Once baby has outgrown the infant seat, or is getting too heavy for mom to schlep the infant seat around, it's time for the next step: the convertible seat. A convertible seat is one that-you guessed it- converts from rear-facing to forward facing. There are many, many choices out there, so here's a simple guide to help you narrow it down.
#1. There is no one seat that will be perfect for everyone. The right seat for you is one that fits your vehicle, your child, and your budget, and will be used correctly every time.
#2: Keep your vehicle in mind. Once again, installation will depend on your vehicle. If you don't have LATCH, or are installing in a location that does not allow the use of LATCH, you'll need a seat that's easy to install with the seatbelt. If you have a tiny vehicle, you'll want an appropriately sized seat.
#3: Check the angle. Once an infant has head control (which usually occurs around 4 months), he won't need the newborn recline angle. This means you can install the convertible seat more upright, which gives front seat passengers more room. Most convertibles allow installation between 30-45* from vertical.
#4: Chose a seat with high rear-facing weight limits. Rear facing is the absolute safest way your child can ride, so it's best to keep him rear-facing as long as possible, well past infancy and into toddlerhood. Most seats on the market have a rear-facing weight limit of 35 pounds, although several now allow the child to rear face to 40-45 pounds.
#5: Decide what features you prefer. With the huge array of convertible seats available, you will see many different features. You will see "alligator" style LATCH clips, which are designed for easier installation; "wings" reported to maximize side-impact protection (SIP); rear-facing tethers and anti-rebound bars that stabilize the seat; infinite adjusting harnesses that allow for ease of use, and all sorts of different cover choices. It's best to go to a big baby store and play with the different seats, and practice buckling baby and adjusting straps to see which seats you prefer.
#6: Try the seat in your car. Some stores, like Babies-R-Us and some specialty baby stores, allow you to carry the display seats out to your vehicle to practice installing. It's important to get a feel for the seats and see which ones fit best in your car, and are most user-friendly.
#7: Take your new seat to a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician. A CPST can help you make a smooth transition from the infant seat to the convertible, and ensure that your car seat is installed and used correctly. To find a technician near you, visit this link and enter your ZIP code.
My top pics:
~The First Years True Fit (regular or Premier). 5-35lbs rear-facing, 20-65lbs forward facing. Although this seat has a lower rear-facing weight limits than the others I will list, it has a very tall shell, so it will accommodate the tall & skinny kids very well. The True Fit has built-in lockoffs for easier seatbelt installs. This seat also has the unique feature of a head rest that removes for use with babies under 22lbs, so it takes up very little room in the car rear-facing, and fits newborns well. After the baby reaches the 22 pound mark (or baby's head reaches a certain spot on the seat), the headrest goes back on, and baby can continue to rear-face at a more upright angle, saving room in the car. The "Premier" version has an anti-rebound bar, a different recline system, and an easier-to-access adjustment strap. This will last most children until they are a safe age to go into a booster (generally around 5-6 years of age).
~Cosco Scenera. 5-35lbs rear-facing (the Target exclusive has a rear-facing weight limit of 40 pounds!), 22-40lbs forward facing. This is an excellent budget seat, but is outgrown earlier than the other seats I have listed here, as it's got shorter top straps, a shorter shell, and a lower weight limit. However, it's fabulous as a travel or spare seat, or for a main seat if funds are tight, and parents understand they will need another harnessed seat before the child is ready for a booster.
~Safety 1st Onside Air. 5-40lbs rear-facing, 22-40 pounds. This is basically a souped-up Scenera with a different base for an easier install, and more padding for a comfier ride, and is still very affordable.
~Graco My Ride 65. 5-40lbs rear-facing, 20-65lbs forward facing. This seat is another that fits newborns well, as it has supportive infant padding and low bottom slots. It comes in very cute colors and patterns, and has cupholders (always a hit with the kids!). It's easy to install, and easy on the budget. This will last most kids until a safe booster age, but the tall kids or ones with a long torso might need another harnessed seat after this is outgrown.
~Safety 1st Complete Air. 5-40lbs rear-facing, 22-50lbs forward facing. This seat is a great option for tall kids, as it has the tallest shell on the market, and will accommodate those tall toddlers rear-facing. It has a sliding harness system that allows for easy adjustment, "wings" that provide additional side-impact protection (SIP). There are several different models, including one with a base that makes for an easier install and recline adjustment.
~Safety 1st Complete Air 65. 5-40lbs rear-facing, 22-65lbs forward facing. This is the same seat as the above Complete Air, but with a higher forward-facing weight limit.
~Britax line (Marathon70, Boulevard70). 5-40lbs rear-facing, 20-70lbs forward facing. These seats are easy to install and easy to use with cute covers, and most kids are able to go from these seats to a booster. They also feature built-in lockoffs for easy seatbelt installs, and a rear-facing tether.
~Sunshine Kids Radians. 5-40lb (or 45, depending on the model) rear-facing, 20-65lbs (or 80, depending on the model). These seats are very narrow, which means they can squeeze into a tight 3-across situation, but are still roomy enough even for big kids. The XTSL model also has the highest rear-facing weight limit on the market, and they all feature a rear-facing tether for extra stability. However, these seats can be a tricky install in some cars since they take up a lot of room rear-facing, and they are only available online or in some specialty baby stores.