Choosing the Best Car Seat

I’ve been asked for years to write some kind of car seat buying guide – like the pram reviews I’ve been writing year after year. There’s been a few things holding me back. Mostly that it’s a very important topic and I wanted to make sure I was sharing the right information. Car seats are ALL about safety, so I didn’t want to risk giving bad information.

While pram safety is also important, car seats literally exist to keep your baby and children safe. So I have been a little bit nervous about giving the wrong information on this topic.

However, I’ve actually been working in a baby store since late 2018 and part of this job is selling car seats. Which also means I’ve had lots of opportunities to talk directly to the sales reps for two of the biggest brands of car seats in Australia – Britax (Safe and Sound) and Maxi Cosi. And now I do feel like I have some information – and the right information to share.

Also I’ve spent a lot of time talking to new parents about car seats. Sometimes the very first real conversation they’ve had about car seats. So I feel like I’ve almost gathered a bit of a “FAQ” in my own mind. Or at least the things that new parents are concerned or confused about. Because car seats really can be very confusing. There are SO MANY options, so many brands, so many models. And when you don’t know what you’re looking at, they can all look pretty much the same.

So, just because I launch into this – I do want to be clear. The below is all my own opinion, and accurate to the my best understanding. So please don’t use this as your one and only source of information about car seats. So I’m writing this as a general guide.

Safety Comes First

choosing the best car seat for safety

Obviously safety is the most important aspect of the car seat you choose, because that is the whole point of choosing a car seat in the first place. In some ways I think identifying a safe car seat is somewhat intuitive.

If you look at a car seat that has no additional head protection, nothing inside the side shell of the car seat, compared to something beefed out with multiple layers around your baby. It’s pretty obvious and intuitive which one is going to be offering better protection to your baby or child in an accident.

That said, every car seat sold in Australia must pass Australia’s high standards for car seat safety. So presumably any car seat you buy from an Australian store is going to be safe. Just some car seats exceed those standards and offer superior protection.

Ultimately though you need to choose the best car seat that’s going to suit your needs, your car, and your budget. With car seats you really do get what you pay for, so the safer, better and easier to use car seats are going to be more expensive.

Do you need ISOFIX?

Firstly, your car needs to already have ISOFIX fitted into the back seat for this to even be a consideration. Here is a helpful guide to work out if your car has ISOFIX. It is a comprehensive guide to which cars in Australia are fitted with ISOFIX.

ISOFIX is essentially an alternative buckle to the traditional seat belt method of installing a car seat. Please note that ISOFIX replaces the need to thread the lap and sash seat belt through the seat belt path and DOES NOT replace the tether strap. You will always need to use the top tether to install your car seat in Australia.

My understanding is that using the seat belt or ISOFIX is just as safe when installed correctly. The issue is many parents install their car seat incorrectly. And while it’s a good idea to get your car seat professionally installed, at least the first time so you can see what exactly a correctly installed car seat looks like, ISOFIX can be significantly easier to install correctly. So it is safer because it reduced that likelihood for error. According to Maxi-Cosi up to 8 out of 10 inexperienced parents install their car seat incorrectly when using the seat belt method. Whereas 94% of parents install their car seat correctly when using ISOFIX. 

Car seats with ISOFIX tend to cost a little bit more. However this may be worth it for the peace of mind, especially if you are installing the seat yourself.

Getting The Best Car Seat For Your Child

It’s a little overwhelming trying to work out which car seat is for what age when you walk into a baby store and there are dozens of car seats that all look more-or-less the same. 

It can also be confusing understanding the laws and recommendations for car seat safety. 

But there are a couple of simple things to look for when deciding which car seat is right for your child’s age. As well as making sure it’s appropriate for their size and development.

Height VS Age

Very briefly the law is:

  • Babies under 6 months old must be rearward facing.. 
  • Children under 4 years must be in a car seat with an inbuilt 5 point harness.
  • Children under 7 years must be in a booster seat or a harnessed car seat.

Which means your newborn to 6 month old needs to either be in a capsule or convertible car seat

Your infant 6 months to 4 years must be in a convertible car seat or a G Type Car seat

Your child 4 years to 7 years must be in a G Type Car Seat, Booster or Convertible booster

shoulder markers

That said I cannot stress enough the importance of obeying your car seats height markers. These are not suggestions or recommendations. These are as important, if not more important, than your children’s age as a guide as to what type of seat, and which way they need to be facing.

Though your child reaching the height marker, before they reach a certain age, doesn’t cancel about the above car seat laws based on their age. For example, if your baby is less than 6 months old, but they have reached the forward facing marker in the car seat, they must still travel rearward facing. 

Finding the Best Car Seat For Your Car

Sometimes the available space in your car is the biggest factor to determine the best car seat that you can have. When looking at a car seat you need to consider not just the space it’s going to take up in width across your back seat (which is VERY important if you’re thinking about fitting three car seats across, even in a larger vehicle.) But often the biggest constraint is the space between the back and front seat when your baby is rearward facing. Given that your baby might be rearward facing for 2-3 year years, it’s important that you have sufficient space for your car seat. Not just when it’s set up for a newborn, but also when it is fully extended.

three car seats 5

Also it’s all well and good to get out a tape measure and look at the product description, but exactly how a seat will sit and fit in your car can vary wildly depending on the exact shape of your car and the seat. It’s definitely worth going into a store that will allow you to place the seats in your car. It’s important to see what will REALLY fit in your car. (Or how much leg room you’re front passenger is going to be left with!)

Especially if you’re going to be trying to fit three car seats across the back.

Your Car Seat Should Be Easy For You To Use

Everything is hard when it’s new, but when choosing the best car seat for your family, don’t dismiss ease of use as an important factor. For a car seat to provide maximum safety it needs to be use correctly. That means it needs to be easy for you to install. (Unless you’re planning to have it professionally installed.) It also must be easy for you to use each and every day. Is it easy to buckle up? Are the straps smooth to extend and tighten, as you’ll be doing this each and every time you take baby in and out of the car? Is it easy to adjust the height of the shoulder straps? Basically, make sure your car seat is user friendly.

I’ve had a parent call me after buying a car seat to ask me where exactly is the lever for adjusting the straps, because they couldn’t find it. Because when your a new parent you’re going to be using a car seat when you’re at your most sleep deprived and frazzled. So you want it to be easy.

If you’re looking for my recommendations of what I think are the best car seats, next week I’ll be publishing my guide to the best car seats in Australia.

Rachel Stewart

Rachel is the founder of Parenting Central. She is raising two children, boy and girl, with her partner. Rachel is obsessed prams, car seats, carriers and all things baby. She has worked in the baby industry for several years, for both suppliers and also in a retail setting and has developed a passion for connecting parents with the right products to make their lives easier. When Rachel isn't playing with prams she's enjoys crocheting, drinking coffee (sometimes wine) and spending a little too much time on Facebook.

One Comment

  1. I am a Great Auntie, loving my involvement with our extended family and little ones, but I cringe any time that transport is required. I am out of touch with all the equipment and set up in cars. Now I need to learn for a new baby coming who will be a big part of our lives. I need all the information I can get, on everything. Very happy to have been shown your site.

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