Monday, August 22, 2011

The Three-Across Car Seat Adventure

I'm in a place right now that I hope my next post after this one will be a birth story (mine!), but it could still be a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I bring you, The Three-Across Car Seat Adventure!

Even before we managed to conceive Baby #3, I started worrying about how we were going to fit all three kids in our little Toyota Corolla. See, we had a Rav4, which might have been wide enough to fit three car seats across, but when Baby #2 was about 11 months old, we traded the Rav4 for a Corolla to save money, figuring we wouldn't want a third for at least three years. We'd worry about a bigger car, preferably a minivan, when the time came.

Except, we got baby fever a little earlier than anticipated, and even as we hoped every month to see the positive result on the pee-stick, I worried about the car seat situation.

Our first son is not yet five, although he's big for his age. I really wanted to keep him in a five-point harness as long as possible, and he's not even close to the 65-pound limit on the Graco Nautilus he was riding in, so I had assumed he'd just stay in that until he hit the limit. Then there's our second, who's now 2.5, and average size for his age. He had plenty of room to grow in his Britax Roundabout. But in between those two massive car seats wedged into the backseat of our tiny Corolla was... not enough space for even a skinny person, much less a car seat. Yikes.

Knowing I had at least nine months to solve this problem, I started asking around. What I found out is that there are two car seats on the market that advertise themselves as being narrower than all the others. One even claimed you could fit three across in a Toyota Corolla! That is the Combi Cocoro. Problem? It's a small convertible seat, with an upper weight limit of 40 pounds. Fine for the baby, but certainly not for the 4.5-year-old, and the 2.5-year-old probably wouldn't get much use from it either. The other option is a Sunshine Kids Radian convertible seat. They have models that go to 65 pounds and 85 pounds. Awesome, right? Could I do a Cocoro and two Radians?

Well, cost was an issue, of course. The Cocoro runs anywhere from about $160 to $230, depending on sales and color. (I didn't much care what color it was, so I'd take the cheapest if I could.) The Radian runs between about $180 to $250. Similar price range. And to buy three of these? I wondered if there was a better way.

There was also the pesky problem of not being able to take any passengers with us, ever. If all five of us were in the car, the car would be packed to the brim. Even with only the two kids, the car was cramped when full. It was livable, but not fantastic.

When the then almost-2-year-old's birthday approached, Grandpa asked what he wanted. I said he really, really wanted a Radian 65. I figured, I could get one and see how it fit. If it looked like it might work, I could splurge for two more. And... the two-year-old refused to use it, wanting to stick with his old seat, but the 4.5-year-old wanted to use it. Fine. I put the bigger kid in the new car seat and the smaller kid got to stay in his same Grace Nautilus. (At some point, I'd switched him out of the Britax and into the Graco. I can't remember when.)

The Radian was definitely narrower, but there still wasn't nearly enough room for a third seat. The Nautilus is also quite wide, meant to accommodate a child up to 100 pounds, so it wasn't going to be viable anyway. I spent an afternoon testing out different configurations with the Radian, out there in the backseat of the Corolla with a measuring tape, trying to figure out if I could fit three Radians across. I came to the conclusion that I could, but only if I could make the car about two inches wider. Obviously, this was not an option.

I was skeptical that I'd have any more luck with the Cocoro. I scoured the Web for any evidence that someone had actually put three Cocoros across the backseat of their 2010 Corolla. I couldn't find a single article, blog post, or forum question that addressed this problem. Most people who put three car seats across had mid-size cars, SUVs, or minivans. All much wider than my little Corolla. See? I needed those two inches!


By the time I was five months pregnant with Baby #3, I was quite concerned. I was beginning to think that we only had two options: Put the oldest child in the front seat (legal if you have no other option, but I was not comfortable with this idea) and never have all five of us in the car, or never have all three kids in the car at the same time. Obviously, not very practical.

We broke down and admitted we needed a bigger car. A minivan would be ideal. If we could get a bare-bones, bare minimum, used van, our car seat (and passenger!) problem would be solved.

We couldn't find much in our price range. Plus, the arrangement we had cooked up in order to afford such a purchase was not very viable. So, in a last-ditch effort at solving this sticky sticky problem, I went back to the dealership where we'd bought the Corolla. We'd bought three cars there, and we hoped our loyalty would buy us a favor.

Lo and behold, it did! They found us a used Toyota Highlander, seven-seats, in brilliant condition, and were able to finance it for us and take back the Corolla. It was a miracle! I'm actually very happy with this car, car seat problem or no car seat problem, so that worked out well.

But I still had to actually, you know, fit three car seats somehow. The third row in the 2006 Highlander is quite utilitarian and not ideal for installing a car seat. Plus, if you have the third row unfolded, you have basically eight inches of trunk space. Not exactly enough for a stroller and groceries. Not exactly enough for just groceries. Plus, whoever was in the back had to get there somehow, either by climbing in through the trunk or over the second row, which would involve folding down the second-row seat... hard to do when there's a car seat attached to it! I was determined to fit three across in the second row, so we'd only have to put up the third row if we needed to take additional people besides the five of us.

I came to the conclusion that the simplest option was to put the oldest in a booster seat, so he could buckle and unbuckle himself. Plus, simple boosters seemed to be narrower than most of the car seats out there. So, I bit my lip and purchased a Graco Turbobooster. If he was going to be in a booster, it was going to have a back, at least, to properly position the shoulder belt and offer more head protection.

It was narrower, but was it narrow enough? I spent another few hours arranging and rearranging the car seats, trying to figure out how I was going to get the booster, the Radian, and either a rear-facing something or, preferably, the Chicco KeyFit30 infant bucket-style car seat I already had. My preferred arrangement would have been the bucket in the middle, or, failing that, the booster in the middle, but neither way worked! I finally managed to squeeze the booster behind the passenger's seat, the infant seat behind the driver's seat, and the Radian in the middle. Talk about a challenge! I tested my car seat prowess with that configuration, let me tell you.

I don't love the arrangement, but it works well enough, and I got everything else that I wanted out of the deal. The biggest problem now is that the oldest can't actually buckle his seat belt because the booster and the Radian are so close together. He has to move the booster over, get in, buckle, and then I have to shove the booster back into the correct position. He can, thankfully, unbuckle himself and get out. Buckling the 2.5-year-old into a five-point harness in the middle seat is uncomfortable, especially with my large pregnant belly, but it's not unmanageable, and the low profile of the Radian allows my short-ish toddler to climb in and out of the seat with relative ease, so at least I don't have to lift him into it. And, because I'm using the bucket-style car seat for the baby, it will be easy just to plop him in last, once the other more complicated kids are taken care of.

I shudder to think what gyrations I'll have to perform when the baby is ready for a convertible seat, though. I'm thinking I'll have to buy a Cocoro at that point. Maybe with three narrower seats, it will be less of a problem. I'll let you know when that happens!

In the meantime, think good labor thoughts for me. As I said, I'm hoping my next post will be a birth story! If not, it'll probably be about something new and different, like breastfeeding.

Also, please check out my breastfeeding book for Kindle, The "Yes, It's Normal!" Guide To Breastfeeding!


  1. Hi jessica,
    Tis awesome . I just reads a-z of your post. Is it also approval for baby car seat?

    Thank you

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