3.5 year old in Radian

Combination Car Seat Reviews

Sorry no blog post last week, Cradled in Joy fans. Just as I was finishing writing a blog post – it was, I assure you, witty, informative, even earth shaking! – my 2009 white Macbook finally lost the last of its ability to draw power from either the battery or the power cord. One technology-deprived week later (in a house only three dead computers, four iOS devices, three outdated Nintento systems, one television, a modem, and a router), we are now wildly outnumbered by modern Apple products and I can attempt to rewrite what was mostly lost.


Car seats became mandatory for Ohio children (really, for children nationwide, but, like seatbelts, these are state laws and there is some variation from place to place) on January 1, 1981. Since that time babies under 1 year and 20 pounds (must meet both criteria) must ride in a properly installed rear-facing car seat, and children under 4 years and 40 pounds (again, gentle reader, that is AND not OR) must ride in a 5-point harness.

In the early 2000s a booster law was added, and more recently national recommendations for rear-facing have increased. I’ll go into these issues in more detail another time. Today, I will share some of my experiences with forward-facing seats.

My eldest child, now 4.5 years, rode from birth in a Cosco Scenera, a convertible (can be used both rear-facing and forward-facing) seat. It was simple, safe, and inexpensive. Its maximum passenger weight is 40 pounds, which initially concerned me a bit: what if my darling reached 40 long before turning 4? Would I need to purchase a higher-weight-limit seat for a few months? Well, I would have, but I needn’t have worried. My darling, instead, reached age 4 long before 40 pounds. On her 4th birthday the child weighed 32.2 pounds, in clothes and shoes.

No problem, then, right? Wrong. Because as the year has worn on, her shoulder height has increased beyond the Scenera’s maximum strap slot. Forward-facing seats must be used with the STRAPS AT OR ABOVE THE SHOULDERS; this prevents compression in an accident. On her current growth curve, my kidlet won’t be 40 pounds and booster eligible until almost her sixth birthday. And she’s not the only one, as she is only just barely below the 50th percentile for girls. So this problem could well happen to you.

Or, you could have a kid who does max out a 40-pound seat before her fourth birthday. Or your sweetie may be just perfectly convenient in height and weight and outgrow his seat all in one go, but lack the responsibility to sit upright and facing forward in a mere booster. For all these reasons, it is worth seeking out a 5-point harness seat with higher shoulder strap settings and a higher weight limit.

In the end, I wound up with three models (in different cars my daughter rides in), of combination seats, that is, forward-facing 5-point-harness seats that can later have the straps removed for use as boosters. Two of the three can further have their backs removed to become backless boosters that you just toss in whatever car your child needs to ride in; I look forward to that time! Because I was working with a child who’s taller than she is heavy, all three have particularly tall maximum shoulder strap heights. Also, all three can be used with harness for children to about 65 pounds (this is important if you have a chunkier kid – or just if you want the safest ride possible, as, really, we would ALL be safer in 5-point harnesses).

One important feature that all three of our seats share is that they are allowed to be attached to the car with the LATCH system when used as high-back boosters. This does not secure the child to the seat, obviously, but does prevent the seat from becoming a projectile if you’re in an accident while the seat’s vacant. Most boosters don’t allow this. Both the Defender and the Nautilus can be used as backless boosters, and they do not LATCH to the car in this configuration; but then, a backless booster has a lot less mass to knock front seat passengers in the back of the head with.

The first, a Diono Radian, is installed in our own car and so is the one I’m most familiar with. The Radian is kind of an amazing seat in that it may be the only car seat you ever need. It installs rear-facing (if your car is less tiny than mine) for babies 5-40 lbs–though it does not click in and out like the bucket-type carrier seats, so if that’s important to you it is not the seat to begin with. It can be turned around and used as a forward-facing seat from as early as 20 pounds. (We’ll talk more another time about why you want a seat that rear-faces beyond 20.) Finally, it converts to a high-back booster seat from 30 to 120 pounds (30 is the legal minimum in some states, but as I said above, in Ohio a harness is required by law to at least 40 pounds). It has the nicest buckles and is easiest for the kid to climb in and out of. In fact, she can operate the chest clip fully on her own and has been able to for about a year. She just got the lap buckle snapped on her own this week, and still cannot unsnap it – in any seat. The Radian has the nicest LATCH clips. But it is nonetheless kind of a pain to move between vehicles because it is super heavy and tips over if set on the ground. It also only has one height for threading the shoulder strap through in booster mode, though as I haven’t used it as a booster I can’t be sure how much this matters.

The Harmony Defender (installed in my father’s car) has two amazing selling features: it is under $100, and it has a no-rethread harness height adjustment (just squeeze a handle in the headrest!). Also it comes with two cupholders, which the kid likes. It was a nuisance to assemble out of the box, but that’s a one-time, 20-minute issue, so not at all a deal-breaker. Its harness straps sit oddly close together around even my skinny minny’s neck. The biggest downside of the Defender, though, is buying it: it is sold exclusively by the evil empire Walmart – and it often goes out of stock for months at a time.

The Graco Nautilus (we have two – one in my mom’s car, and one in my in-laws’) has the smoothest-pull strap tightener, one good cupholder, is lightweight, and assembles and installs easily. I personally don’t like its chest clip; I actually struggle to unbuckle it, but I don’t use this seat daily and would perhaps get used to it. Also, critically from my 4 year old’s point of view, we own the Nautilus in pink. So clearly it’s the best.