Toddler car seats are a bit different than the traditional baby car seat you may have purchased to bring your baby home from the hospital. Toddler car seats are made to grow with your child, and in some cases, may even see your child off to their first few years of elementary school.
One useful thing about convertible car seats is that they're exactly that. Your child can ride rear-facing until they reach the maximum weight, and then you can flip the car seat around so that they're forward-facing until they require a booster seat. Some of the convertibles covered here offer removable parts to transform into a booster seat, which saves you some money in the end and the hassle of having to remember to swap out your child's car seat.
We've selected the best toddler car seats for parents to buy. A majority have been heralded for their safety features and impeccable crash tests, and a few are well-known for their style and flair.
These are the best toddler car seats you can buy
Our pick for best toddler car seat, the Britax Marathon ClickTight is not only a trustworthy performer in both third-party and the NHTSA's crash tests, but it's also much easier to install than the competition due to Britax's ClickTight system. Interestingly, the ClickTight system relies on the seatbelt securing methodology rather than the Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren (LATCH) system, which makes it easy to switch between cars if need be without having the dig through your car cushions for the LATCH's adapters. The ClickTight works like a key, in which you twist it clockwise to tighten the straps and secure the seat bottom. It's different than the oft-used LATCH system, but once you get past the learning curve, it becomes second nature.
The Britax Marathon is also the best toddler car seat because it supports kids up to 40 pounds in the rear-facing position, and then up to 65 pounds in the front-facing position. One drawback to consider is that since the Britax extends back a bit, it may be harder to dig your baby out of the seat in the rear-facing position. At 28.4 pounds, the Britax Marathon ClickTight is also a bit too hefty for plane travel.
If you want a convertible car seat that will last you from the hospital to their first day of school, the Graco Extend2Fit is the best toddler car seat for those looking for an affordable option. For $200, this well-rated car seat can accommodate your child to sit rear-facing up to 50 pounds, well past the expert-recommended amount of time. It scored highly with the federally-mandated NHTSA for safety, though it also scored the lowest for seatbelt installation, so you'll want to utilize the easier-to-use LATCH method to install this in your car. It's not made of the highest quality material, either, and you may find your child isn't comfortable for the long car ride to see the grandparents. However, at $120, it’s a very affordable model.
The Graco 4Ever 4-in-1 positions itself as a car seat that will last your baby through their first several years of elementary school—that's a long time! This best toddler car seat is particularly popular among parents who don't want to bother with having the upgrade a car seat halfway throughout their child's life. The seat starts rear-facing for newborns and babies and then converts into a front-facing seat with a high-back. When your child is ready, you can remove the back of the seat to transform it into a full-fledged booster. The Graco 4Ever 4-in-1 works with children ranging from 4 to 120 pounds.
It's a bit of a complicated install, but the idea is that it will stay in the back of your vehicle for literal years. Its sub-$300 price point is pretty attractive, too, considering how much you might end up spending to upgrade the car seat throughout the beginning years of your child's life.
If you'd like a premium choice, the Nuna Rava is the best toddler car seat for chic parents. It's available through specialty retailers like Nordstrom, which is why you won't find it on Amazon.
It is a beautiful car seat, however, and it has the crash ratings to back up its high price tag. It's easy to install using either the LATCH or seatbelt mechanism, and it's constructed of high-quality materials that feel nice to touch. You'll have to contend with a heavier build, however, as those beautiful materials add to the weight of the Rava car seat. Its straps are also a bit stiff, which might make your baby feel uncomfortable until they've had time to wear it in.
The Diono Radian 3RXT is the best toddler car seat if you have more than one child, because you can cram up to three of these seats in the back row for safe transportation of your little ones. At around $240, the Radian 3RXT isn't priced too-highly either for being one of the best toddler car seats. It features a reinforced steel alloy frame, aluminum sidewalls, and energy-absorbing foam. It makes the car seat bit heavy, however.
The Radian 3RXT is available in 12 different color combinations, and accommodates a wide range of kids. If your tyke is rapidly growing, the Radian 3RXT fits children in a rear-facing configuration up to 50 pounds, and in a forward-facing configuration up to 120 pounds. It's also foldable so that you can stow it away for travel on an airplane.
What to look for when buying a toddler car seat
If you're beginning your car seat search, we don't recommend starting with a toddler/convertible car seat. The best infant/baby car seats are specially made to cradle a brand new baby in all the right spots to keep them safe in the event of an impact. Experts suggest waiting to upgrade car seats after your child has reached nine months. They also caution that it's safer for your child to ride rear-facing until at least two years of age.
Size and weight limits: Car seats for toddlers are designed for children who weigh from 5 to 50 pounds (or more). But convertible car seats can handle bigger kids—up to 120 pounds in some cases. Regardless, you'll want to choose a model that enables your child to sit rear-facing for as long as possible. It's safer for them to sit rear-facing until they reach the maximum weight or height limit—whichever occurs first.
Crash tests: Every car seat sold in the United States must meet a federal crash-test safety standard. The crash test is administered by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration(NHTSA).
Each seat is subjected to crash testing in a facility that's designed to simulate collisions using a sled and crash-test baby dummies. The NHTSA measures the amount of force exerted on a dummy baby's head and chest based on a 30-mile-per-hour collision simulation. Review sites like The Wirecutter and BabyGear Lab also commission independent crash testing to corroborate the NHTSA's numbers.
Some manufacturers will attempt to market the "side impact protection" of their particular car seat, but the NHTSA doesn't currently test for that. In the case of convertible car seats, be prepared to also see marketing around "forward facing crumple zones” and "energy absorbing bases.” These sound like they make for a safer car seat, but they're also not federally-mandated. The extra safety features are indeed nice to have, and while we've made mention of where it’s applied for your peace of mind, it should not be a primary factor in your decision-making.
Anchoring: There are two ways to anchor a convertible car seat. First is the LATCH method (Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren). This standard arrived in 2002, and cars manufactured after this time have LATCH connectors available on the left and right side of the back seat.
The LATCH method is the best way to anchor in a car seat, as bases are made to accommodate this universal offering. As a bonus, many bases will include color-coded indicators and even a level to help you ensure it's steady and sufficiently tightened against the back seat.
The second method is the seatbelt method, which you'll have to learn if you don't plan to use a base or you're transporting the car seat inside a taxicab or rideshare. (This method also works on airplanes.)
There are separate American and European standards, and both start by routing the lap belt over the baby's lap area. The European rule requires the shoulder belt, which helps hold the car seat more steadily in place, for added protection..
Regardless of which method you choose, you'll want to place the car seat on either the left side or the right side of the backseat — never the middle. Studies have shown this placement can help reduce injury by more than 40 percent.
For help installing your car seat, contact your local police or fire station to ensure the base is properly connected. There's also an online resource called Seat Check that lets you search for inspection stations.
Seat construction: Convertible car seats use an external shell as the first line of defense in an accident. They contain hard or soft foam. Look for car seats with the former, and ensure that it's either made of Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) or Expanded Polypropylene (EPP). EPS is more common in car seat construction, but EPP feels nicer, and it's much more forgiving when pressed on, unlike EPS, which collapses when bent.
Shoulder height adjustment: Most convertible car seats allow you to adjust the shoulder height so that the harness properly restrains your child. Conversely, if the harness is difficult to fit, or requires rethreading that's convoluted or involves removing the car seat and installing it all over again, avoid that car seat entirely. Not making those adjustments can lead to a poorly-fitting harness, which we do not recommend.
How we picked the best toddler car seat
When deciding on our list of the best convertible car seats for toddlers, we used several criteria.
We took into consideration how well each car seat scored in federally-mandated tests and cross-referenced that with any independent testing done by trusted baby gear review sites, such as BabyGear Lab and The Wirecutter.
We also factored in the ease of installation, comfort, materials, and how easy it is to adjust so that it safely secures your child while you’re on the road.