by Amy Venzke January 02, 2021 10 min read
Of the dozens of products you'll need for a new baby, there's only one so essential that you can't even go home without it.
Your infant car seat will protect the most important cargo you've ever had, from baby's hospital homecoming trip through most of her first year.
Safety is every new parent's top concern, but there are many other factors involved with choosing the best infant car seat, like ease of use, budget, and compatibility with your stroller.
In this guide, we'll review the best infant car seats in several categories, including the safest car seats, lightest car seats, best car seats for travel, easiest car seats to install, and more.
Strolleria's best-selling infant car seat is the Nuna PIPA—followed closely by the PIPA's five siblings.
Nuna infant car seats are so popular that the company makes six versions, which differ in their features, base and price point. In addition to the original PIPA, Nuna offers four PIPA Lite versions—the lightest car seats on the market, made with a proprietary type of foam—and three models that include the company's RELX base, which offers greater adjustability and ease of installation.
No matter which PIPA you pick, you're choosing an infant car seat that's highly regarded for its safety, versatility, ease of use and style.
Rated "best" in crash protection by Consumer Reports, the Nuna PIPA and its counterparts include a steel load leg that extends from the base to the floor of your car—a feature shown in studies to reduce the risk of head injury by nearly 50 percent.
A PIPA car seat is also among the easiest to use, whether you're installing it, attaching it to your stroller or simply carrying it. Nuna car seats weigh less than most competitors and are compatible with strollers from Nuna and dozens of other brands.
And the car seats get bonus points from parents for being free of flame-retardant chemicals and having features like the Dream Drape, a built-in magnetic cover on the PIPA, PIPA RX, PIPA Lite LX and PIPA Lite RX that gives baby privacy and sun protection.
See our Nuna PIPA series comparison for an in-depth look at the differences between the Nuna PIPA, PIPA RX, PIPA Lite, PIPA Lite LX, PIPA Lite R and PIPA Lite RX.
Thankfully, all infant car seats are safe: They wouldn't be available for purchase if they didn't meet strict federal safety standards.
But what is the safest infant car seat on the market?
There isn't a single definitive answer, as the federal government rates car seats not on crash protection but on another important safety consideration: ease of use. After all, crash test results don't mean as much if parents can't install the car seat correctly.
Here are the best infant car seat ratings, according to three leading sources.
The best-rated car seat by Consumer Reports is the Clek Liing, which the organization ranks higher than any other infant or convertible car seat.
To determine overall infant car seat rankings, the organization uses a 100-point scale that considers not only crash protection, but also ease of use and the seat's fit to LATCH and seatbelt.
Consumer Reports ranks these as the top five best infant car seats overall:
Consumer Reports conducts independent crash testing, using a "good, better, best" system to rate car seats on their safety performance.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration publishes ease-of-use ratings for infant car seats. Although the ratings don't consider the car seat's crash performance, ease of use is a safety feature in itself—a car seat can't be safe if it isn't used properly.
The NHTSA uses a five-star system to evaluate the ease of installing and seating the child in the car seat, as well as the clarity of the product manual and labels.
Not all models have been rated, but here's a sampling of NHTSA ratings for popular infant car seats.
Pediatrician-founded Baby Gear Lab brings a scientific approach to testing products like infant car seats. Independent crash testing and ease of installation with the LATCH system each account for 20 percent of testing scores, with considerations like ease of use, comfort and size rounding out the rankings.
According to Baby Gear Lab, these are the top five infant car seats:
To a first-time parent testing infant car seats in a store, all models can feel heavy—and that's before adding the weight of an actual baby (7.5 pounds at birth, on average!)
But a few new infant car seats are starting to lighten the load. The Maxi-Cosi Coral XP uses an innovative nesting system in which the outer shell of the seat can remain the vehicle while the inner carrier is removed for transport. Once you've ditched the heavy plastic, the inner carrier is only 5 pounds, light enough to carry with a crossbody strap.
All parts considered, the Nuna PIPA Lite series of car seats are the lightest car seats on the market. A proprietary type of lightweight foam helps reduce the weight of the seat to less than 6 pounds, as does the exclusion of plastic seatbelt guides (the PIPA Lite car seats, with the exception of the PIPA Lite RX, can only be installed with a base).
The four PIPA Lite models—the Nuna PIPA Lite, PIPA Lite LX, PIPA Lite R and PIPA Lite RX—differ in their bases, fabrics and other features. See our Nuna PIPA Series comparison for more details.
See a complete list of the lightest car seats here. The top five lightest infant car seats are:
A car seat and stroller are essential for traveling with an infant—and the innovative Doona is both products in one. Use the Doona as a stroller as you're walking through the airport, then retract the wheels to install it in an Uber like any other infant car seat.
As a stroller, the Doona has its downsides, like a lack of storage and a shorter lifespan than most strollers. Like any other infant car seat, it can be used for about the first year, while regular strollers will last through toddlerhood.
If you're looking for a car seat to pair with your stroller during travel, consider a lightweight option that can be installed using only a seatbelt, like the Nuna PIPA Lite RX (6.9 pounds) or the Baby Jogger City Go Air (8 pounds).
That allows you to leave the car seat base—the heaviest part of the seat—at home so you can travel lighter. With only a few exceptions, the majority of infant car seats can be seatbelt-installed.
Some of the best infant car seats for travel include:
The main setting for a car seat is, of course, your car. But many parents love the convenience of using an infant car seat outside of the vehicle, too. When baby falls asleep, they can simply carry the car seat inside or attach it to a stroller while running errands.
The problem: Experts caution against using a car seat for more than a couple of hours at a time. Car seats require an infant to sit slightly upright, which isn't ergonomic for a developing head and neck—and isn't safe for prolonged sleeping, considering baby's restricted airways.
Two innovative car seats offer a solution: The Cybex Cloud Q and the Peg-Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 Lounge are the only infant car seats on the market with a recline function. Outside of the car, the seats recline to a position that's more similar to a bassinet than a typical car seat, allowing the baby to lie flat in a safer and more comfortable position.
Cybex offers several fashion-oriented editions of the Cloud Q, while Peg-Perego also makes the Agio Primo Viaggio 4-35 Nido Lounge, part of its specialty brand with benefits like more premium fabrics and a longer 5-year warranty.
With the exception of umbrella strollers, all strollers can accommodate the attachment of an infant car seat—it's just a matter of which ones.
Some manufacturers offer strollers and car seats that connect seamlessly, while in other cases, you can mix and match brands with the purchase of a car seat adapter. See our Car Seat Compatibility Guide and Stroller Compatibility Guide for help designing your ideal "travel system."
The best car seat and stroller combos either don't require adapters or use an adapter that actually makes life easier.
In most cases, attaching a car seat to your stroller involves the alignment of slots on both sides of the seat—a task sometimes made tricky by the weight of a baby (especially a crying one).
Nuna devised a unique solution: a ring-shaped adapter that allows you to quickly attach and detach the car seat with one hand, no alignment necessary. The ring adapter, which fits all Nuna PIPA series car seats, is included with purchase of the Nuna Demi Grow, Nuna MIXX Next, and Nuna TRIV strollers. Nuna also manufactures a similar ring adapter for the UPPAbaby VISTA and CRUZ.
Of course, an adapter-free connection means one less piece of gear to worry about. The UPPAbaby MESA attaches to the VISTA and CRUZ without adapters, and the same is true for Nuna car seats on the Nuna TAVO and TAVO Next, as well as the Stokke PIPA car seat on the Stokke Xplory stroller.
The best infant car seat and stroller combos include:
All infant car seats come with a base that allows you to click the seat off and on while leaving the base safely installed. Bases can be installed using either the LATCH anchors in the seat back of your vehicle, which was designed for convenience, or with the equally-safe seatbelt.
A few infant car seats are easier to install than others, thanks to extra features that simplify installation and troubleshoot common issues.
Nuna's RELX base, as seen on the Nuna PIPA RX, Nuna PIPA Lite R and Nuna PIPA Lite RX car seats, has greater adjustability than most bases. The LATCH connectors are extendable to four positions, allowing the base to fit more easily and tightly in a wider variety of cars, and the adjustable load leg helps to fit the base in cars with a center seat hump.
The Clek Liing base offers similar functionality, with a seven-position recline that helps find a safe and level fit whether your vehicle seats are sloped or flat. The LATCH connectors on the base can be extended and shortened to meet the anchors that are hard to reach in some vehicles.
The UPPAbaby MESA takes the guesswork out of car seat installation with features like LATCH connectors that self-retract and a tightness indicator that turns green when the installation is adequately secure. That's why it's one of the only infant car seats to earn the highest 5-star ease of use rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The easiest infant car seats to install include:
Some parents are concerned not only about how a car seat will protect their baby, but about how they can protect their baby from the car seat's materials.
Most car seats incorporate flame retardants, while a few models instead use merino wool or bamboo—fibers that are naturally fire-resistant, with fewer health concerns.
All Nuna infant car seats use a bamboo blend fabric that's free of flame-retardant chemicals, while the PIPA Lite LX and PIPA Lite RX models use merino wool. Select colors of the UPPAbaby MESA and Peg-Perego Primo Viaggio 4-35 Nido are made with merino wool—which is hypoallergenic and helps regulate your child’s body temperature, keeping kids cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
In addition to two merino wool colors, all other colors of the Clek Liing are free of chlorinated and brominated flame retardant chemicals.
The best infant car seats without flame retardants are:
Car seats are built to protect your child in a crash, but collisions aren't the only dangerous situations your baby could face in his car seat.
Cybex infant car seats—the Aton 2, Aton M and Cloud Q—use technology called SensorSafe to notify parents of lapses in safety. A sensor in the chest clip pairs with a vehicle receiver and your smartphone, sending alerts about dangerous temperatures, an unbuckled harness or a child inadvertently left in a car.
Cybex seats also include a unique side-impact protection feature: energy-absorbing pods that can be extended from the side of the seat to serve as the first line of defense in a crash. Plus, all three Cybex models include a load leg, considered the leading safety feature in infant car seats.
No matter which infant car seat you choose, you'll use it for about a year. While the weight limit for most infant car seats is 32 to 35 pounds, it's common for babies to first outgrow the seat by height, when they reach 32 inches.
Still, you'll want a car seat that's built to last—especially if you plan to use it for additional children in the future.
Most infant car seats are covered by a manufacturer's warranty for about one year and expire after a period of about seven years. But a few manufacturers offer a longer warranty, ensuring your car seat can be repaired or replaced in the event of defects down the line.
UPPAbaby offers a limited lifetime warranty on its car seats, while all products in Peg-Perego's specialty line, Agio, come with a 5-year warranty.
Strolleria is a family-owned and operated retailer dedicated to making the baby gear buying experience less overwhelming for parents. If you have more questions about the best infant car seats for 2021, feel free to contact us at 480-442-9433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amy Venzke is the co-owner of Strolleria, along with her husband. Together, they have a mission to make the gear-buying experience easier on parents. Contact the Strolleria team with questions at email@example.com or 480-442-9433.