits your vehicle, child, and budget, then it’s a good choice for your family.
If you are unsure about your seat’s installation or would simply like a second set of eyes inspecting it, please don’t hesitate to contact a CPST or contact us directly through our Facebook Group, Facebook Page, or e-mail. We are here to help you!