PSA: Safe Car Seats Don't Have To Break The Bank

by Sara Farrell Baker

The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommend that children ride rear-facing until at least the age of 2, or until they reach the maximum rear-facing height or weight specs for their seat.

When forward-facing, children should use a built-in harness system for as long as possible until they reach the maximum forward-facing weight or height for their car seat, as this offers more protection than a seatbelt.

Many parents don’t see extended rear-facing as an option though. Their current car seat may not be rated for it, or their vehicle may be too small. I drove a sedan with two rear-facing car seats for about a year, and I will admit, it was rather miserable. My knees were practically on the dashboard. Luckily, we were able to afford a bigger vehicle, and I am now privy to what feels like a luxurious amount of leg room. But again, obviously, this is not an option for everyone.

Car seat safety can feel economically prohibitive. And when car seat safety advocates are using tones that shame parents instead of understanding that not everyone can run out and buy the newest seat and a shiny, new minivan, it can cause parents to tune out the otherwise quality advice and recommendations.

There isn’t a parent on the planet who doesn’t want their children to be as safe as possible. Extended rear-facing is the safest position for small children and keeping them in that position as long as possible is imperative. And thankfully, you can likely manage to do this for much less money than you may have thought.

More money does not always equal superior quality. When it comes to car seats, affordable car seats can still mean high safety ratings and standards — some standards that even exceed federal regulations. You can do a lot with a little here. And forgoing the convenience of an infant seat — you know, the little baby buckets we usually haul our newborns around in — for a convertible seat from the get-go can save you a considerable amounts of money by only needing to buy one car seat for the first several years.

However, not all convertible seats are ideal for newborns. Just because a car seat says it is rated for a 5-pound baby does not mean it’s well-suited for one. Safety-ratings websites and Consumer Reports are great resources when making that decision.

Convertible seats offer the most longevity, but be sure to thoroughly read your manual. You want to be aware of the height and weight specifications for both rear- and forward-facing, as well as when to adjust the strap heights or how much of a recline is necessary. Giving your car seat the occasional inspection, especially with a certified child passenger safety technician (CPST), to see how it is fitting your child and to assess whether any adjustments are needed is crucial to making sure the seat is being used correctly and your child is as safe as possible while riding.

The Cosco Scenera NEXT both exceeds federal safety regulations and is one of, if not the, most affordable car seats on the market at around $50. You could buy three of these for the cost of the average car seat. And when you take into account the fact that you can fit three Sceneras in the backseat of a car, you may end up doing just that. While it may not last as long as some other seats with forward-facing limits tapping out at 40 pounds or 43 inches, it is still rated for extended rear-facing until 40 inches and 40 pounds.

With some impressive tech for the price point, Evenflo’s Titan 65 is a great value at $150. Equipped with the SensorSafe reminder system, parents are alerted when their child becomes unbuckled. If you have a toddler who has figured out how to undo the straps en route to your destination, you know how terrifying it is to be on the highway and see your Houdini standing up in your rearview mirror. The rear-facing capabilities on the Titan are up to 40 pounds or 40 inches, and the seat overall should last you until your child reaches either 65 pounds or 54 inches.

Graco’s Contender 65 is listed at $140, but can be found from several different retailers for much less. You can often score a deal on Amazon. This is a great example of why shopping around is important if you’re looking for a good deal on a quality seat.

Target also offers a trade-in program on all car seats. If you bring in your old one (or ask around to see if any friends have an expired seat sitting in their garage that they need to get rid of), Target will properly dispose of it and give you a coupon for 20% off of the purchase of a new car seat. Winning.

The Contender 65 is a great option because its harness doesn’t need to be rethreaded when you’re adjusting it. Anything that makes installation and adjustments easier is a huge safety-plus in my book since there is less room for error. It also has been tested for side-impact safety. Rear-facing, it will last until a child reaches 40 pounds as long as their head remains one inch below the handle. Forward-facing capabilities are good until 65 pounds or 49 inches.

When delivering messages on car seat safety, and especially when giving unsolicited advice (no matter how well-intentioned we are), tone and inclusivity matter. No parent should feel shamed when they’re trying to do the best they can for their child. Approaching someone with kindness and without judgment offers the best chance of making sure every child is riding safely.

I’m going to file “not crushing parents under one more financial burden” under the list of best practices.

Sure, if you want to invest a good chunk of change in a high-quality seat, it won’t be wasted money. It’s a good investment. But you don’t have to skip your mortgage to keep your kid safe.