This past August, I had to do the “car seat shuffle.” My daughter had outgrown her Britax Roundabout and I had to decide if I should give her my son’s 5-point harness seat, which meant my son would be in a booster, or purchase a new 5-point harness seat. My son, who was just about to turn 6 and start kindergarten, is not a small kid. In fact, he’s one of the tallest in his class. So, he was big enough for a booster, but I have always heard that a 5-point harness is safest, and that one should keep their child in it until they reached the weight maximum.
I struggled and struggled with the decision, and finally decided that my daughter would get a new 5-point, my son’s 5-point would move from my husband’s car to mine (which is our “go-to” family car), and when riding in my husband’s car, my daughter would be in my son’s old 5-point, and my son would be in a booster. PHEW!
In trying to decide what to do, I researched boosters and realized that there is a huge variety on the market–from those that have the LATCH system and cost over $100 to small, backless ones that cost $25. What was best? Breezy Mama turned to Jennifer Walker, Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician and coordinator of the Kohl’s Safe Rides for All Kids Program at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital Injury Prevention Center, for some answers.
For those that don’t know, what exactly is a booster seat?
Booster seats are for children who are at least 4 years of age and too big for car seats, but are less than 8 years of age, unless they have reached 4’9″ in height. Booster seats raise kids up so seat belts fit properly to protect them in a crash. Seat belts are designed for adults, not for kids. Lap and shoulder belts reduce risk of injury and death by holding you into the car and spreading the energy of a crash over the strongest parts of the skeleton. Because seat belts do not fit well on many children, they can distribute crash forces over soft tissue, rather than bone, which can cause injuries to internal organs and spines. For children who have outgrown car seats but are not yet tall enough for seat belts alone, booster seats provide the best protection for young occupants and do the job of holding children securely in a vehicle and managing deceleration forces.
How do you know if your child is ready for a booster?
A child is ready for a booster when they have reached the upper weight or height limit for their forward facing harnessed car seat. Each car seat has a weight limit listed in the instruction manual. A child has become too tall for the forward facing harnessed car seat if their shoulders are above the seat’s top harness slots and/or the tops of the child’s ears are above the back of the car seat.
What’s the difference between a “backless” booster, and one with a back? Is one safer than the other?
Booster seats come in high-back and backless styles. The purpose of high-back boosters is to provide whiplash protection for children in seating positions without a headrest. If you have an older child who balks at using a booster seat or worries about what her friends might say, a backless booster can be a nice compromise, since it isn’t obvious to those outside the vehicle. Both types of boosters do serve the same purpose of positioning the seat belt correctly.
What should one look for when purchasing a booster?
The most important thing to look for is how the seat belt fits on the child when sitting in the booster seat. The booster should position the lap belt on the upper portion of the child’s thighs, low on the hips and position the shoulder belt across the center of the child’s collar bone. Other considerations for parents might include how the seat will fit in the vehicle with other child restraints. If you are trying to fit a booster seat along with two other car seats you may be limited by what will fit in the vehicle.
With 5-point harness seats, they need to be installed correctly to be safe. Is the same true for boosters?
Unlike harnessed car seats, a booster does not get installed in the vehicle. The seat belt must be positioned properly though. The instruction manual should always be consulted to assure proper use.
My son is 6 years old, 4 foot, one inch, and 50 pounds. Recently, I had to get a new car seat, and struggled with the choice—do I buy a $30 backless booster, or a $200 5-point harness? What would you have recommended?
A harnessed seat does provide better protection but at your child’s age and weight a booster will also provide good protection. The graduation to each new milestone in the child safety seat evolution process (rear facing to forward facing car seat, car seat to booster seat, booster seat to seat belt, back seat to front seat) provides a little less protection. Parents should not be in a hurry to move their child to the next step, but should follow the guidelines established by a reputable source such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the American Academy of Pediatrics.
When I was doing research in trying to decide what to purchase for my son, I noticed that some boosters just sit on the seat, while others snap into the latch system. The latter were just as pricey as 5-point-harnesses. If you were going to spend that much, shouldn’t you just purchase a 5-point harness seat?
Only a parent or caregiver can make the fit assessment regarding the best booster seat for their child. Both provide good protection when used properly. High price does not necessarily equal better protection. The most important assessment is proper fit of the seat belt while using the booster seat. For a proper booster seat fit, seat belts, once routed through the booster seat guides, should lay on the shoulder or collar bone. The lap belt should lie across the hips or upper thighs. The child should be able to maintain that proper belt fit for the duration of the trip. If the child is unable to do that, they should return to a child safety seat with an internal five point harness.
If a parent decided to go the booster route, what would be your #1 booster recommendation (brand and model)?
There is not one model that would be the best choice for every child. Children come in all shapes and sizes and vehicle design varies between models. The best booster seat is the one that properly positions the seat belt on the child as noted above.
I’m in CA, and a recent law was passed that, “Children under the age of 8 *OR* under 4 feet 9 inches in height must be secured in a car seat or booster seat. Additionally, children under age 8 must be secured in the back seat.” Was this law just for CA?
Child passenger safety laws are different in every state. That’s just one of the reasons this issues is so confusing for parents! This link gives you a breakdown of the child passenger safety laws by state:
This link provides you the child safety laws on all issues (not just child passenger safety) by state:
Anything you’d like to add?
It is important that a child uses their booster seat until the vehicle seat belt fits properly. Children are ready for lap and shoulder belts alone when they can place their backs firmly against the vehicle seat back with their knees bent comfortably over the vehicle seat cushion. Lap belts should fit low and snug on the upper thighs and shoulder belts should rest over the shoulder and across the chest. For most children, that good fit is achieved by the time a child is 8 years old, or earlier if the child has reached 4’9″. Belt geometry differs from vehicle to vehicle and you may find that your child can sit correctly in some vehicles but not in others. Pay close attention to how the lap and shoulder belts fit in each vehicle your child rides in when making the transition from booster seat to seat belt.
Another important rule for booster seat use is never use a booster seat with a lap belt only and be sure children never place the shoulder belt under their arm or behind their back.
Places to send readers for more information online include:
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About Jennifer Walker: Jennifer Walker is the coordinator of the Kohl’s Safe Rides for All Kids Program at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital Injury Prevention Center. The Kohl’s Safe Rides for all Kids program is a community outreach initiative designed to educate and engage parents and children and ensure that they are riding as safely as possible in their vehicles – using appropriate restraints for their age, height and weight every time they are in a car. The program includes initiatives that address the unique needs of newborns, toddlers, pre-school and early elementary school children, pre-drivers and teen drivers. In addition to managing the Kohl’s program, Jennifer assists the Rainbow Injury Prevention Center with media relations and consumer education and outreach on everything from child passenger safety and teen seat belt use to poison safety and OVI. Jennifer is a certified child passenger safety technician.