When your toddler gets a little older and taller (preschool age), many parents will then purchase the next stage of car seat: a forward facing car seat.
These seats go by many names, depending on the manufacturer: “forward facing seat,” “harness-to-booster,” “combination seat,” or a “3-in-1 (or 2-in-1) seat,” but they all mean the same thing.
These seats start with a five-point harness, just like a convertible seat, that can later be removed to use the seat as a high back booster – also known as a BPB (belt positioning booster) and even later, as a backless booster (hence the “3-in-1” terminology, see below).
*Note that if your child is still happily rear-facing (extended rear-facing), please keep doing so. I am not at all discouraging ERF’ing, as we all agree it’s a best practice! In fact, the AAP now recommends keeping children rear-facing as long as possible.
Forward Facing Car Seats: Size and Weight
These forward facing car seats sit rather upright compared to convertibles and for this reason, fit very well into even the smallest of backseats.
While some of the less expensive ones are much more lightweight than their convertible counterparts, the more expensive forward facing car seats are reinforced with steel and are heavier than you might expect.
“But I have a convertible seat with a high weight limit, do I have to switch to a forward facing seat?”
– Absolutely not, you can definitely keep using your normal convertible seat for as long as the height and weight limits allow, then purchase a BPB (aka high back booster) later, typically around 5-7 years of age.
There are three main reasons why people upgrade sooner than this:
1. The primary reason is because they want to pass down an older child’s convertible seat to a younger child who is nearing her first birthday. For example, let’s say you have a three or four-year-old and an infant about to turn one. It makes MUCH more sense to pass the rear-facing convertible seat down to the infant and, if your older child is already facing forward, purchase a forward facing car seat for him which will take him through the end of his car seat years (9-12 years old or so, depending on your child’s height). This seat will get your kid through the yellow and green stages (below).
Put differently, it doesn’t make any sense to buy another convertible seat for a child who is already forward facing because you will only be using that seat for the latter half of its usable life.
2. The second reason why parents buy a forward facing seat is because it sits upright and looks more like a “big kid booster.” Trust me, when you hit Pre-K, many kids are begging to ride in a booster. Forward facing car seats look like a booster, but still have a 5-point harness. Way to fool ‘em!
3. Lastly, forward facing car seats, especially the higher-end ones, are very tall and will allow your child to be harnessed for longer than the average convertible seat.
Yes, I know the law in most states allows children who are four years old and 40 lbs to sit in a booster, and while it is legal, it is NOT a best practice (these are the same people who told us to turn our convertible seats around at one year old, so….yeah).
Forward Facing Car Seats: Transitioning from Harness to Seat Belt
“When do I switch from the 5-point harness to the seatbelt (high back booster) mode?”
– It depends…
Criteria for Switching
It’s never a bad idea to keep your child in a 5-pt harness for as long as possible, but if they are jonesing to graduate to a seatbelt, there are two deciding factors here: maturity and height. This is typically at least 5 years old, 6-7 if you have a squirmy worm, and perhaps older if your child has special needs.
Here are the criteria for switching to a seatbelt ~
1. Your child needs the maturity to sit properly in a seatbelt (i.e., they won’t try to wriggle out of it, sit improperly, lean forward in their seat or (godforbid!), unbuckle themselves while driving).
2. They have to be tall enough for the seatbelt to hit him in the right place (i.e., in the middle of the shoulder with the belt actually in contact with the shoulder). The shoulder belt positioner (or “guide”) on a belt-positioning booster brings the seatbelt down to a lower position to hit your child in the right spot.
Once these two things are checked off the list, then you can decide that it’s time to remove the harness and let him use the seatbelt.
Whatever you do, please don’t make the mistake of switching to a backless booster too early. I see too many five year olds (and sometimes three and four year olds!) riding around in tiny backless boosters and it’s completely inappropriate for their size.
Proper Seat Belt Positioning
Most kids I see who are prematurely using backless booster seats have the shoulder belt hitting them at the neck, or even in the face (below!): not good.
The shoulder belt should land in the middle of the shoulder, go across the collar bone and cross the chest at their nice, sturdy sternum. Trust me, you don’t want your child’s neck to be what is taking the bulk of impact in an accident.
There is one critical safety element for seats used in booster mode, and that is the shoulder belt seatbelt guide MUST be wide and roomy enough to allow the seatbelt to easily retract after being buckled. If the seatbelt can’t retract and become snug, the seat is basically unusable (you’ll see what I mean when you start using it). That said, all of the seats here have good shoulder belt guides (some of the cheaper ones do not).
Note that once you switch to seatbelt (booster) mode, you can (and should) install the seat with LATCH, simply just to keep it in place if unoccupied during a crash. This will keep the seat from becoming a projectile if your kid isn’t in it.
The Infamous Top Tether
The top tether (or “tether strap”) is a big point of confusion for most people, but I can make it very simple for you…you should absolutely use the top tether in a forward facing convertible seat, no matter if it’s installed using lower anchors (LATCH) or if it’s installed using the seatbelt.
I call it the “top tether” because it comes out of the top of the seat (see below).
If your car was made on or after 2003, you will have both lower anchor points (the ones that are in your seats) and tether anchors (for that top tether strap) in your vehicle.
So where does it go?
If you have a sedan, those anchors are directly behind the seat (as shown above). If you have a third row or a hatchback, those anchors are usually on the floor of the back area or on the back of the seat itself, as shown below.
Please consult your car’s owner’s manual if you can’t find them.
Why it’s important to use tether
Using the top tether (vs. not using it) will dramatically reduce the amount of forward force (or “head excursion”) in a collision. The illustration below shows the difference in head excursion in a child whose seat is tethered vs. one that is not.
To boil it down without getting too technical: the child who is not tethered is at a much higher risk for head injury and spinal cord damage – ’nuff said.
Ok, enough scary crash test dummy stuff trust me, guys, I could go on for DAYS!).
There are four highly rated manufacturers of harness-to-booster combination seats: Evenflo, Graco, Chicco and Britax. Here are our favorites.
Best Forward-Facing Harness-to-Booster Seats
1. Evenflo Evolve 3 in 1 Combination Booster Seat ~ $150+ – ECONOMY PICK
The Evenflo Evolve 3-in-1 Combination Booster Seat is our top pick for a forward-facing economy seat. It converts from a harnessed seat (22 to 65 lbs) to a high back booster (40-120 lbs), and then to a no-back booster (up to 120 lbs).
The Evolve seat has standard “nail breaker” LATCH connectors. That means if you’re using LATCH, this won’t be the easiest seat to switch between cars frequently. That said, you can always secure the seat with the seatbelt and top tether instead.
*You must switch from LATCH connectors to seatbelt + top tether installation once your child hits 45 lbs.
We love the e3 Side Impact Protection on the Evenflo, which coincidentally makes for a super cushy seat. It also has dual integrated cup-holders, a one-position recline, temperature regulating fabric, and even tiny buckle pockets (so convenient!) to hold your buckles to the side while your kiddo climbs into the seat (looove that!).
This seat lacks a no-rethread harness, though, which is found on most higher-end seats, as well as a seatbelt lockoff, though you can always lock the seatbelt manually (by pulling the seatbelt alllll the way out, then slowly letting it retract, thus putting it into “locked” mode).
Bottom line: If you’re on a budget and will only be using this seat for one kid at a time (or two kids of the same height in the harness straps), this seat will totally do the trick!
- FAA approved for use in aircraft (with 5-pt harness)
- 8 year lifespan before expiration
Evenflo SafeMax 3-in-1 ($180)
An alternative to the Evolve is the Evenflo SafeMax 3-in-1 ($180) seat, which is basically the Evolve on steroids. The SafeMax 3-in-1 has huge headwings, though many reviewers say it pushes the head forward at an uncomfortable angle.
This seat also has the standard “nail-breaker” LATCH connectors—as with any car seat, you should use the seatbelt and tether strap to secure the seat once your kiddo hits 45 lbs (though earlier is fine too!).
New! The Nautilus is now available with SnugLock technology. “SnugLock” is a self-tightening mechanism — an easy way for you to install with a seatbelt without having to wrestle it in place to tighten it. It’s basically a giant clasp for the seatbelt. It’s user-friendly — especially if you don’t want to mess with LATCH — and also great for grandparents!
The Nautilus is Graco’s bread and butter in the “harnessed booster” department.
With the Nautilus, your child can stay harnessed forward-facing for up to 65 lbs (good for special needs kids), in a high back booster up to 100 lbs, and in a backless booster up to 120 lbs. The Nautilus is steel reinforced, and it has an integrated cupholder and a storage compartment.
All Nautiluses (Nautilii?) feature a no-rethread harness (easy to adjust the height of the shoulder straps) AND a 3rd crotch buckle position to give more space for bigger-little boys to be… a little more comfy in that general area 😉 The Nautilii all have “fuss free harness storage”, which are these little pockets where you put the buckle tongues to keep the harness out of the way when putting your kid in. LOVE THOSE!
The Nautilus can be found in different varieties – why do they have to make so many freaking versions? I do not know, but it’s super annoying. I personally think if you are sold on the Nautilus, the LX model is just fine. Otherwise, just buy a nicer seat (don’t put rims on a Honda Civic — know what I’m saying?).
* Switch to seatbelt plus tether to install if child weighs more than 42 lbs.
3. Chicco MyFit Harness + Booster Seat ~$199
For those who love their Chicco newborn and convertible seats, we’ve got good news: Chicco now makes a forward facing car seat! The MyFit Harness + Booster seat fits kids from 25-100 lbs (up to 65 lbs in harness mode, and then up to 100 lbs in seatbelt mode). The MyFit features a steel-reinforced frame with two layers of foam protection. As with their other seats, the Chicco is super parent-friendly and easy to use. It has a no-rethread design for easy height adjustments, the easiest ever premium LATCH connectors that practically tighten themselves, and their signature LockSure system, which makes it easy to install the seat snugly with the seatbelt.
The seat is very well-padded for your kid’s comfort, and it also has 4 recline positions- which is rare in a forward facing seat. It comes with two cupholders and a one-pull harness tightener for easy adjustments. As with Chicco’s other seats, parents are really digging the Chicco MyFit.
4. Britax Harness-2-Booster Seats
Britax Frontier ClickTight ~ $279+ – TOP PICK
Britax makes 3 “Harness-2-Booster” models and they are very popular, well-made and TALL. In fact, the high/weight limits and tall top harness slots will keep kids harnessed for longer than any of the seats reviewed here.
The Frontier and the Pinnacle are only available in the CT (ClickTight) version, mainly because these seats must be used with a seatbelt once your child hits a certain weight and the ClickTight feature makes seatbelt installation a breeze.
—>Please see my demo of ClickTight.
Let’s break down these models ~
4a. Britax Pioneer ~ $189
The Pioneer is the entry level combination seat from Britax. We used it for two or three years and it served us well.
It serves kiddos up to 70 lbs and up to 58” tall in harness mode and up to 110 lbs in high back booster mode (note: it does not become a backless booster). It has the same side impact protection (2-layer) as the next higher up seat, the Frontier, but lacks the ClickTight feature (that’s why it’s cheaper).
All of these Britax seats have a no-rethread harness and we love Britax LATCH connectors, even on this model.
Construction-wise, you get the impact-absorbing base and steel frame that you get in all Britax seats (thus, these seats are heavy!!). You also get cupholders, an easy to remove cover and plush foam padding.
One complaint with the Pioneer is that some people can’t get a very tight seatbelt installation for whatever reason, but we have not had this problem.
*Switch to seatbelt and top tether installation once your child hits 40 lbs.
4b. Britax Frontier CT and Pinnacle CT ~ $279+ & $299+
The Frontier and Pinnacle are next up the Britax food chain.
These seats have a higher harnessed weight limit (90 lbs) than the Pioneer, which is great for special needs children. In fact, these two seats will keep kids harnessed longer than any seat on the market.
Again, the big difference with the Frontier and the Pinnacle is the ClickTight feature, which everybody loves and I demonstrate here at the Baby Show:
The Pinnacle ($299) is the same as the Frontier ($279), except it has these crazy side impact protection bolsters, which makes this seat very w-i-d-e. It’s a great seat if you use it in the outboard (i.e., side) position and want the maximum amount of side impact protection.
Again, this seat is very wide (did I mention that?) and will make space tight in the back for other passengers and other car seats (only have one kid back there? Perfect!).
If you don’t have space for a super-wide seat and typically use a seatbelt for installation (which you’ll have to do anyway once your child hits 40 lbs), the Frontier CT is the one for you. In fact, the Frontier is the highest rated seat of all the ones reviewed here (with the Pinnacle as a close second). Read reviews.
- All of these seats have a 9-year lifespan.
- Switch to seatbelt install (which is so easy to do with ClickTight) when child reaches 40 lbs.
- Because they are so heavy, these seats are not the easiest to move between cars.
That’s it, folks. Thanks for reading and good luck!