Shopping for a car seat can be an overwhelming process. There are dozens of choices, but what exactly are the differences between them? Are the more expensive seats safer? What should you pay for, and what should you not worry about? The good news is that every car seat sold in the U.S. must be tested by the manufacturer to meet government standards. "They all provide good protection if they are used correctly," says Mike James, Alabama's Statewide Child Passenger Safety Coordinator. "What you need to think about is which seat will best fit the build and behavior of your child, the design of your car, and your lifestyle," he adds. Here are some outstanding car seats for every age and stage.
Rear-facing infant-only seats with a five-point harness are not a mandatory purchase, but they generally provide the best fit for very young babies. If you have more than one car, consider buying extra bases so you don't have to reinstall the seat every time you switch to a different car.
What's so special: Not only does the Companion have an inflatable headpiece to provide extra side-impact protection for baby's head, but a special rebound bar helps reduce movement of the car seat during a crash. Whether or not these features are truly advantageous, the Companion is both easy to install and easy to use. Like the Chicco KeyFit, the Companion has an extra-low harness strap position and a minimum weight of 4 pounds, which makes it a good choice for lower birth weight or premature babies. The downside? Besides its steep cost, the Companion is heavy and long, which can make it incompatible with some smaller cars.
These seats are called convertibles because these seats face rear for infants and young toddlers, and then they convert to forward-facing seats to accommodate little ones as they grow. (As noted earlier, experts recommend that you buy an infant-only seat for newborns because the seat will fit them better.) You should keep convertible seats in their rear-facing position until your child reaches the maximum rear-facing weight and height allowed by the seat -- that's 30 or 35 pounds in most cases. Kids should then sit in the seat facing forward until they outgrow it by the specified height or weight.
What's so special: If you take long car trips or have a big-time napper, consider splurging on the Parkway. It provides good side-impact protection, and its side wings provide a comfortable resting place for sleepy heads and help keep kids safely in position. Try it out with your child in the store first, though; some find the side wings too confining.
What's so special: If you can find a little wiggle room in your budget, this Britax seat is the real deal, winning raves because it's so intelligently designed and easy to use. And as technicians know, the easier a car seat is to use, the more likely it is to be installed correctly. The Roundabout is a prime choice in the line, even though Britax has introduced pricier models with higher weight limits and extra safety features. "It's not overly large, so it fits in most vehicles easily and accommodates average-size kids very well until they are ready to go into a booster," says DiFilippo.