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 really 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 best toddler car seats 2023
Chicco NextFit Zip Convertible Car Seat
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 9-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 those hot summer days.
- Super easy install
- Zip cover makes cleaning up messes a breeze
- 9 different recline positions in both rear and forward-facing modes for maximum comfort
- Breathable back rest for extra air flow
- Forward-facing weight up to 65 pounds and height 49 inches
- Thoughtfully-designed safety features in case of a crash
- Space-saving cupholder for to-go sippys
- Superb value
- Can only rear face up to 40 pounds, which is the average size of a 4-year-old so still lots of longevity