When do you move a child up to a booster seat? When are they ready? What the suggested ages, weight, and heights for a booster seat? What are the laws nationally and in your state regarding booster seats? You likely have these questions if you are a parent or caregiver of a child between the ages of 3-8. There seems to be a lot of conflicting information out there on booster seats (as well as lots of mommy guilt if you transition to a booster before your mommy peers moved their child). So, today, I’ve put together some research so you can be informed with real, honest, and accurate information on if and when to move a child up to the booster.
Why move up? Why not use a child safety car seat forever (or until they are like 12)?
It’s a valid question. After all, the Child Passenger Safety National Best Practice Recommendations says
Children are better protected the longer they can stay in each phase. Keep children in each seat up to the maximum age/weight/height limits before moving to the next phase.”
For many car seats made today, that means that most children can easily stay in a forward facing child safety seat until they 40-80+ lbs, or well into grade school, depending on the size of your child.
So, why would a parent even bother buying a booster seat? Why not just buying a bigger, better, car seat that will last until they are at least 8 years old?
Part of the problem is that these long-lasting car seats are very expensive, and not everyone has $300+ for these top of the line child safety seats. But, the good news is that most car seats made now have a weight limit of at least 65 lbs, which would last an average weight child until about 9 year olds. But, several children will outgrow the height limit of around 52″ before that weight is achieved, prompting them to move to a booster seat.
But, there are other reasons that may prompt the change to a booster seat sooner. While a child’s safety is the number one concern when it comes to car seats, not all car seats are made the same, nor are all children. A child may become very uncomfortable in a child safety seat because they have very long leg bones, and their legs hit at a very awkward place in the seat. Or perhaps they have a long torso that extends well above the highest seat strap opening in the car seat, and so the straps become too tight on them. And, less importantly, your child may feel lame being one of the few 6 or 7+ year olds still in a five-point harness.
Other reasons are likely logistical matters, like a growing family, but not a growing car. A new car seat or booster seat is more affordable than a new vehicle, but when another child comes along, a booster seat may fit better alongside the new baby’s car seat. It can get especially tricky when there are three young children and child safety seats or boosters in one row of a car. Things can get very cramped. Boosters generally occupy less space than other safety seats.
You may also want to use the car seat your older child is currently in for the new baby (or after the new baby out grows the infant seat) to forgo buying another convertible car seat, so you choose to (assuming they are large enough) move them up to a booster seat. This is what we did when my son outgrew the limits of his infant car seat. Given the fact that we already had two convertible car seats because we had twins, it seemed a little silly to buy a third, when our girls could just move up to booster seats, legally and comfortably, and we could then just move our baby up to one of their seats, and save quit a bit of money.
One last reason to move up to a booster seat, sooner than a child maxes out on the weight or height limits, is that booster seats are also very easy to transport and easy to install and use. Some convertible car seats weigh a lot, or may not fit in smaller vehicles, or older vehicles properly. So, if your child has frequent car pools to attend due to school, sports, or activities, a booster seat may be much less of a headache when moving from one vehicle to another on a fairly regular basis.
What’s the difference between recommendations and laws?
Then there is the fact that state laws are not actually the same as the Child Passenger Safety National Best Practice Recommendations. Basically, this means, a parent legally does not have to keep a child in a car seat to the max limits if they so choose, as long as they are still obeying their state’s law, many of which are fairly vague, or state that at after age 4 and/or 40 lbs, a child can use a booster seat (if it has both the lap and shoulder belts). In fact, in Texas, where I currently live, the law states:
All children younger than 8 years old, unless taller than 4’9”, are required to be in the appropriate child safety seat system wherever they ride in a passenger vehicle. The safety seat system MUST be installed according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Another way of saying this is: When a child reaches their 8th birthday – no matter their height – it is legal for the child to use only the adult safety belt in the passenger vehicle.”
If you read that correctly, as long as a child is using ANY child safety seat that fits them at their current height and weight, and the seat is installed correctly (and used correctly), it is perfectly legal. If you look at many booster seat height and weight limits, a four year old, and perhaps even a three year old, can easily fit those requirements, thereby making it legal for a parent or caregiver to use.
I mention this, because I feel like there is this growing prejudice against parents who choose to upgrade to a booster seat before their child has hit that 65lbs+ weight limit or 52″+ height limit on their child’s convertible car seats. While convertible child safety seats are the safest for our children, as is rear-facing, and we all want our children to be safe, booster seats used with their accompanying seat belts still protect a child in the event of an accident when used correctly by the child and the parent. Booster seats are legal and safe for a child to use, sometimes even when a child is as young as three years old, even if that is generally not the most recommended age to move up a child to a booster seat.
That is why I now want to move on to the best practices for moving a child up to a booster seat, and then tips for getting them to correctly use one, so that everyone can have peace of mind.
Height, Weight, or Age: Which one really matters the most when moving to a booster seat?
First, see what your state’s law is versus its recommendations. In Texas there is no age requirement on when a child can move to a booster seat, as long as they are in the required minimum seat requirements of the booster seat, they can legally use one. In some states, the law says a child must be at least 4 years old, or at least 40 lbs. In Indiana, where we used to live, the law in regards to booster seats was simply that a child must be at least 30 lbs to use one.
Boosters with a back and without – what’s the difference?
There are several different booster seats on the market. Some have backs, and some do not. The advantage of boosters with backs is that they have guides for the shoulder strap to fit through, so that they will hit more appropriately on the child’s shoulder and chests, every time. While some backless booster come with a strap clip that can position the belt correctly over the shoulder, if a child moves a lot, they are not as reliable to stay in the correct position on their shoulder and chest.
A major difference between the two is that backed boosters also tend to have a lower weight and/or height requirement as well, starting usually at 30lbs. They also provide head support (which is important if there aren’t headrests in your car, or they sit below a child’s head when in the booster), and a little side support too, which are all good to have in an accident, as well as when a child might fall asleep in the car.
However, there are also booster seat that offer the option of removing the back once your child is ready, like the Chicco KidFit 2-in-1 Belt-Positioning Booster. This booster even features an awesome SuperCinch LATCH attachment and tightener which keeps the seat better in place, removable cup holders, and an adjustable back, among other awesome features. However, many parents believe that weight or age doesn’t matter as much when it comes to booster seats – it’s all about the height, since the booster seat will be working with the car’s shoulder strap, and the shoulder strap needs to hit at a proper height on their shoulders.
How do you know if your child is really ready for the change?
That’s why perhaps more than height, weight, or age, the most important factor for moving up to a booster seat (assuming your child has met one or more of those requirements per your state’s law), is maturity. Because a child in a booster seat will have more freedom to bend forward, wiggle sideways, and play with the straps keeping them safe, maturity is pretty darn important when making this decision. If your child is too immature, wiggly, and irresponsible to sit appropriately in a booster seat, all of the time, they should not be moved up to one. Some even say that if you child still frequently falls asleep while in the car, they should not be moved up to a booster seat as well (though, I think this more applies to children who fall asleep in crazy positions. My 4 year old that may still doze in the car sits next to her baby brother’s car seat and can easily rest her head on the side of it, while still maintaining a proper upright position. Even when not sitting next to his seat, my older daughters usually sleep with their heads back against the seat, and do not fall forward, or too much to the side. However, a backed booster might also help remedy a frequent car napper.)
If your child doesn’t understand the importance of the seat belts, or not unbuckling themselves, and so on, you may have to rethink moving them up right now. It really just depends on your individual child and if they are ready to move out of their 5-point harness and still be safe.
So, how do you use a booster seat correctly?
First, make sure you, as the parent, are using the booster seat correctly. Read the instruction manual. Read your car manual. Make sure there is a head rest at the appropriate height for your child’s head in a backless booster. Make sure any LATCH hooks are connected tightly and accurately.
Next, set up the seat belt to hit your child at an appropriate height. Several booster seats provide a little strap and hook that you can tighten down behind your child’s shoulder, so that it will hit them across the chest, and not across their neck. When your child buckles in, or you buckle them in, make sure the seat belt is securely clicked in, and that the lap belt is tightened snuggly across their lap.
Tips for getting them to sit appropriately
After a child is secured correctly in their car seat, now comes the part where you need to drill home the importance of their seat belts. I find that at these preschool, kindergarten, or grade school ages, truth works well. Children need to understand why they have to wear the seat belt appropriately across their chests, and tighten the straps, and sit upright – because if they do not, and the car was in an accident, they could be severely hurt or killed. Express to your child that you do not want this to happen to them, because you love them, and want them safe. You can have this conversation every time you get in the car. You can also show them how you also wear a seat belt while driving, every single time, so that you are kept safe. You can even explain what might happen to them if they aren’t wearing the seat belt correctly, how they might hit their heads on the seat in front of them, or fly forward, or go through the windshield.
Yes, I know that all of these things are scary. But, they are true. And they are the reasons we wear safety belts. I honestly believe that the more we have told these things to our daughters, the more they understand and are willing to comply. In our family, we also have the, unfortunate, example to share of when my husband was in a car accident, and the seat belt saved his life, even though it may have caused him to break his sternum at the same time. So, parents, you need to be setting the perfect example in this area to your children and always wear your seat belts too.
For more ideas on how to encourage them to sit upright and not goof around, I suggest setting a timer and lengthening the time they have to sit perfectly appropriately more and more each time they successfully completed the previous time allotment. It could be a fun game for your child. In some cases, punishments may be in order if your child does something very reckless or inappropriate (like unbuckling during a trip) when they clearly know that is unsafe.
We have also often pulled over our car, yes even on the interstate, if one of our children fails to comply to the safety requirements of their car seat (whether in the 5-point harness and pulling their arms out from underneath the straps, unbuckling, and so on). We take car seat safety very seriously in our home, and strongly enforce it on our children.
Car Seat Safety Really is That Important
We do this because driving around in a car is one of the most dangerous things you can do. Accidents can happen within just a few miles of your home, and even at very slow speeds. They can happen from bad weather. They can happen because of someone else’s inattentiveness. Accidents happen. Often. And it is really a matter of when it will happen, and not if. It is up to us as individuals and as families to do what we can to protect ourselves. And that is why understanding car seats safety, booster seat safety, and the laws and recommendations surrounding them, is extremely important.
Please, do your homework on car seats. Please pray about your decisions to move a child from rear-facing to forward-facing, and from a five-point harness to a booster seat. These are not decisions to be made lightly, or because you just feel like it, or because your friend did so when their child was such and such age. Be informed. And make choices based off that information and your life situation, and upon your child’s individual needs and size and age and height and weight and maturity. You are their parent, and need to make these decisions for them. So, make the right ones.
When did you move your child from a five-point harness to a booster seat? Why did you move then when you did so?
Want More Parenting, Penny Pinching, and Simple Living Tips?
Subscribe and get my best advice delivered right to your inbox. As a thank you, you'll receive these three laundry room printables for FREE.