If the average person spends 25 years of their life sleeping, parents must spend at least that long reading online product reviews, right? But even after the best Google/Insta/Amazon search, there are still products that can leave us scratching our heads—and carseats are a major culprit.  To help set the record straight, we tapped Global Safety Advocates at two of our favorite brands—Nuna and Diono—to package up all the details on the what, when, and how of convertible carseat-ing.

The very beginning is a very good place to start, right? So let’s talk definitions. Robert Wall, Nuna’s Global Advocate, broke down exactly what a convertible car seat is:

  • Convertible seats are seats that can be used both rear and forward facing.
  • Convertible seats hold newborns from 4 to 5-pounds and can extend rear facing use to higher weights; [some allow] for children rear facing up to 50-pounds. 
  • After meeting the rear facing size requirements the convertible seat can then be turned forward facing for use to a prescribed weight and height.  (For both the Nuna RAVA and diono Radian RXT, children can ride forward-facing in a 5-point harness up to 65 pounds.) 

In the order of things, convertible car seats fall between infant car seats and booster seats (belt positioners for children too big for a car seat, too small for an adult seat belt) and are typically the longest-used car seat. 

So, first major truth bomb revealed: newborns can safely ride in convertible car seats OR an infant seat.  Is one option safer than the other? Not at all. Your choice is really a matter of preference, says diono Global Safety Advocate and Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician, Allana Pinkerton. “Bypassing the infant seat may make sense if you are on a tight budget, do not want to carry around your child in the infant seat, or do not need a travel system. Many parents learn from baby number one, they might not need an infant seat and can go straight to the convertible car seat from birth. Many find their first child outgrew the seat by five months and had to move to an convertible rather quickly. Some parents have smaller babies and may be able to use an infant seat up to a year or beyond.” 

A second point to consider is that a convertible car seat does not have a canopy, so sun protection is also a factor.  For older children, Robert suggests sunglasses, a thin blanket to cover, hat, and sunscreen to protect your child. (We would add that window shades can also help!) To further protect your child from both crash forces and sun damage, Robert recommends parents consider the center seating position. “While this could pose an issue getting in or out of the seating position, it is the furthest point from any crash forces, as well as away from a side window where the direct sun could be damaging to the child.” Good thought.  

Once you’ve got your child into the convertible car seat, the decision to turn your child forward-facing tends to be decided upon a mix of comfort, safety, and convenience. Both Allana and Robert assure us that this is reasonable, so long as your child is at least 2 years old before forward-facing and within the weight range indicated by your car seat.  When considering all the factors in turning your child’s car seat forward-facing, here’s what to consider:

And as the age-old saying goes (or at least since Tony Robbins has been alive): know your why.  In this case, the why is why rear-facing is safer: “The rear facing seat’s job is to contain the child’s body in a crash, transferring the crash forces into the seat and not into the child’s body,” says Robert. “They are designed to keep the child in the vehicle while spreading the forces over a large portion of the body, reducing head, neck and spinal cord injuries.”  Adds Allana, “When a child is forward facing, the crash forces may be too strong on smaller children and cause serious injury.”  And remember, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children should remain in a rear facing seat through age two and beyond.

Know the weight AND height limits for rear-facing in your seat. Robert reminds us that in order for a car seat to do its job, a child must fit in the seat correctly. The weight and height limits set by the car seat manufacturer are the best ways to determine if a child fits the seat correctly,  but there are some clues if your child is starting to outgrow their rear facing infant seat: 

  1. Is the child’s head contained within the shell of the seat? The infant’s head should be at least an inch below the top of the shell of the seat. This is a key indicator the seat is too small. 
  2. Is the harness at the correct location on the child’s shoulders? With a rear facing seat, the harness must be positioned at or below the infants’ shoulders. (Forward facing is at or above the shoulders.)   

Squished legs don’t mean it’s time to turn your tot around. Says Robert: “As rear facing limits increase on car seats, some concerns have emerged from many caregivers and parents [regarding] the safety and comfort of their kids’ lower body and legs as they get bigger in rear facing seats. The safety issue is really a minor one,” he says.  “Data shows very few leg or lower body injuries due to extended rear facing seat use. Leg injuries tend to be less critical in nature, and heal with less trauma to the child. When weighing the comfort issue against the safety issue, the safety of the child should be the priority.  Many seats offer extended leg room to add additional support and comfort.”  Allana adds: “Children’s skeletal muscles and tissue are still growing, and therefore they are very flexible and not uncomfortable as you and I would be in the rear facing position.”

Age can be a factor. Rear-facing weight limits tip 50-pounds and 49 inches tall, which could put kids at elementary school age before their car seats are turned around.  We asked Allana if age should ever be a factor, and she says, “More than likely, yes. At this age, your child is going to become more vocal and they will be getting in and out of the car on their own. Moving them forward facing is still a safer option in the five point harness. Their next transition will be to a belt positioning booster and then onto the adult seat belt.”

There is a height and weight range, not an exact number, because this is as much art as it is science.“There is a balance, says Robert.  “Could the caregiver become stressed with a rebellious child, being late, or more distracted, all which could result in a crash? The child is still safe in a properly used forward facing position with a more relaxed and happier (and better driving) caregiver.”