In the days leading up to the birth of your little one, there are probably plenty of fun items on your to-do list like decorating the nursery and picking your baby’s first outfit… and then there’s all the other stuff, from stocking up on diapers to choosing a car seat.

A baby car seat may not be your most exciting purchase, but it’s an important one because it affects the safety of your family’s newest addition. We know exactly what you’re thinking: “Why can’t someone just collect all the Canadian regulations and buying info in one place and tell me what I need to know?” Well, we did just that. Read on for answers to the questions that’ll be invaluable when choosing the car seat that will work best for your family—and help to keep your new baby snug and secure.

And if you don’t have any questions and want to get right to shopping, you might like our roundup of the best car seats.

Questions to ask before buying a baby car seat

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1Will all car seats work in my car?

The good news? Probably. Nowadays, most car seats work for most cars—but there are some details to consider:

  • The size of your car: Baby car seats range in height and bulk and some of them can get quite large. If you drive a compact car, you’ll want to consider how much room the seat takes up—especially if you have two or more children who will be sitting in car seats at the same time. Before making a purchase, check that you can safely fit all of your car seats (whether it’s one, two or more) in the back seat.
  • Proper base positioning: Most car seats come with a built-in gauge on the side of the seat’s base to let the installer know if it’s level. If you don’t have enough room to manipulate the base of the seat, it may be difficult to achieve a safe installation. You may need to look for a seat with a smaller footprint so you have more room to maneuver.
  • The installation system: As of September 2002, new cars sold in Canada are fitted with the Universal Anchor System (UAS) and a tether strap (also sometimes called LATCH—Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) for at least two of the seats in the back of the car.[1] Car seats are designed to be compatible with the UAS for easy and safe installation. If you have a car built prior to 2002, you’ll want to make sure the car seat can be safely installed using a seat belt only.
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Safety Tip
It’s always a good idea to have your car seat installed or double-checked by an expert. Many communities have car-seat clinics where you can have a trained professional ensure that the seat is installed correctly for performance and safety.

2What’s the difference between an infant car seat, toddler car seat and booster seat?

First things first: Infants and toddlers should sit in a rear-facing position in all cars until they reach the appropriate weight and age restrictions to turn around to a front-facing position. These restrictions vary by region but Transport Canada[2] and the Canadian Pediatric Society[3] say that children should be at least 22 pounds and more than one year old before parents consider turning their seats to face forward. Many child safety advocates suggest that children remain in a rear-facing car seat until they are at least two.[4]

Once you have your regulations figured out, the type of car seat you choose will depend on the age and weight of your kid.

  • An infant or “bucket” seat: Designed specifically for infants, an infant car seat has a separate base that you install in your car and a seat that clicks in and out. (You can even buy extra bases for some models if you have multiple cars but only want to purchase one seat.) This design means you can safely buckle your little one into their seat before leaving the house, and then secure the seat to the base once you reach the car. Infant car seats only use the rear-facing position, so you’ll need to purchase the next stage of car seat when your baby hits your model’s weight limit (usually 30 to 35 pounds) and/or height restriction (typically between 28 and 35 inches).[5]
  • A toddler car seat: This type of seat is one piece, molded and upholstered with a five-point harness and it remains in the car once it’s installed. A toddler car seat can be rear-facing or front-facing, depending on the model. (Keep in mind, your baby should stay in a rear-facing seat until the weight limit recommended by your province’s regulations—usually at least one year old and 22 pounds.)[6] Some toddler seats can also convert to booster seats—which are the next level of car seat once your child hits 40 pounds—while others max out whenever your kid hits the manufacturer’s height and weight restrictions.
  • A booster seat: Sometimes referred to as a belt-positioning booster seat, this type uses the car’s seatbelt to hold the child in place rather than the built-in five-point harness of an infant or toddler car seat. A booster allows the child to be elevated so that the seatbelt can be positioned securely across their chest and lap. High-back boosters (another booster type) have a headrest and full back, as well as guides that keep the shoulder and lap belt in place.[7] Keep your kiddo in a booster seat until they meet the regulations for seatbelt-only travel set by your province. In Ontario, for example, a child must be eight years old, at least 80 pounds or be at least four-feet-and-nine-inches tall.[6]

3What are convertible car seats?

Convertible car seats start off in the rear-facing position and “convert” to the forward-facing position as your child grows.

When your little bun is fresh out of the oven, you’ll use the seat’s newborn insert to help them stay safe and secure. Just keep in mind that convertible car seats may have a weight minimum of up to 15 pounds.[8] If you plan to use your car seat from day one, check that it has a lower minimum—ideally four pounds in case you birth an extra-small baby.

Once the newborn insert feels too snug, you can remove it and your child can sit in the rear-facing seat for the first year or so. After 22 pounds and one year of age (or your province’s specific regulations, if different), you can consider turning the seat around—but always follow the directions on your car-seat model.

Many convertible car seats also have a removeable five-point harness so you can transition your child to a booster at 40 pounds. All in, your child could potentially use the same seat from four to over 100 pounds!

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Money-Saving Tip
To get the most bang for your buck, consider purchasing a travel system. You’ll get a car seat and stroller for one combined price, which tends to be cheaper than buying the two items separately. Plus, you’ll guarantee compatibility between the two products—and they’ll style match! (If you want more stroller info before making your purchase, check out our guide to travel systems, double strollers, jogging strollers and more.)

4How should the car seat’s weight limit factor into my choice?

It’s a smart idea to look at the weight limits—both minimum and maximum—of each car seat you consider. If the intention is to get more longevity out of the seat, opt for something with a higher weight maximum—like a convertible car seat. If ease of use is your main priority, then you might want to start with a bucket seat (or infant car seat). It will have a lower weight maximum (a bit of a con), but you’ll also be able to get your little one in and out of the car with the click of a button or the lift of a lever (a serious pro!).

5What baby car seat safety features should I look for?

Car seats come with all sorts of bells and whistles, but there are certain features that are need-to-haves for safety:

  • National Safety mark: All car seats sold legally in Canada will have the National Safety mark[2]—so keep your eye out for this symbol on any car seat you purchase. It’s illegal to import, sell or use car seats that don’t have this mark, so buying a seat from a reputable store in your area is your best bet.
  • Expiry date: Car seats should also have an expiration date visible on the outer shell of the seat. The expiry timelines vary by product but usually fall within six to 10 years from the date of manufacture.[9] If a seat has been sitting in a store window or back room, you may have lost time. Hoping to use the seat for subsequent children? You may want to purchase a seat as close to the manufacture date as possible.
  • Five-point harness: Infant, toddler and convertible car seats all come with a five-point harness. The five points refer to where the straps attach to the seat—two points at the baby’s shoulders, two at their hips and one between their legs. Keep your child in a seat with a five-point harness until they are 40 pounds and can sit still without moving out of position or unbuckling.[10]
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Safety Tip
If you’re considering buying a second-hand car seat, or using a family hand-me-down, check out the Government of Canada’s recommendations for second-hand car seat safety. For example, they state that the seat should have a National Safety mark, be within its recommended lifespan and have all of its parts in good working order. Check on the car seat’s history as well. If the seller doesn’t know the history of the seat or if the seat has been in a collision—even a minor one—you’re better off looking elsewhere.

6Are there fabrics, materials or designs that help with cleaning?

Diaper explosions and piles of Goldfish crumbs are going to happen. But you can plan ahead to make clean-up a little easier. Here are some things to consider:

  • Nooks and crannies: Some car seats have more gaps or are harder to take apart than others. Look for a seat that’s easy to disassemble for cleaning and has positive reviews when it comes to removing gunk from the cracks.
  • Upholstery: Car-seat manufacturers know their audience (messy babies and their worn-out parents!), so most either come with a removable, washable seat cover or they have instructions for spot-treating the upholstery. Some companies even sell proprietary cleaning solutions for their fabrics. Check the manual that comes with your seat for cleaning instructions. For most seat covers, you’ll want to skip detergent and keep it out of the dryer, so wash it when you have plenty of time for air-drying.
  • Harnesses: Unfortunately, you have to keep that five-point harness out of your washing machine. The weave of the material has been tested to withstand certain levels of force and the wringer of the washer may decrease its effectiveness.[11] If spot-cleaning just won’t do the trick, contact the car-seat manufacturer to see if you can order a replacement harness.
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Cleaning Tip
To deal with an especially smelly situation (hey, it happens!), sunshine is your best friend because UV rays help to kill the bacteria that causes foul odours.[12] Wash the cover or thoroughly spot-clean the car seat and then leave it in the sun to dry for as long as possible. You can repeat the process with the seat’s shell and padding.

7What kind of car seat accessories will make my life easier?

The general rule for car seats is that you should only use the accessories that come with it. That means hanging toys from the carry bar[13] or dressing your baby in a bunting bag[14] are no-nos. Why? Because hanging toys can become projectiles in a crash, while bulky clothing could squish and make the straps too loose to safely hold your child in place. Try to stick to toys held in the hand and a light layer of clothing only.

That said, a cozy car seat cover that can go over the entire seat (and be removed once you get in your warm car) is a safe route for keeping your baby warm, as are blankets tucked around your little one after they’re buckled in place.

There are also helpful car seat accessories that won’t affect the car seat itself, like a baby car mirror so you can keep an eye on your rear-facing baby and window-darkening screens or clings to keep the sun out of your little one’s eyes.

Baby Car Seats and Car Seat Accessories