Last updated December 2019.
We are asked this question often, from parents feeling stressed about the pressure to spend huge amounts of money on a car seat to keep their child safe. Will a seat that costs $500 do a better job of protecting your child than a $99 seat?
You don’t get to pick your crash. Focus on choosing and using a seat that fits your child and your vehicle, and that you use properly every single time, and have confidence you are keeping your kids safe in the car.
Every single seat currently available for sale in Canada will bear the National Safety Mark. That is your assurance as a consumer that the seat has passed the same strict crash tests as every other seat out there. Most manufacturers do not release their crash test data, so we don’t know how much beyond the standard a particular seat made it. Seats either get a pass, or a fail. If they pass, they go on the shelves. If they fail, they don’t. Canada does not have safety ratings of any kind, so be critical of anything stating ‘highest rated’ or ‘safest on the market.’
So what are you getting in a $500 seat versus a $99 seat? Mostly ease of use features and premium options. Those features may be worth it to you, but don’t make the seat inherently safer. Unless…unless that feature makes you able to install and use the seat correctly every single time. There are features that are handy; there are features that make an installation possible in a vehicle that’s tough to put a car seat into; there are features that make only a single seat possible in a given situation; there are some really nice fabrics out there.
We’ll attempt to point out some features that might make a particular seat attractive in your situation, and then it’s a matter of deciding what is worth your money, and what is marketing.
UAS (Universal Anchorage System, aka LATCH), is a system to install car seats and is an alternative to using the seat belt. Vehicles 2003 and newer have this system built in. There are many different versions of UAS connectors (hooks) out there, ranging from a simple metal hook, to those with push-button releases, self-ratcheting mechanisms, and more. How often do you move your seat around? It it’s daily, you might want to pay a little more for a seat with premium connectors. If it’s hardly ever, then paying extra for premium connectors may not be a priority. Even the most basic connectors are simple to do with a little practice.
Side impact protection
The best possible side impact protection you can give your child is to rear face them for as long as possible, in any seat appropriate for their height and weight. Many seats are now marketed with various forms of ‘side impact protection’, ranging from large head wings, air pockets around the head, special foam and other materials, or a deep shell. As there is no federal crash test standard (yet) for side impact protection, consumers really must take a manufacturer at their word that is has any effect whatsoever. It probably doesn’t hurt anything, but whether it helps or not is anybody’s guess. At the very least, seats with deeper shells or head wings provide a nice spot to rest a tired head.
To adjust the harness height many seats require you to undo the harness straps at the back of the seat, pull the strap out, and re-thread it through the correct slot, and then put it all back together. Some seats come with a no-rethread harness, meaning you don’t have to undo anything to adjust the height. Rear-facing seats typically don’t have to be uninstalled to change the height, but forward-facing seats do. Whether this feature is attractive depends entirely on how you use the seat. People who have multiple children using the same seat, such as daycare provides or grandparents, really like this feature. They can raise or lower the harness height in seconds. Those who have a dedicated seat for a single child also like this feature, but really don’t need it. Re-doing a harness height manually five times over the course of a seat’s life is really not a deal breaker for most of us.
Seats with built-in lock-offs have a locking mechanism as part of the seat that locks the seat belt by clamping the the webbing in some way. A lock-off would be used instead of a belt’s own locking mechanism, if present.
Lock-offs can be handy if you install often with a seat belt and that installation is difficult, or have an older car with seat belts that don’t lock. They can be useful, and in certain situations extremely helpful, but are not necessarily going to be the difference between a successful installation and an unsuccessful one.
If you frequently travel internationally, a seat with lock-offs can be very handy as seat belts outside of North America often do not lock for car seat use.
Load legs are common on European seats but are only recently appearing on Canadian ones, currently only on rear-facing only infant seats. The load leg extends from the back of the base to the vehicle floor. The load leg minimizes how much a rear-facing seat moves in a crash, and reduces crash forces on the child. Some vehicle features may prevent the use of a load leg, such as a hollow under-floor storage compartment or stow and go seating. Check vehicle fit before committing, but if a load leg is present, make every effort to use it.
Rear-facing infant and convertible seats may come with an anti-rebound bar (ARB), the purpose of which is to minimize how much a seat rebounds toward the back of the vehicle after a crash. Seats that do not have this physical bar do also have anti-rebound structure built into them but it may not be as obvious. Other ways of managing rebound include a pronounced bolster on the front edge of the car seat, or use of a rear-facing tether.
Once a child is at the booster stage, many parents are alarmed to discover that the booster seat just sits there on the vehicle seat. Yes, that is what booster seats do, as it’s the seat belt that is now restraining the child. There are some boosters, or harnessed seats that convert to boosters, that come with the ability to be semi-installed with UAS. All this does is prevent the booster from become a projectile in a crash, and eliminates the need to re-buckle the booster when it’s empty (because you do that, right?). This feature is not required to be used in vehicles that do not have lower anchors.
Plush fabrics and padding
Higher end seats do typically have really nice fabrics (oh how we love that Britax Cowmooflage!), with more comfort padding in various places. That’s purely fashion however – unless you do long drives or your child has a sensory need for a particular fabric.
Premium covers also tend to include optional harness covers for at the child’s neck, and miscellaneous other padding that can be customized for child fit.
Recent years have seen new breathable fabrics, heat-regulating fabrics, an influx of merino wool covers, and other specialty fabric types that may appeal. Full disclaimer: we would never personally buy a leather cover for messy, spilly babies, but you do you!
There are some situations that call for a particular seat. Often the need is for either a very narrow seat, or a very tall seat, or a seat that is known to be the only one that works in a very specific situation.
In certain circumstances parents may be faced with having to spend a fair bit of money to get a seat that fits the bill. But not always – sometimes the perfect seat is that $99 one!
Want, need, or nice to have?
When shopping for a seat decide if you actually need the feature on the seat, or if it’s just a nice bonus. Ultimately your child will be safe as long as you take the time to properly install and use your seat every time. And one more thing? Work with a CPST for guidance on what seat to buy, and how to install and use it properly.