Booster seats are designed for kids who are not quite big enough to use a standard lap and shoulder seat belt. When placed in the backseat of the car, a booster seat "boosts" a child so that the car's seatbelt fits properly. Booster seats do not come with harnesses or their own belts; your child sits on the seat, and you use the seat belt from your car.
Transitioning to a Booster Seat
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends keeping your child in a car seat with a safety harness as long as possible and not switching to a booster seat until he is at least four years old. If your child exceeds the weight and height limits for his car seat, then you should buy another car seat with higher weight and height limits. The AAP gives guidelines for determining when your child is big enough to make the transition to a booster seat:
- Your child's shoulders are higher than the top openings for the harness straps
- Your child's ears are at least at the same level as the top of the seat
- Your child is bigger than the maximum size allowed for a toddler car seat, as indicated by the manufacturer's instructions
In other words, if your child no longer fits in his safety seat with a harness, it is time to transition him to a booster. The AAP lists four years as a minimum age for a booster seat. Alternatively, if your child is small for his age and can still use a safety seat with a harness, keep him in that seat before switching to a booster until he is bigger.
How Long Should You Use a Booster Seat?
Your child can use a booster seat until a lap and shoulder belt fits properly without extra support. The AAP states that children should use booster seats until they are at least 4 feet 9 inches tall, which is typically between the ages of 8 and 12 years. You will know that you can transition him out of a booster seat when a standard shoulder belt crosses the middle of his chest, and he can bend his knees comfortably over the edge of the seat without using a booster.
Forty-eight states, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico have laws that require that children to use a booster seat after growing out of a car seat. Each state has its own guidelines for when children can be allowed to use regular seat beats as well as what the fines are for not obeying these laws. The fines vary from $10 to $500 and may involve loss of driver's license points in some states. The only states that do not have these laws are Florida or South Dakota.
Types of Seats
Booster seats are available in models that have backing and those that are backless. The goal of each type of seat is to raise your child up enough to use the seat belt, and there is not much difference between the two styles. In some cars, though, you may need a booster seat with a back if you have low seat backs or your car does not have headrests.
Some booster seats that have high backs can be used longer if they are designed as combination seats. These seats may have harnesses installed that you may use for a younger child by securing the seat into the car. Once he has grown to a size big enough to fit into a booster, you may then remove the harnesses and use the same seat as a booster with the lap and shoulder belt. These types of seats are useful because you can use them longer for the same child. On the other hand, a backless booster seat may be less expensive and is easy to move between vehicles when needed.
How to Install
Follow manufacturer's recommendations for installing a booster seat into your backseat. Place the booster onto the backseat and allow your child to sit. Draw the seat belt across his body and click it into place.
- The shoulder belt should cross your child's chest at mid-level. A seat belt that is drawn across the neck is too high, and your booster seat is either too low or your child is not big enough.
- The lap belt should run across the top of his upper legs and pelvis and should have a snug fit. A lap belt that crosses the abdomen is too high.
- Some seats come with a notch to guide the seat belt into position. This prevents the shoulder belt from riding up into your child's neck.
- For safety purposes, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute recommends that all children ride in the backseat until age 13.
When transitioning your child to a booster seat, try to find one that is either new or was manufactured recently. Your seat should come with instructions, including guidelines for age and weights of use. Each booster seat should also have a date of manufacture so you can determine how old it is. Avoid using a seat if you cannot decipher its age or history.