Seasoned parents like us know there are very few things that you truly need for your baby—food, diapers, clothes and a place to sleep, and… an infant car seat! There are so many car seats on the market; how do you know which one is the best, safest and least toxic?

We’ll give you all the information you’ll need to make an informed decision about your baby’s first ride.

Why an infant car seat?

When we’re talking about an infant car seat, we’re referring to the small bucket seat that you see many parents carrying around with their sleeping infants. (In contrast, there are also convertible seats and booster seats, but those are not the same as an infant car seat).

Use an infant car seat, not a child's car seat

Here are the benefits of using an infant car seat:

  • Most experts agree: infant car seats are the safest for babies under 20 lbs.
  • Convenience: you can leave baby in the infant car seat when going from the car to the house or vice versa, which is particularly useful in cold weather. (It’s nice to be able to bundle baby up in the car seat inside the house and then carry him out and just snap him right into the car seat base inside the car.)
  • You can easily switch the seat from one car to the other with little effort (if you have additional bases).

One drawback is that you will have to buy a convertible seat for when baby outgrows the bucket seat, which is usually around 8–12 months. Some parents are tempted to put newborn into a convertible seat, since it lasts past infancy. This can be an option if you ensure it was installed properly and the baby fits correctly into the seat. However, if you have a premmie, or want to be extra cautious, an infant carseat may be worth the extra investment.

When not to use an infant car seat

Infant car seats should only be used in the car. They shouldn’t be used as infant carriers or for a designated place to sleep. It’s OK and inevitable that baby will fall asleep from time to time in the car. That’s fine. And if that’s the only place your baby will sleep for the first few months, so be it.

But, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states that car seats are not recommended for sleeping in general because of the potential for upper airway obstruction and oxygen desaturation. Babies are also more likely to have misshaping of the head if left in car seats and other positioning devices too often.

Baby Carrier to the Rescue

Many parents will use a baby carrier instead of lugging baby around in a car seat for these reasons, plus it’s much lighter carrying baby this way! (You can also transfer a sleeping baby to a carrier as baby will usually go right back to sleep on mom or dad’s chest.)

You can learn more about baby carriers including different types, safety guidelines and babywearing resources here.

A photo posted by mamanatural (@mamanatural) on

How to choose an infant car seat

You know you need one, but where do you begin deciding which one? Here are some things you’ll want to look for when searching for your baby’s car seat:

Safety

Of course, safety is king for our precious babies! Since all car seats go through rigorous testing and must adhere to safety regulations, safety is built into every single one. That means you can look into other aspects of the seat since safety is inherent in all car seats. However, some seats may have added safety features—some of which you may like and appreciate—that are not required by law. And, some car seats test safer in crash tests than others.

Toxicity

Because this is Mama Natural, a blog dedicated to non-toxic living, many “crunchy” mamas will want a car seat that is made of non-toxic materials. Additionally, you will probably appreciate car seats that use the least toxic flame retardants since they can be pretty nasty chemicals!

Legally, car seat manufacturers have to treat their car seats with flame retardants (even though they are best for small flames versus engulfing ones, so whether they save lives is debatable.) There are many different classes of chemicals used but you’ll want to stay away from brominated flame retardants if possible, since these have been shown to be carcinogenic and harmful to young children. (You can read more about the different types and which are most harmful here.)

In 2015, the non-profit Ecology Center released a report analyzing car seat toxicity. (You can view here.) However, there was some controversy with the results so take with a grain of salt ;). They also released a 2016 report which showed some great progress and highlighted some safer brands (more on that below.) Speaking of controversy, I purposely did not include Orbit carseats due to some shady past representation.

Additionally, this is a helpful report conducted by the Washington Toxics Coalition and Safer States, that outlines the different chemicals used in baby products (including some car seats) so you can make an informed choice.

Bottom line: While safety is most important, we ideally want to avoid the more toxic chemicals in car seats. Luckily, there are some brands and designs that contain less toxic materials which we’ll discuss below!

Price

Since every car seat has been tested for safety, you don’t have to worry about a cheaper seat being unsafe. However, a lower price tag will likely get you a very basic car seat without any extras, while a higher price may get you additional safety features not required by law, as well as bonuses like a cup holder.

Size

If you have a small vehicle, you may need to look at the smaller seats so that they fit safely and easily into your backseat. Some examples of smaller seats are the Nuna Pipa or Chicco Keyfit. Some parents even have to use a carseat without a base due to size restraints (more on that below.) If you have a large vehicle, you may not need to worry about the size of the seat.

Style

Some car seats are more sleek and stylish than others. Some parents won’t care a hoot about this, while others will take looks into consideration when choosing which seat to buy. After all, you will be using it a lot!

Best infant car seat

We know that deciding on a car seat for your precious bundle can be overwhelming, so we did some research for you. Here are our favorite picks for best car seats for infants:

Britax B-Safe 35 infant car seat (Most popular)

Britax B-Safe 35 infant car seat (Most popular)

This Britax car seat is excellent in safety and a great all-around seat. (Where to buy)

Pros:

  • Safety features that include side impact protection and energy absorbent foam
  • Excellent price for those on a budget!
  • Easily adjustable straps and a sunshade that covers baby
  • Compatible with many Britax strollers
  • Safe for infants 4–35 lbs., up to 32 in.
  • Doesn’t contain brominated flame retardants

Cons:

  • Large; may not fit in some vehicles
  • Need an expensive adaptor for stroller compatibility

Maxi-Cosi Mico Max 30 (Lightest weight in class)

Maxi-Cosi Mico Max 30 (Lightest weight in class)

The Maxi-Cosi Mico Max 30 is a solid car seat that snuggles and supports baby for extra comfort. (Where to buy.)

Pros:

  • Super lightweight! (The lightest in its class)
  • Excellent for preemies, safely holds babies 4 pounds and up
  • Contains side impact protection and stay-in-car base with rebound protection
  • Easy to clean with removable/washable fabric
  • Does not contain brominated flame retardants

Cons:

  • Quite large in size
  • Flimsy canopy cover

Chicco Keyfit 30 infant car seat (Safest in crash tests)

Chicco Keyfit 30 infant car seat (Safest in crash tests)

This Chicco car seat is a super popular choice and performs extremely well in crash testing. As an FYI, to see full Consumer Reports rankings, you have to purchase a membership. (Where to buy.)

Pros:

  • Best consumer report safety rating
  • Side impact cushioning and extra head support
  • Lightweight and compact: fits any car
  • Comes with a small infant insert to accommodate even smaller babies
  • Compatible with many strollers
  • Machine washable seat cover and cushions
  • Easy installation and simple one-handed release
  • Moderately priced

Cons:

  • Only accommodates infants up to 30 lbs. (though many outgrow the height by then anyway)
  • Cushions could be more breathable to prevent sweating
  • Canopy is small
  • Contains more potentially harmful flame retardants compared with others mentioned

Stokke Pipa By Nuna (Has the uber safe "Load Leg" feature)

Stokke Pipa By Nuna (Has the uber safe “Load Leg” feature)

The Stokke Pipa By Nuna car seat is not as well known, but it has been said to be safer for toxicity and fits the bill in many other ways. It also has a “load leg” feature (a bar comes down from car seat and affixes on the vehicle’s floor, creating more stability). (Where to buy.)

In Consumer Reports crash tests, a load leg resulted in about a 46 percent reduction of head injury risk when compared with other car seat models.

This company also don’t use any flame retardant treatments except Ammonium Polyphosphate in the foam to meet federal laws, which isn’t as toxic as the bromindated ones. There is no lead cadmium, phthalates, formaldehyde, or other harmful substances included in car seats.

Pros:

  • Safer flame retardants used and only on interior foam (not fabric)
  • Unique safety features like a load leg
  • Sleek design
  • Removable canopy and dream drape
  • Very lightweight
  • Can be installed without base using standard or Euro seatbelt path routing

Cons:

  • High price
  • Dream drape is hard to use, and magnets are not strong enough

(FYI, the Cybex Aton 2 also contains a load leg and is a Car Seat Lady favorite. It contains more of the toxic flame retardants though.)

Uppababy Mesa 2017 (Least toxic with no chemical FRs!)

The UPPAbaby MESA 2017 is yet to be released but it will be the first car seat that will not use traditional flame retardants! Yippee! Instead, they will use a naturally fire-resistant wool material that passes legal guidelines. 

“The MESA 2017 Henry is a wool-blend and is the very first fire retardant-free car seat on the market! Naturally fire resistant yet free of any flame retardant chemicals. Wool blends make up the seat fabric & SIP carriage cover.”

This car seat won’t come to the marketplace until April, 2017, but you can pre-order one here. Be sure to get the “Henry” model, which doesn’t has the traditional flame retardants, and is priced at $349.

Pros:

  • Completely free of flame retardant chemicals
  • Finished bottom to protect car upholstery
  • Sleek design
  • Easy installation; can be installed without the base
  • If consistent with other models, it will have amazing side impact protection

Cons:

  • Heavy
  • High price
  • Patience required; must wait for it to become available

Where to put infant car seat?

Statistically, the safest place to put your infant car seat is in the center seat in the back (never put a car seat in the front passenger seat!). Children are over 40% safer in this position. Unfortunately, not all cars have car seat latches in the middle seat and if you have multiple children, this position may not be available. Keep in mind that infants are actually the safest of all young children in cars due to their protective seats, so don’t stress if you can’t put your child in the middle back!

If you do have a center latch, and have multiple children, according to the Child Seat Lady, you should put your oldest child in the middle since they are the least protected by their car seats. 

put-your-oldest-child-in-the-middle-since-they-are-the-least-protected-by-their-car-seats

How long to use rear-facing car seats?

Did you know that rear-facing seating is 5 times safer than forward facing?

Though the rule of thumb used to be to switch your child to forward-facing on their first birthday, it’s not so anymore due to safety studies. In 2011, the American Association of Pediatricians (AAP) revised their guidelines and asked parents to keep their kids rear-facing until at least age 2.

The British Medical journal states that children should be kept rear-facing until the age of 4. So the answer is: keep them rear facing until at least 2 years old, and longer if it works for you.

Don’t use borrowed, expired or used car seats

Ideally, you don’t want to use borrowed or used car seats since you don’t know if they’ve been tampered with or damaged in any way. Additionally, you want to be sure your car seat hasn’t expired (most car seats will have expiration dates of around 5-10 years).

Finally, if you are in a significant car crash, you’ll want to replace your car seat.

Which is the best infant car seat?

Ultimately, the best (and safest) infant car seat is one that is installed properly and used properly!

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3 out of 4 car seats are not installed properly.

At the end of the day, this is what’s most important, since we already know that all car seats have to go through rigorous testing and must meet certain safety guidelines. But installed or used improperly, even the safest of seats can become a safety hazard, so be sure you get your car seats inspected by someone who is certified.

Many fire stations will inspect the installation of your car seat for free. If you don’t know where you can go for an inspection, check out this website and enter your location to find your local car seat inspection station.

How about you?

What is your favorite infant car seat? What does your car seat configuration currently look like? Let us know in the comments below!