There are two massive problems you’ll face when you set out to choose the best car seat for preemies:
#1 – Imprecise descriptions from manufacturers that might mention preemies but often leave out the details. We need to know EXACTLY what we’re looking for.
#2 – Vague, biased language from websites reviewing the seats. Nine times out of ten, reviews will leave you with more questions than they answer.
That’s why I decided to right those wrongs in the guide below. Not only will I give you my recommendations, but I’ll explain how each of those made my list.
For the conservative buyer who likes to understand the logic behind their choices, I’m also including a detailed buying guide on all the factors of choosing a good preemie car seat.
Best car seats for preemies – my top 5 picks:
|Image||Best car seat for preemies||Features||Price|
|Uppababy Mesa||CLICK FOR PRICE|
|Graco 4Ever DLX 4-in-1||CLICK FOR PRICE|
|Chicco KeyFit 30||CLICK FOR PRICE|
|Graco SnugRide SnugLock 35||CLICK FOR PRICE|
|Britax B-safe 35||CLICK FOR PRICE|
UPPAbaby Mesa infant seat is our top pick because it ticks all the boxes critical for preemies (minimum weight limit, generous & well-made infant insert, and harness height) and over-delivers in other aspects.
Designed with preemies in mind
Mesa is one of the few seats out there that actually explains what makes their seat a good choice for preemies instead of just saying it is.
There are two main reasons:
- The infant insert is hefty enough to be comfortable even at 4 lbs.
- The crotch strap has settings that make it easier to find that optimal riding position – it’s comfortable yet not below the top harness level.
Easy installation and clear indicators
NHSA rated Mesa with five stars in EACH ease-of-use category. The instructions are clear; the installation is simple, and, most importantly, there’s no guesswork. When you install the seat correctly, you’ll get a visual confirmation on the level indicator wheel.
Later in the guide, I’ll discuss why a straightforward installation is more important than steel frames and reinforced sides. I’ve also put together a nice guide on how to tether a car seat without anchors which could be handy depending on your car model or car seat choice.
- Tightness and level indicators for visual feedback
- LATCH connectors are self-retracting
- Headrest is adjustable and reinforced for side impacts
- Seat fabric is removable and machine-washable
- No re-thread, 5-point harness
- Hideaway canopy – UPF 25+
Why I love it
Apart from the things I mentioned above, I’m a fan of the materials used for the Mesa. It’s the first (and still the only) seat to meet the federal safety standards without using fire retardant chemicals.
In my book, that’s a colossal plus.
Related reads: When Does Baby Outgrow Uppababy Mesa
To be clear, if you asked me, I’d go with an infant seat, but if you’re looking to save money and get a convertible seat, this Graco is my top pick. It’s one of the very few all-in-one seats with harness and insert geometry that works for preemies.
You’ll use it longer
You’ll likely use this Graco for years, a decade even.
Your child will only outgrow it at 120 lbs. The important part for the parents of preemies is that the minimum weight in rear-facing harness mode is 4 lbs, and the head and body insert are robust.
- InRight LATCH system for fast attachment
- Rapid Remove fabric (less than a minute)
- The frame is reinforced with steel
- Harness storage compartment
- Belt lock-off system – easier to use with seat belts
Why I like it
On a general note, I’ve always been a fan of Chicco’s approach to safety testing. They operate their own facility, which means they can test and improve the seats while developing them.
However, I’d like to see an anti-rebound system of some sort before I put them in the top-tier safety-wise…with the likes of Cybex and Britax.
On a preemie-specific note, I like the hefty padding of the inserts.
Top budget pick – Chicco KeyFit 30
Rated as third best is one of the industry-leading seats from Chicco. It has one of the best crash test results, the installation is intuitive, and it costs less than most seats here.
If you want to find the middle ground between spending too much on an infant seat and skipping it altogether, going with KeyFit 30 might be the way to do it.
Intuitive base installation
Chicco’s bases are typically a breeze to install and KeyFit 30 is no exception.
You place the seat base into the vehicle, pull on the levers of the ReclineSure system until the bubble on the RideRight is between the lines, secure the LATCH, and tighten it using the SuperCinch.
It sounds complicated if you’re new to the industry terminology, but it’s not – it is as intuitive as it gets.
Compatible with Chicco strollers
If you already own a Chicco stroller or have your eye on one, this seat will be the way to go. It’s designed to be a seamless fit and make, as Chicco puts it, “a travel system.”
- One-pull tightening system of the harness (5-point)
- Removable and washable inserts
- Compatible with Chicco strollers
- ReclineSure leveling & RideRight bubble for easy setup
- EPS energy-absorbing foam in the shell
- SuperCinch tightened for the LATCH system
Why I love it
I love the intuitive approach to installation. To be more precise, I love the smooth operation of the ReclineSure levers and the bubble leveling system that minimizes the chance of getting it wrong.
On the preemie-specific side, I’ve seen nothing but praise for the newborn positioner for smaller infants.
This Graco is one of the most popular infant seats out there. Compared to previous models, Graco improved the fabric and added a bit of padding, which is precisely what we’re looking for in a good infant car seat for prematurely born babies.
Main benefits of the infant car seat
Graco advertises its SnugLock Technology as a one-minute, hassle-free installation. Based on everything I’ve seen (not only in this seat), the “hassle-free” title is well-earned. That especially goes for seat belt installation, which can be tricky.
I’d go as far as to say that, in terms of seat-belt installation, it’s in the top 10% of all seats I ever reviewed.
This Graco is among the cheaper seats on the list. Yet, the user satisfaction percentage is as high as that of seats that cost twice as much.
It’s also made of better (read: softer) materials and has thicker padding compared to most Graco seats.
- SnugLock technology for secure seat belt and LATCH installation
- Adjustable base ( four recline angles)
- Compatible with Graco strollers (ClickConnect technology)
- Level indicator
- 5-point harness
Why I like it & what could be better
This Graco is not great. But it doesn’t pretend to be – it sets out to offer a good bang for your buck, and it succeeds.
The plastic is a bit too, well…plasticky for my taste, but you can’t expect much more at this price point.
So, this spot is still reserved for the good ol’ B-Safe 35.
Main benefits of the car seat
Comprehensive safety approach
The approach Britax takes to safety with this one is two-fold.
Firstly, the frame is made of steel alloy, which provides superior structural integrity.
Secondly, it will absorb more energy in a crash by distributing it through SafeCell material (integrated into the base of the seat).
StayClean is the proprietary name Britax uses for the high-performance Nanotex fabrics (type of nanotechnology textile finishing).
Compared to your run-of-the-mill seat materials, StayClean is more “mess-resistant” because it doesn’t absorb moisture or odors.
- Safe Center LATCH installation
- Steel frame
- SafeCell technology – improved energy absorption in a crash
- Extra layers of protection for neck, head, and torso
- Stain, odor, and moisture resistant (Nanotex technology)
- Spring recline with level indicators
- Full-sized canopy
What I like about it
If I had to choose one area where B-safe 35 shines the most, I’d go with the easy LATCH installation.
If I could choose two, I’d go with the unique Nanotex materials that are a breeze to clean and maintain.
Honorable mention – Maxi-Cosi Mico 30
As a bonus, I’d like to mention a seat that doesn’t exactly tick all the boxes but just because the minimum weight is 5 lbs.
If the baby is over 5 lbs, it’s a serious option because of the extra supportive padding, the low harness slots, and the premium materials.
What to look for in a car seat for preemies – in-depth buyer’s guide
Most of the information out there is not specific enough for parents of preemies.
I do understand that safety is paramount and that comfort is essential, but those two don’t mean the same thing for a baby that weighs seven pounds and one that weighs four.
That doesn’t mean we won’t go over all the key factors. It means we’ll put them in a context that’s useful for parents welcoming a preemie.
Finding clarity when choosing a preemie seat
When recommending products, the Wumblers team is all about clarity. We try to use simple language, and we try to be concise in our analysis.
To do that here, let’s start by grouping all factors into two categories:
- Non-specific factors – quality aspects that go for all safety car seats, preemie or not – like safety, build quality, installation, weight and size of the seat, etc.
- Factors specific to preemies – this is the group of factors that we’re more interested in today. There are three preemie-specific factors: minimum listed weight, the infant insert, and the harness position.
We’ll discuss the latter first – the quality factor specific to preemies because these can be deal-breakers.
There are many great seats out there that aren’t so great for preemies.
Minimum listed weight of a car seat
This criterion disqualified many good car seats because their lower limit was 5 lbs, and there is a good chance that a premature baby might be discharged from the hospital at 4 lbs.
So, this one is simple – we want a car seat with a minimum listed weight of 4 pounds.
That also means that most convertible seats won’t be an option since their lower limit tends to start at 5 lbs.
Four out of our TOP 5 picks for preemies are infant car seats.
Infant insert of car seats for preemies
This one is not as straightforward as the minimum weight because there’s no number to judge it by. Most of the good car seats come with an insert.
The infant insert is more than extra cushioning that lifts the baby closer to the harness.
It’s about maintaining a safe position and keeping their chin off their chest until their neck muscles grow stronger. For preemies, this part is crucial.
We want a generous insert that supports the body and the head. It should be molded so that the baby’s tiny neck tilts backward ever so slightly.
Ideally, we’re looking for car seats that explicitly say they’re optimized for preemies.
If a seat ticks the two boxes above, there’s a good chance that the combo of low minimum weight and a generous infant insert will mean the harness will be low enough for preemies.
And that’s what you want – the harness at shoulder level or slightly below.
As a rule of thumb, most car seats have a harness level of 5-6 inches and, for preemies, we want something on the lower end of that range.
But again, if the seat is optimized and designed with preemies in mind (the UPPAbaby Mesa is a good example of that), the harness position will be a good fit even if you don’t find specific information on the slot height.
The section below will go over some of the quality factors pertinent to all car seats.
When possible and relevant, I’ll put things into the perspective of driving around with a preemie in your car.
Safety of infant car seats
Personally, I’m obsessed with safety to the point of being that ‘weirdo’ that knows the safety rating of any car seat that anyone mentions.
I’m not stressing that to brag but to put what I’m about to say into context – people stress over the wrong things when it comes to baby car seat safety.
I see it all the time – full metal frames, reinforced sides, extra-strong this, ultra-durable that…
The fact is – ALL CAR SEATS sold in the US must meet the federal safety standards.
If that’s the case for the car seat you’re looking at, the federal agencies have covered safety much better than you can ever hope to.
What do I mean exactly?
Once you’ve established that the seat you’re considering meets or exceeds the federal safety standards, move on to the more important stuff:
The seat should be easy to install and come with clear instructions. This one is crucial because most parents get it wrong one way or another.
Yes, you read that right, I said, “most.”
In fact, a 2015 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that a shocking 95% of baby car seats are not installed correctly. You can see the study here.
On the other hand, 96% of parents believe that they’re doing it right.
Do you see the problem here?
The most common mishaps are loose harnesses or safety seat belt attachments.
According to the NHSA, no less than 40% of all parents have the harness too loose, 30% leave it twisted, and 34% are clipping the seat wrong.
What it all means for you
That’s a lot of information to take in, I know.
The good news is that you don’t have to worry about all of it because the NHTSA has a handy tool on their website that allows you to find the seats and compare their “ease of use ratings.”
Below is the ‘ease-of-use rating of our choice for the best car seat for preemies – the UPPAbaby Mesa. It scored full five stars in all categories:
You can see the criteria explained here and search their database by brand.
Adjustability of the harness
Most of the better infant seats will feature a no-rethread harness. That means you don’t have to take out the straps each time you adjust the harness and pull it through the slots again.
A no-rethread harness is more than mere convenience – we already stressed that we want to minimize the ways we can go wrong when installing the seats.
Weight of the seat
Weight is not a primary factor for an infant seat because most are lightweight and designed to be taken in and out of the car. As a rule of thumb, I’d ‘shoot’ for around 10 lbs for the carrier.
Convertible seats and all-in-ones are heavier, but that’s not a big deal since they stay in the car most of the time anyway.
Size of a preemie car seat
Size is a major factor if you’re driving a small car or need to fit more than one seat in the back.
If that’s you, we have a dedicated guide on the best car seats for small cars here.
Infant or convertible car seats for preemies
Infant car seats are designed for smaller babies and are used for no more than a year. They’re easier to use because you can easily take them out of the car without waking the baby up.
The downside is that buying both an infant and a convertible seat will cost more (duh).
For preemies, however, an infant car seat is the better option. Their weight limit is lower, they’re a better fit for smaller babies and allow you to take the baby in and out of the car without disturbing them.
How can I be SURE my car seat is safe to use?
A week before a preemie is released from a hospital, they’ll ask you to bring your car seat in so that they can perform a car seat test.
It will take 1.5-2 hours or however long your ride home is (if the latter is longer).
A nurse will monitor the baby’s breathing and heart rate during a car seat test to determine whether your car seat is safe to use.
Final thoughts and future updates
I do my best to keep all the information fresh across the website.
That means I keep up with new arrivals and compare them to what’s already out there.
Unfortunately, it also means researching any negative changes in the quality or manufacturing practices. That’s usually triggered by a change in the customer satisfaction stats.
What it all means for you
It means that even if you don’t choose a seat that works for you today, you should definitely bookmark this page for future reference and just come back when you need the information.
You can click here to skip back to the table of top picks to give them another look.
Once you are done with your preemie-sized car seat, make sure to dispose of it properly. Check out our tips for recycling your old car seat.