By Jennifer Geiger on July 27, 2012
So your "baby" is copping a big-kid attitude and wants to kiss his childish booster goodbye. Not so fast, parents. A booster is just as important in keeping your kids safe in the car as an infant or convertible seat. But only you can decide when it's time to skip the booster and go right to the seat belt, not little Johnnie or Janie.
It's time to trade the convertible seat in for a booster when your child outgrows the height and weight restriction of their forward-facing seat. For most kids, this happens around age 4 and when the child is around 40 pounds. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends kids remain in a booster until they're at least 8 years old or 4 feet 9 inches tall. That is the longest recommended time in any type of car seat.
Why It's Needed: The goal of a booster is to protect children who are too large for a child safety seat, but too small for a seat belt. According to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, booster seats are more than twice as effective in reducing the risk of injury when compared with seat belts alone. Booster seats make sure that the lap belt sits snugly across a child's upper thighs and the shoulder belt sits across the child's shoulder and chest.
Different Types: High-back boosters look just as they sound. They're a booster base connected to a tall back and should be used if your vehicle has a low seatback or if the seat doesn't have a head restraint. The high back of this seat supports and protects the child's head and neck. A backless booster is just the base that the child sits on, raising him or her up so the seat belt fits properly. Lastly, a combination booster is one that initially uses a harness instead of the seat belt to secure the child. It can be installed using the Latch anchors until the seat reaches the anchor's weight limits — check your manual for specifics. When your child outgrows the weight limits of the harness, it’s removed and the seat belt is used — just like with a high-back booster.
Installation: As discussed above, combination seats can be installed using Latch. After the weight limit is reached, a seat belt must be used. For both regular boosters and high-back boosters, a lap and shoulder belt is required. If the booster is installed using only a lap belt, the upper part of the child's body will not be secured and protected in a crash. If you're using a backless booster, the child ears should not be above the vehicle seatback or the head restraint. The backseat is the safest place for kids, but if a booster-sitting child must sit in the front seat, make sure the seat is set back as far as it'll go. Lastly, boosters should still be buckled in place even when they're not being used; this prevents them from becoming a projectile during a crash.
Bye-Bye Booster: Make sure your child meets the following requirements before buckling up without a booster. The child must be tall enough to sit without slouching, be able to keep her back against the vehicle seatback and be able to keep his knees naturally bent over the edge of the seat bottom. Just as importantly, the seat belt needs to sit in the correct position: flat across the upper thighs and snug across the shoulder. It should not rest on the stomach or across the neck. Kids may try to wave the shoulder belt under their arm or behind their back, but this could severely injure the child in a crash.
Child Restraint Laws: All states have laws mandating car seat usage, but they vary. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety lists the laws by state here, or check out the map above.
Assistant Managing Editor Jennifer Geiger is a reviewer, car-seat technician and mom of three. She wears a lot of hats, many of them while driving a minivan. Email Jennifer