The 10 best mainstream car seats for special needs kids

The 10 best mainstream car seats for special needs kids

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There are many car seats on the market custom-made for children with special needs, but they are expensive: about $550 to $2000, or more. Since special needs parents have just a few other expenses, buying a special needs car seat may be difficult, if not impossible.

But there are options. And though you may know know it, there are experts known as CPSTs – child passenger safety technicians – who have received special needs training. These experts are educated in how to safely restrain children and install car seats properly, as well as in finding just the right seat for children with special needs. And here’s a little secret they know, but you may not: They always try mainstream seats before special-needs seats. Why?

“As long as a child can fit in a traditional seat we really want to leave them there,” says Oakland, California CPST Kimberly Wilkinson. “Often, insurance will only pay for one seating option every five years – if parents use that money for a car seat, they may not have the money for a special adaptive highchair or something else.”

“Conventional seats far less expensive – you can get them for under $100,” points out the Juvenile Product Manufacturer’s Association (JPMA)’s Director of Child Passenger Safety Joseph M. Colella. “They’re also easier to get. You can just order them online; no waiting for insurance forms to go through. They’re also so much easier to use. Some of the larger special needs seats require a heavy-duty tether anchor, and you have to take your car to get retrofitted" at enormous expense and hassle.

Abbie Patterson, an Easton, Pennsylvania CPST and President of Car Seats for the Littles, agrees: “You want to try conventional whenever possible – and many insurances only cover one seat, one time.”

But will a conventional seat work for your child? It depends, of course, on what special needs your child has. A child with breathing difficulties needs something different from a child with low tone, who needs something different from a child in a cast or who has medical equipment.

You’ll have to confer with your child’s own specialists as to what will work for you. Consulting with a CPST with special needs training is also a great idea – you can find one by searching on the National Child Passenger Safety Certification site. Be sure to check “Special Needs” under “Extra Training” to find one who can give you the most expert help. Costs vary – some CPSTs, such as Kimberly Wilkinson, even do special needs car seat fittings for free, since she knows how many other things special needs parents need to save money for.

But in general, the experts we spoke with recommended that parents look for seats with the following:

1. Recline options: Children who have low tone, breathing issues, or trouble sitting up may be safest and most comfortable in a seat with a deep recline, or many recline options, so you can find the best one for your child. Look for seats with 2 or more recline options, or those that can lie flat or nearly flat in the car.

2. High rear-facing weight and height limits: Most conventional car seats recline more fully when rear-facing – seats with higher limits can be used longer, and children in rear-facing seats (even typically developing ones) are safer in them in the event of a crash. Look for seats that allow rear-facing up to at least 40 pounds (some go to 45, or even 55 pounds), and a rear-facing height limit of at least 40 inches.

3. High harness weight limits: If your child has difficulty sitting up, head/neck control issues, or behavioral issues, a harness can keep them in place safely. Look for a harness that holds children up to at least 65 pounds; some even go up to 90 pounds. "Virtually every convertible goes up to 65 pounds these days – 40 pounds used to be the industry standard," notes Colella.

4. Seats with lower or shallow sides in the sitting area: If you have a child with a broomstick or hip cast, a seat with these lower sides allows for better leg positioning. A seat with deep armrests may make positioning more difficult.

5. Extra padding and positioning options: If you have a child with missing limbs or other physical differences, or a child who’s smaller than average, some seats have harness or crotch strap adjustment features that can make things fit better.

6. A high back with deeper sides in the shoulder area: If your child has trunk control issues, the deep sides can make them more comfortable or help keep them in place. Highback boosters may work better for many kids than backless models.

With all that in mind, here are some conventional seats to try.

1. Graco MyRide 65: Patterson calls this convertible seat “one of the go-tos for a lot of techs for a long time,” because the My Ride 65 has a lot going for it. It holds kids rear-facing to 40 pounds (and until the top of their head is less than an inch from the top of the shell), and forward-facing in a harness to 65 pounds and 49 inches tall. It’s got a nice, deep recline, and deep head-cradling “wings.” It’s very reasonably priced too. On the con side, it’s a big seat that may not fit small cars. Oh, and though it sounds like the Graco “clones” (MySize, Fit4Me, Size4Me, and Head Wise) this is a different seat.

Buy it: Graco MyRide 65

2. Chicco NextFit: The NextFit convertible, which can recline to 9 (!!) different positions, has a good chance of fitting most cars and most kids. it also has very high rear-facing height limit, so if your child is on the tall side, you can leave them rear facing for a long time. It holds kids from 5-40 pounds and 49 inches rear facing; 22-65 pounds and 49 inches front-facing. You will find it in several different “flavors” in stores, all with the same height/weight limits: the NextFit, NextFit CX (has an easier-to-handle harness and extra crotch buckle pad), NextFit Zip (pictured, has the CX’s features, plus a cup holder, improved harness adjuster, and a wonderful, washable zip-off seat cover that’s actually easy to put back on, too).

Buy it: Chicco NextFit Zip

3. Graco Extend2Fit: This convertible seat has lofty rear-facing weight limits at a very reasonable price: "Long-lasting rear-facing seats are great, because keeping kids with tone issues rear-facing as long as possible can be beneficial," notes Patterson. We also like the slide-out panel below the seat that gives parents and kids more options for where to prop legs. The Extend2Fit holds riders from 4-50 pounds rear-facing (and until your child’s head is less than an inch below the gray harness height adjustment handle), and 22-65 pounds and 49 inches forward-facing. The deep headwings may work well for children who have head/neck control issues, and the infant padding is useful for smaller babies.

Buy it: Graco Extend2Fit

4. Britax Advocate ClickTight: With 7 recline positions (all of Britax’s ClickTight models have this attribute), generous weight/height limits, and nice, deep sides that can cradle riders with uncertain posture, the Britax Advocate ClickTight convertible can be a good choice for riders with special needs. It holds children rear-facing from 5 to 40 pounds until their head is 1 inch from the top of the fully extended head restraint, and forward-facing from 20 to 65 pounds and 49 inches in the harness. Parents also love how easy and straightforward Britax’s ClickTight technology makes installing the seat with a seatbelt. But the chief appeal is the recline – with so many available positions, you’re more likely to find one that works for your child and your car.

Buy it: Britax Advocate ClickTight

5. Diono Rainier: Diono makes seats with very high rear- and forward-facing weight limits, so its seats are frequently recommended for special needs kids. But though the Radian RXT, R100, and R120 may work beautifully for your child, the Rainier has a few features that make it the best Diono bet. First, the height/weight limits are even loftier than the impressive limits of Diono’s other seats, holding riders from 5 to 50 pounds and 44 inches rear-facing, 20-90 pounds and 57 inches front-facing in the harness, and up to 120 pounds in booster mode. The seat’s sides are relatively flat, which can make adjustments easier for children in casts, limited mobility from the waist down, or other issues in the bottom halves of their bodies. And finally, the Rainier has deep “headwings,” which cradle the rider’s head if they have difficulty sitting up or holding their heads up.

Buy it: Diono Rainier

6. Kiddy Evolution Pro: If you have a child with breathing problems or other issues that make it difficult or impossible for her to sit up, the Kiddy Evolution Pro infant car seat, which allows children to ride lying flat, could be the seat for you. The seat fully and safely reclines, whether it’s installed in your car or out of it, whether your car is in motion or not. The Evolution Pro needs plenty of space to lie flat safely, so it may not be a good bet for smaller cars. And the weight/height limits are low – the seat holds children from 4 to 22 pounds and up to 30 inches rear-facing -- since it's an infant seat, it doesn't hold your child forward-facing. The seat also comes in another version, the Evolution Pro 2, sometimes sold as the Evolution Pro 2 XL, that holds infants from 4-35 pounds and up to 37 inches tall – it’s $30-$50 more than the Pro. But that lie-flat function may be just what you need.

Buy it: Kiddy Evolution Pro

7. E-Z On Vest: Okay, this isn’t a seat at all. But this cleverly designed vest is a terrific option for parents of kids who have casts or other medical equipment/needs that make it hard to sit in a traditional seat. Available in several sizes and styles, the E-Z On can handle riders from age 2 all the way to adulthood, and from 20 to 168 pounds. It’s light and easy to pack, it works great for 3-in-a-row car seat installations or tight spaces, and it doesn’t require any special equipment – it just uses your car’s seatbelt. “It can be great for kids traveling to medical tests, easy to port along,” notes Kimberly Wilkins, a fan.

Buy it: E-Z On Adjustable Vest size M

8. Clek Foonf: It’s expensive for a mainstream seat, but the Clek convertible is made of gorgeous and luxurious fabrics, it's cushy and comfy, Clek takes its seats back for recycling (the only U.S. maker to do so!), and the weight/height limits are very good: 14-50 pounds and 23-43 inches rear-facing, 20-65 pounds and 30-49 inches forward-facing. But what makes it a real boon for special-needs parents is the seat’s anti-rebound bar, which limits the seat’s rotation in the event of a crash while rear-facing and makes the Foonf sit further away from the seat back, which can give some extra wiggle/maneuvering room for special needs kids. Note that the Foonf’s weight minimums don’t start at “newborn” size.

Buy it: Clek Foonf

9. Evenflo Symphony: This bargain convertible has a few features that make it a good choice for special-needs riders. The weight limits are decent – 5 to 40 pounds and 19 to 40 inches rear-facing, 22 to 65 pounds and 28-50 inches forward-facing, 40 to 110 pounds and 44 to 57 inches in booster mode – and there are two different recline positions for forward-facing riders, which makes it more likely you’ll be able to find one that works for your child (most car seats don’t have forward-facing recline options at all). We also like the seat’s comfy padding and headwings – special needs parents say that their kids are comfy in this seat, and special needs CPSTs name it as one of their go-tos. This seat is often sold in different versions: the LX, DLX, Elite, Platinum LX, Platinum DLX, or ProComfort DLX all share the same height/weight limits, they just differ slightly in fabric and styling.

Buy it: Evenflo Symphony Elite

10. Britax Boulevard ClickTight: Like the Advocate ClickTight, the Boulevard convertible seat also offers 7 recline positions, making it easier to find the right one forward- and rear-facing. It’s also a very “tall” seat, with generous height/weight maximums – 5 to 40 pounds and maximum height of top of head 1 inch below the top of the fully extended head restraint rear-facing, 20 to 65 pounds and 49 inches forward-facing, and side “wings” that are even deeper and comfier than the Advocate’s. The seat is on the wider side, so if you have a bigger child, this may be one to consider – it also comes with a great infant positioning pillow that makes this seat work for smaller infants. Note that the Marathon is the other Britax ClickTight model (and also has a 7-position recline), but since the height limits top out at about 2 inches shorter than the Boulevard or the Advocate, it didn’t make this list.

Buy it: Britax Boulevard ClickTight

Other seats that didn’t quite make this list (but may still work for you)

Infant car seats



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