Car seats have come a long way since you were cruising around carefree in the backseat of your mom’s minivan—likely in an improperly installed and highly unsafe (according to today’s standards) seat. Now that you’re a parent and we all know better, selecting the best toddler car seat for your little is top priority. But the plethora of options can make your head spin.
Whatever you’re in the market for, we’ve done the legwork to narrow down the best toddler car seats in every category.
There are the nice-to-have features—like convenient cup holders, adjustable headrests, machine-washable covers, extra padding and soft fabrics—that will make for a more comfortable ride and easy cleaning when the inevitable toddler car sickness strikes, and then there are the must-have features you can’t afford to go without.
For example, a five-point harness with adjustable straps is essential to safely and securely restrain your child. “It should be easy to buckle and unbuckle too,” notes Juliana Amador, a certified car seat consultant. She recommends looking for a car seat that has side-impact protection, which can help protect your child's head and neck in the event of a side-impact collision.
“Car seats that have energy-absorbing foam in the headrest, backrest and sides of the seat can also help reduce the impact of a crash and protect your child's head and body,” she says.
Another, often overlooked feature by parents, is the adjustable recline, especially for toddlers who are prone to car naps. “This feature can ensure that the child is comfortably positioned and prevent their head from falling forward while sleeping,” says Amador. “Additionally, an adjustable recline provides flexibility for different installation options.”
If you or your partner are on the taller side, simply adjust the car seat to a more upright position to instantly create extra leg room.
Unsure of your installation skills? According to Amador, a LATCH system can make it easier to install the car seat securely and reduce the risk of installation errors. “Add-ons like an anti-rebound bar, load leg, side impact pods, lock-off installation, rigid LATCH, extended rear facing/forward-facing limits and harnessing height limits all add great value, and these are some things that parents should consider too.”
You’ll also want to think about your child’s age and weight and if you want an all-in-one car seat that will grow with him. Select a seat that you can confidently install correctly and that isn’t a huge hassle to clean or put the cover back on to make your life infinitely easier.
And if you travel often or plan on moving the car seats between cars, something that’s lightweight and FAA-approved might be your best move.
The NextFit has more than three thousand positive reviews on Amazon from parents who praised this popular seat for its fuss-free install, overall comfort, safety features and the fact that it’s incredibly easy to clean, which is key when you’ve got a little snack monster—or worse, a kid who voms every time you’re in the car for longer than 30 minutes.
The seat pad zips right off (no buttons to fuss with!) and can be thrown directly in the washing machine on the delicate cycle. If you’ve ever broken a sweat trying to get a super tight install, you’ll appreciate the innovative SuperCinch force-multiplying tightener and LockSure belt-locking system that does all the heavy lifting (and tightening) for you.
For maximum safety and peace of mind, the NextFit features two layers of protection, EPS energy-absorbing foam and a steel-reinforced frame so your little’s head and torso are properly protected. Other features to love are the nine-position recline in both rear-facing and forward-facing, adjustable headrest, a foldable cup for drinks on the go and a breathable back rest for hot summer days.
A budget-friendly option that will take you from the cheerio-dumping toddler days all the way until they’re graduating fifth grade and you’re basically a chauffeur. This seat can be used in rear-facing mode until your kiddo reaches 40 pounds or 40 inches, forward-facing until they max out at 65 pounds or 52 inches and as a high-back booster until they hit 100 pounds.
Unlike many car seats, the cover on this one can be cleaned in the washing machine AND dried in the dryer so you don’t have to wait an entire day for it to be dry enough to put back on, which is a game-changer honestly. The car seat itself gives parents up to seven inches more legroom when placed in rear-facing mode.
And if you’ve got a squirmy toddler (aren’t they all?) on your hands, you’ll appreciate the harness holders to help you quickly and easily get your kiddo in and out. Whether you're looking for forward-facing or rear-facing seats, this Safety 1st model is a brilliant value.
One of the best toddler car seats for fashion-forward, design-minded fams. Not only is the Clek Foonf super compact at less than 17 inches wide, which is fab if you need to fit a few kiddos across in the back.
It’s packed with state-of-the-art safety features—from patented energy-absorbing crumple technology to an innovative steel anti-rebound bar and advanced side-impact protection. Each feature promises to keep your kiddo extra protected while you’re on the road.
While not cheap, this luxe seat is built like a tank, looks great in the backseat and is basically foolproof to install with the rigid-latch system in forward-facing mode. If you’re a stickler for safety like we are, you’ll love the option for extended rear-facing, with a max weight of up to 50 pounds. It's definitely one of our favorite car seats for toddlers thanks to the extended weight range.
Another feature that’s unique to the Clek is the cushy, Greenguard-Gold certified fabric, which helps protect against water-based stains and odor-causing bacteria. It’s also free of halogenated flame retardants. Three recline modes ensure your toddler is always comfortable.
With over 42,000 positive reviews and an almost-perfect 4.9-average star rating on Amazon, the Graco Slimfit 3-in-1 is a no-brainer, especially at such an affordable price point for a seat that will last your toddler forever (5-100 pounds to be precise). Its slimmer profile makes it perfect for twins or multiples—or if you just want a little extra room in the back so passengers aren’t squished.
It features a four-position recline to get the best install, a fuss-free no-rethread harness and an easily adjustable 10-position headrest height to ensure your little one is always properly secured. The seat is Graco ProtectPlus Engineered to better protect your toddler in any type of crash.
A steel-reinforced frame offers additional strength and durability, giving you a good ten years of use before you have to retire this bad boy. Toddlers love the cool rotating cup holders for sipping and chilling on the go. When they’re not in use, just rotate them back in to save space.
We love rear-facing position for younger kids and the older-kid-approved booster seat option.
This toddler car seat is easily the most popular on Amazon, and for good reason. Over 90% of more than 69,000 reviewers on Amazon gave this infant-to-toddler car seat a perfect 5/5 rating, which is almost unheard of! Parents praise the affordable price point in particular and the fact that bigger kids can comfortably sit rear-facing for longer, up to 50 pounds.
A thoughtfully-designed four-position extension panel provides up to five inches of extra legroom so your kiddo is never cramped. The headrest and harness can be adjusted in one swift go to easily accommodate your growing toddler and convenient pockets keep the straps out of the way so getting them in and out the car isn’t as time-consuming.
Like the other Graco seat on our list, the Extend2Fit is engineered to protect your little one in frontal, side, rear and rollover crashes so that’s one less thing you have to worry about. It's approved by the American Academy of Pediatrics to fit your child comfortably and safely through their toddler years.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned after three kids and having to uninstall and reinstall car seats way too many times from messes, it’s that you absolutely want a seat that’s effortless to install (and clean!) like the Britax Boulevard ClickTight. Unobstructed seat belt paths and an automatic tensioner make getting the perfect install stress-free every single time.
The car seat cover can go in both the washing machine and the dryer so if you need to get back on the road STAT there’s no waiting around for it to air dry. Two layers of side impact protection surround your toddler’s head, neck and torso, while a high-strength steel frame, SafeCell crumple zone and V-shaped tether offer even more peace of mind.
Harness straps and easy-to-clean fabric round out this toddler and infant seat wonder.
The best toddler car seats are notoriously heavy so if you’re a frequent flier, you’ll want to add a lightweight travel seat, like the much-buzzed-about Wayb Pico, to your lineup for hassle-free jet-setting. Weighing in at only 8 pounds, this innovative (and foldable!) seat can be used for kiddos ages two and up. It's good up to 50 pounds and 45 inches.
This handsome toddler car seat also comes with a premium carrying bag made from recycled polyester that can be worn as a backpack, with the handle or slipped right on to your carry-on luggage so it’s one less thing you have to hold. Did we mention it fits in the overhead bin too, eliminating the risk of damage from checking?
The premium mesh seat fabric is completely breathable and temperature-regulating so your toddler stays cool and comfortable on the go. And for those wondering, yes, the Pico meets all U.S. safety standards for cars and planes, with an FAA-approved sticker right on the bottom. It's a major upgrade from typical backless boosters.
The best toddler car seats come at a variety of price points to suit every budget. Parents often think the higher the price, the safer the car seat, and that's not the truth,” says Amador. “All car seats, from budget-friendly to high-end, pass the same safety standards!”
Always look at the manufacturer's care instructions for your particular car seat, as no two seats are alike when it comes to cleaning. This is super important because using harsh (or the wrong) products on your car seat could compromise its safety. Some car seat covers can be thrown in the wash on the delicate cycle and air dried while others must be spot cleaned with water and mild soap.
I spoke with a certified car seat consultant to get the lowdown on what to look for in the best toddler car seats, as well as read through tons of reviews from real moms and dads on the seats they loved for their own kiddos and why.
The car seats that made it on our list all performed well in crash tests and received high marks for ease of install, safety and overall value. Plus, they all came from super reputable brands, trusted by CPSTs and parents.
Sources: Juliana Amador, a certified car seat consultant at CarSeatsandMore.com
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