Once your child turns three, you will see more and more of his/her personality as he/she gets more comfortable in expressing himself/herself. As they get more curious and independent-thinking, you have to step up your game by being one-step ahead when it comes to their safety.
Parents might be wondering about what kind of car seat should their toddler (age 12 to 36 months) use. Should it be a rear-facing car seat or a forward-facing car seat? What about a booster seat? Compared to a booster seat, a harness seat gives more movement restriction for your child. Thus, for a 3-year old who is naturally curious and moves a lot in the seat, a harness seat is the safest choice.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children can use a rear-facing car seat from birth until age 4 and a forward-facing car seat from ages 2 to 5. It is also essential that your child has outgrown (reached the height and weight limit) his/her current seat stage before transitioning him/her to the next car seat as recommended by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA.)
If you’re overwhelmed with the choices offered in the market, don’t be discouraged. We have reviewed the best car seats for your 3-year old to help you get to know the units better. You can also head to our buyer’s guide to understand the factors and things that you have to consider before buying a car seat.
Best Car Seat for 3-Year Old Comparison Table
|Maximum Height Recommendation
(as a booster)
|Maximum Weight Recommendation
(as a booster)
|Britax Frontier ClickTight (NEW)
|Graco 4Ever 4-in-1
|Chicco MyFit Harness + Booster
|Graco Nautilus 65 LX 3-in-1
|Graco Milestone All-in-1
|Safety 1st Grow and Go
|Evenflo Maestro Booster
Best Car Seat for 3-Year Old Reviews
Britax Frontier ClickTight (NEW) – Best Forward-Facing Harness Seat
Remember the Britax Frontier when we reviewed it for as a car seat for a 6-year old? We have called this unit the best easy to install car seat for children of that age, but will it have the same title as a 3-year old car seat?
Let us start first by talking about its built. The Britax Frontier has a steel frame with an impact-absorbing base. Speaking of impact-absorbing, this seat also has 2 layers of side impact protection to protect the head from the forces during a crash.
90-Pound Weight Limit and 9-Position Harness Slot
Similar to the Evenflo Maestro, the Britax Frontier starts a forward-facing harness seat and then converts to a highback booster. However, your child can use the Britax Frontier as a harness seat until he/she reaches 90 pounds.
Although rear-facing seats are the safest stage/type of car seat for young children, the weight limit offered by this unit for their harness seat is fantastic. And to accommodate your child’s height, you can also adjust the seat’s harness slots in 9 positions from 12.5 inches to 20.5 inches!
As you might have remembered when we reviewed this seat before, we praised how it’s incredibly easy to install because of its belt path in the ClickTight panel. This seat also uses its patented V-shaped tether that is useful for installing it in the forward-facing mode.
If your child does not exceed 40 pounds in weight, you can also use its lower anchors inside the ClickTight compartment for installing the seat.
All in all, Britax Frontier is an excellent choice, especially as a forward-facing harness seat. But some drawbacks we have for this unit is that it weighs 24.9 pounds. This seat is heavy to carry around, especially if you transfer it from vehicle to vehicle. Lastly, even though you can easily remove the seat cover, they are not that smooth to touch and might be uncomfortable for a child.
Evenflo Maestro Booster – Best Lightweight Car Seat
Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend 3-year olds to stay as long as possible in using rear-facing car seats and forward-facing car seats before transitioning to the next stage. However, our first car seat only transitions from forward-facing mode to highback booster mode. Is it still worth considering for 3-year olds? The answer is yes.
Three-year-olds commonly gain around 4 pounds of weight and grows at 2 to 3 inches in height. And to accommodate their development, you have to consider choosing a car seat with a high maximum height and weight recommendation so that they can stay in the seat longer and safer.
The Evenflo Maestro’s forward-facing mode can harness children weighing 22-50 pounds. Their weight limit is great because a typical 3-year old can weigh around 38.5 pounds. This means you can keep your child longer in the forward-facing mode with the Evenflo Maestro. We should also note that in forward-facing mode, the maximum shoulder height of your child is up to 18 inches when he/she is seated.
Upfront Tightening and Loosening
For adjusting the tightness of the 5-point harness, you can use its upfront tightening (or loosening) feature. Tighten or loosen the strap and then push the lever on the front to release it.
When it comes to traveling, this unit is our favorite to bring in the airplane more than because it is FAA-approved. Evenflo Maestro only weighs 11 pounds and is as narrow as 19 inches so you can even install it 3 across in mid-size cars like hatchbacks and sedans. In saving space, it also helps that Maestro’s cup holders are not sticking out to the sides.
Auto-Adjust Belt Path
A unique feature of this booster seat is that it keeps the shoulder portion of the seat belt in the correct height because of its auto-adjusting belt path.
You can attach Evenflo Maestro into your car using your seat belt or by its latch system as long as your child doesn’t exceed 50 pounds. However, this isn’t the easiest latch system out there and can be difficult to tighten.
Graco 4Ever 4-in-1 – Best Car Seat for Long-Term Use
Use it Until Your Child is Ready for a Seatbelt
Up next is a model from a well-known brand, the Graco 4Ever 4-in-1 Convertible Car Seat. This unit gives you the versatility of using it as your child grows.
What do we mean by this? Your child can start using 4Ever as a rear-facing harness seat up until he/she is suitable to use a backless booster seat. Those are the appropriate starting and ending car seats for your child until he/she can use your car seat belt on his/her own. And in between, you can also convert it into a forward-facing harness seat and then to a highback booster seat.
Sturdy, Safe, and Comfortable
First, let’s examine it physically. The seat uses a steel-reinforced frame to keep it sturdy and has impact-absorbing plush inserts to keep your child not only safe but also comfortable throughout the ride. We also appreciate that it has cup holders on both sides as extra compartments for your child.
How does it perform? Have you ever heard of the FMVSS 213? FMVSS 213, also known as the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213 of the NHTSA, provides the performance standards for child restraints. It is crucial for the seats to get certified and meet these standards to ensure safety and quality. And the good news is, the Graco 4Ever met this standard, including those by the New Car Assessment Program. You can also bring this seat when you’re traveling with your child on the airplane because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hasapproved it for air travel.
Easy Adjustments, Conversions, and Installment
When it comes to usage, adjusting the unit’s harness and headrest doesn’t take much effort. You might even remember us praising on how easy it is to adjust this seat before for 4-year olds, and it is no different for 3-year olds. You also don’t need to rethread the harness to adjust it. However, it is quite difficult to tighten the seat harness when it is in the rear-facing mode.
Simply Safe Adjust Harness System
You can choose to up to 10 positions with the headrest to accommodate your growing child without breaking much sweat. You can even pull the headrest up or down to the position you want with just one hand, and it’ll adjust the harness height with it.
How about installing it into the car? Graco 4Ever is easy to install using its dedicated seat belt guides for each mode. However, the seat lacks a lock-off device for installing it with the seat belt, so you have to be knowledgeable with your vehicle seat belt locks.
InRight Latch System
Besides installing it via the seat belt, the seat also boasts an installment system that uses one set of latch straps and is called InRight Latch System. This system means it will take a second to install it into your car. But you should note that these latch straps are already for both the modes of the harness seat; rear-facing and forward-facing.
Another thing that you can tweak upon installing this seat is its reclining positions. When using it as a rear-facing harness seat, your child has a choice of 3 reclining positions and another 3 reclining positions in the forward-facing mode to keep him/her safe and comfortable.
To keep you less worried if you haven’t installed the seat securely and correctly, the unit will make a clicking sound once it is attached properly. You can also check its bubble level indicator located at the side, especially when reclining it in rear-facing mode.
Some criticisms we have for this seat is that it is bulkier compared to other units which can be problematic for smaller vehicles. Also, the fabrics, though they are easy to remove and clean, they are not breathable and can feel uncomfortable for the child.
Chicco MyFit Harness + Booster – Best Comfortable Car Seat
Our next car seat is also a harness-to-booster seat, but the difference it has with the previous model is that you can only use it as a forward-facing harness seat (FAA approved for aircraft travel) and as a highback booster. Nonetheless, it is a seat that is packed with useful features.
The Chicco MyFit also uses a steel-reinforced frame just like the Graco 4Ever. However, Chicco MyFit uses energy-absorbing EPS foam and DuoGuard (2 layers of padding protection) to give protection to the child on both sides of his/her body during an impact. The whole seat is designed to surround your child’s head and torso for support and protection. Looking at it, you will also notice that Chicco MyFit has a contoured shape to make your child more comfortable with equally distributed support.
4 Reclining and 9 Headrest Positions
A car seat will only be effective, safe, and comfortable for a 3-year old if it gives him/her the proper harness or belt fitting (booster.) If you want to know more about these correct positions, you can quickly browse our buyer’s guide for the information.
Now, back to the car seat, you can quickly tighten the Chicco MyFit 5-point harness on your child with a simple pull. There is also no rethreading necessary to adjust the harness, which is excellent for hassle-free fittings.
Easy Installments Either via the Latch System or with the Vehicle Seat Belt
If you’re wondering how easy it is to install the Chicco MyFit, it has a useful latch system with release button. On the other hand, if you choose to install it using the vehicle seat belt, it will be easy because the seat has comfortably wide seat belt guides to prevent belt twists and its own lock-off device: the LockSure. What is the use of lock-off devices? Lock-off devices help the vehicle seat belt to hold the car seat in place securely. You can also take advantage of the seat’s level indicators to know that you have placed the seat in the proper angle (4 recline positions) onto your car.
Some useful features that this seat have is that it has dedicated compartments to store the harness and latch straps when you aren’t using them. The seat cover also feels durable but is also comfortable and washable. Lastly, both sides of the seat have their own cup holder that you can fold or remove and then wash in the dishwasher.
Once your child reaches the proper age, height, weight, and demeanor for a booster seat, you can still use Chicco MyFit. You can give him/her a more comfortable and safer fit by extending his/her headrest (up to 9 positions) to meet his/height. This way, you don’t have to worry about your child sleeping in the backseat as he/she is supported by the booster to be in a safe posture, which is not to slouch.
Overall, the Chicco MyFit is a great car seat to give your child a good harness fit or seat belt fit without the expense of his/her comfort. However, this unit has a quite narrow seating area and can be cumbersome to carry around for travel even if it is FAA-approved.
Graco Nautilus 65 LX – Best 3-in-1 with Backless Mode
As we have previously discussed, booster seats are not ideal for 3-year olds. But a combination seat that can transition from a forward-facing seat up to a backless booster seat is a practical choice.
3 Crotch Buckle Positions
Compared to the previous Graco 4Ever, the Graco Nautilus is only capable of 3 modes. Their difference is that the latter does not start as a rear-facing facing seat. In the forward-facing mode, this unit’s maximum weight limit and height limit is pretty good (65 pounds and 49 inches.) What about its harness height? The seat’s harness height is equally as good; it can get as high as 18.25 inches. The seat is also capable of giving your child 3 crotch buckle positions (5.5 inches, 7 inches, and 8 inches) for a more personalized fit.
The overall built of the seat is durable and safe thanks to its steel-reinforced frame and EPS-impact absorbing foam. And like the other models we reviewed, the Graco Nautilus is side impact-tested, crash-tested, and is proven by the NCAP to withstand a crash twice the national standard. However, the seat weighs 20.52 pounds and is quite bulky to carry around.
Some remarks we have for this model is its reclining positions. Although it offers three, there isn’t much noticeable difference between them, which can be a problem for maintaining your child in the correct posture. If you’re on a budget and you want a seat that can turn into a backless booster in the future, you can consider the Graco Nautilus. It has a pretty good maximum weight and height limit in the forward-facing mode that your 3-year old can use for quite some time.
Graco Milestone All-in-1 – Editor’s Choice
The next car seat we have is another one from Graco, the Milestone All-in-1. Compared to the more expensive models that we reviewed from Graco earlier, the Milestone can only convert to a highback booster seat and not to a backless booster. Milestone also has only one cup holder compared to 4Ever, who has cup holders on both sides of the seat.
It is also two reclining positions (only 2 reclining positions for the rear-facing mode and 2 reclining positions for the forward-facing mode) less than our previous Graco model. However, are there still some great features that Milestone can offer?
Easy Installment via the Latch System or Seat Belt
Let’s start first with the installation. You can install Milestone onto your vehicle via its latch system or by your vehicle seat belt. For the latch straps, similar to the 4Ever model, you have to manually switch them according to which mode you’re using the seat: rear-facing and forward-facing. We think that even though switching the latch straps is easy; parents would appreciate it better if it has separate latch straps for each mode. But a nice touch that this seat’s latch system has is that it makes a clicking sound to alert you if you have secured them in place.
Use it as a Rear-Facing Car Seat for Longer
The great thing with the Graco Milestone though is that your child can use the rear-facing seat as long as he/she has an inch of space between the top of his/her head and the headrest adjuster.
One unique thing about this seat is that you can adjust both the headrest height and harness height using the seat’s Simply Safe Adjust Harness Feature. This feature allows you to pull the shoulder straps to your desired height when you pull the headrest up.
There are even 10 headrest positions to choose from, so if you have a child who grows fast, Milestone is a great consideration. We said that it is a great consideration because most 3-year olds should stay in the rear-facing seat longer, and with the Milestone’s 40-pound limit and headrest positions, your child can definitely use it longer.
Safety wise, we are pleased that the unit is crash-tested and has exceeded the FMVSS 213. It has also passed the standards by NCAP, side impact tested, and lastly, FAA-approved for airline travel. What about the built? Graco made the seat with EPS energy-absorbing foam and steel-reinforced frame. You can also remove its car seat cover into three parts and wash it in the machine.
Overall, if you’re on a budget and want something similar to Graco 4Ever, you can consider the Graco Milestone. You can even use this after your 3-year old grows up because just like our previous models, you can also convert this seat to a booster seat. During conversion from harness mode to booster mode, the Milestone does not require you to remove its harness because you can tuck it in the seat’s dedicated harness compartment.
Safety 1st Grow and Go – Best Affordable Car Seat
Remember how you can adjust the harness height and headrest height at the same time with the Graco Milestone? Well, another car seat that has the same feature is the Safety 1st Grow and Go. It is also capable of transitioning from a harness seat to a booster seat.
The Safety 1st Grow and Go’s shell is made with polypropylene (#5) plastic and uses energy-absorbing polystyrene to absorb impact in case of a crash. And although this seat is quite heavy (15.4 lbs) to bring around, it is also FAA-approved for airline travel.
For installation, you can secure this seat onto your car via its latch system (note that it cannot be used for booster mode) or by your car seat belt. The good news is, its manual is very user-friendly to use as your guide. Upon installing, there are 3 reclining positions to choose from, and you can use the guide on the side as you recline the seat. However, a drawback we found is that when it’s on the farthest reclining position, it takes up much of the space and might limit the leg room of the front passenger.
A unique thing about the Safety 1st Grow and Go is that it has plastic hooks on each side to hold the harness so that you don’t have to play hide-and-seek with the straps when your child is ready to buckle himself/herself again after he/she got out.
There are also removable pads for the headrest and seat to add extra comfort and proper fitting, which are useful if you have an infant that will also use this car seat as well. What about the cover? The cover feels soft and comfortable, and we appreciate that you can take it off without needing to remove the harness. After machine-washing, you can even put the cover in the dryer. However, a design feature that we don’t like with the Safety 1st Grow and Go is that you can’t remove its two cup holders.
As a booster seat, it is also good to know that this unit has exceeded the federal safety standards and has a “good bet” rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. What does this rating mean? For booster seats with this rating, this means that they provide the acceptable belt fit to your child in most cars, minivans or SUVs.
If you are on a budget and looking for a car seat that is safe and comfortable for your 3-year old, you can check out the Safety 1st Grow and Go. Because you can convert it to a booster seat with a 100-pound limit, you can be assured that it will last your child if he/she outgrows the harness seat.
Best Car Seat for 3-Year-Olds Buyer’s Guide
For a three-year old girl, she can get from 35 inches to 40 inches in height and weighs from 25.5 pounds to 38.5 pounds. For a three-year old boy, on the other hand, he can get from 35.5 inches to 40.5 inches in height and can weigh from 27 pounds to 38.5 pounds in weight. But why are we suddenly mentioning these average height and weight numbers?
You have to be aware that your child’s car safety doesn’t stop after putting your child in any car seat. It has to be the proper car seat for him/her, and it should be able to safely and comfortably restrain him/her in case of an impact.
Types of Car Seats
Before we discuss the different types of car seats, we want to remind you that children who are younger than 13 years old should be buckled properly in the backseat. This is very important, as stated by the CDC because the airbags in the front seat are incredibly dangerous for young children. The force of the inflating air bag is powerful and can hit or propel the children off his/her seat.
Rear-facing Car Seat (Birth to 3 Years)
Rear-facing car seats look similar to cradles. Depending on the manufacturer’s height and weight limit, a toddler can use the rear-facing car seat until he/she outgrows it. According to a study, this type of car seat offers the best protection for toddlers as it gives additional support on the child’s head, neck, and spine, while also distributing the crash forces on the body because of its cradle-like shape.
Forward-facing Car Seat (1 to 7 Years)
Once your child exceeds the manufacturer’s height and weight limits for the rear-facing seat, you can move your child to a forward facing car seat. A forward-facing car seat can have different harness styles, but the safest would be the five-point harness.
A five-point harness seat is so-called because it holds the child on both of his/her shoulders, both sides of his/her hips and between the legs. Harness seats offer more restriction compared to our next seat type.
Booster Seat (4 to 12 Years)
Booster seats are not suitable for 3-year olds. Remember that when transitioning your child to a car seat, only do it when he/she has reached the height and weight limit of the seat that he/she is using. It is more typical and safer for 3-year olds to use rear-facing car seats and forward-facing car seats.
What are boosters for? Booster seats “boost” your child’s height so that the shoulder portion and lap portion of your vehicle’s seat belt are correctly placed on your child’s body. This type of seat makes use of your existing vehicle seat belt, and it is needed because car manufacturers designed seat belts for adults.
For seat belts to be safe for your child as a form of restraint, you have to use a booster seat. This seat is also more typical for 6-year olds who have outgrown their harness seats.
Booster seats also have two modes: a highback booster and a backless booster. The latter type of booster seat is more appropriate if the child already has the proper demeanor to maintain the correct posture and attitude throughout the car ride.
Similar to the units that we reviewed, you can opt to choose a car seat that is convertible and can transition from a harness seat to a booster seat. This way, you can use this longer for your child while safely and comfortably accommodating his/her growth.
Factors to Consider When Choosing a Car Seat for a 3-Year Old
The first factor is, of course, convertibility. Convertibility means that the car seat is capable of converting to another car seat stage. For example, your child can use the Graco 4Ever 4-in-1 as he/she grows up because it can transition from the first car seat stage (rear-facing mode) to the last car seat stage (backless booster) before using the seat belt on its own. Convertibility is a great factor to consider because it means getting more than one car seat by purchasing one unit.
A unit that you can convert from a rear-facing car seat to a forward-facing car seat and then to a booster seat is a practical choice because you don’t have to buy another seat when your child outgrows the seat stage. Most combination seats also have higher harness limits which are great for growing children but can’t move to a booster seat yet.
Height and Weight Limits
As we have mentioned a lot of times throughout the article, it is very important that only after your child has outgrown his/her current seat that you’ll move him to the next stage. How do I know if my child has outgrown his/her seat?
Height and weight limits also influence how long your child can use a particular car seat stage. Some rear-facing car seats allow usage of children up to 40 pounds, which enables them to stay longer in the safest car restraint.
Ease of Adjustment and Conversion
Ease of adjustment is essential for both of your child’s safety and comfort. For you to efficiently and correctly adjust the seat (or headrest height and harness height), it is useful if the seat has features that will not require you to break a ton of sweat. This includes considering car seats that feature a no-rethread harness.
Another great example of ease of adjustment is how Safety 1st Grow and Go uses its QuickFit System that allows you to adjust the shoulder harness height and headrest in one move. Car seats that you can easily recline are also useful to keep your child comfortable throughout the ride.
We should also mention here that dedicated compartments for the harness are also useful, especially when you’re converting your car seat to the next stage. There are also brands that will not require you to uninstall the car seat when converting it.
Ease of Installment
Car seats for 3-year olds, especially convertible models, use both the latch system or the vehicle seat belt for installment. We have mentioned the latch system throughout our reviews, but what is a latch system?
LATCH System is actually an acronym, and it stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. The system uses the car seat tether that you will attach to your vehicle’s anchor. However, please take note that the NHTSA recommends stopping the use of the latch system if the combined weight of the car seat and your child reaches 65 pounds.
For installing using your vehicle seat belt, it is better if the car seat that you’re buying has a manual that is easy to understand, and the car seat itself has properly spaced belt paths. Properly belt paths will prevent the seat belt from twisting and will make your installment easier. Having a lock-off device is also a great addition.
You might have noticed how some car seats are FAA-approved for airline travel. This feature is particularly useful for those who travel a lot with their kid. Another feature to include in this factor is the car seat’s weight and size. Although usually, being bulky is the price you have to pay for convertibles and car seats with better height and weight limits, this feature can get problematic for people with smaller vehicles. If the car seat is heavy, it will also be harder for you to transfer it from car to car.
Is it Tested and Approved?
Probably the biggest reason why you’re getting a car seat for your 3-year old is to keep him/her safe throughout the travel. It is vital that you check if the car seat has passed various tests and standards to guarantee its effectiveness. Some guidelines that you might have seen on our reviews are:
- FMVSS 213 Standards
- NCAP Standards
- Side-impact tested
Car seats are incredibly essential for driving with your child, especially with 3-year olds who are much more curious and expressive compared to when they were younger. Because 3-year olds are prone to slouching and moving a lot throughout the ride, you have to make sure that they are comfortable and properly restrained.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the recommended car seats for 3-year olds are rear-facing seats and forward-facing seats. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends for children to stay in the rear-facing and forward-facing stages until they have outgrown them.
Rear-facing car seats support the child’s head, neck, and spine while absorbing most of the crash forces from an impact. Forward-facing car seats, on, the other hand, have harness straps that offer more movement restriction compared to a booster seat, which is useful as 3-year olds like to move around more often. Because of this, we recommend the Graco Milestone All-in-1 car seat because your child can use it in the rear-facing mode and forward-facing mode longer comfortably and safely.
Overall, we hope that this review has enlightened you more and helped you make the best decision for your child. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to leave them below.