Booster Seat Safety: Most Moms Know Nothing

We're nearing the end of Child Passenger Safety Week (a week that should really be year-long), and to further educate and celebrate, we're going to make sure your big kids are safe, which, according to some recent surveys, is pretty unlikely. Eek!

My 6-year-old son, Rowan, is in first grade, and taking him to and from school is really trying for me sometimes, especially when I see people pull up with 2- or 3-year-olds in boosters, or their 6-year-old without a booster seat, sometimes even in the front seat (both of which are illegal in my state and many others, by the way).

Chicco (pronounced Key-co), manufacturer of my favorite infant seat and dedicated booster seat, did a national survey and the results are slightly terrifying ... but they help me understand why I see what I see at my son's school:

  • When it comes to knowing the guidelines for when it’s safe for a child to ride in a car without a car seat or booster seat, 88 percent of parents of children ages 0 to 10 years didn’t correctly answer that it’s a combination of child’s height and proper fit of a seat belt.
  • Fewer than half of parents correctly identified the most important feature to look for when choosing a booster seat, a design that positions the shoulder and lap seat belt across the child’s chest and lap properly.
  • When it comes to knowing the guidelines for when it’s safe for a child to begin using a booster seat instead of a convertible car seat, more than 95 percent of parents of children age 0 to 10 years didn’t correctly answer that it’s a combination of a child being at least 4 years old and mature enough to sit still in a booster seat.

See? Scary. In every category, the good majority of parents didn't understand safety regarding 5-point harnesses or boosters. To help change these life-threatening statistics, we're going to talk about how to keep your big kid as safe as possible.

Most kids aren't ready for boosters until they're 5 or 6 years old.

The bare minimum requirement is 4 years old and 40 pounds, which is law in some states and the minimum on a lot of boosters as well, and is about the time the child's spine fuses to be less susceptible to stretching and breaking of the spinal cord. That's just the bare minimum, however. I don't do the bare minimum when it comes to my kids and I'm sure you don't either! Not only does age and weight matter here, but maturity.

Please remember that just because a booster seat says "3 years and 30 pounds" as its minimum doesn't mean it's legal in your state or safe at all. Most higher-end companies have higher age requirements because they're more invested in your child's safety.

With seats like the Graco Nautilus and Britax Frontier 85 that harness children until 65 and 80 pounds respectively, every child can be in a harness until they're mature enough to go to a high-back/belt positioning booster (which both of those seats turn into).

While it's best to keep your child in a 5-point harness as long as they still fit, eventually they'll need a booster. Your child is ready for a booster when they can do these things and you can follow these guidelines:

  • The child must be 4 years old and 40 pounds, as a bare minimum.
  • Sit upright without slouching or leaning (forward or side-to-side) for the entire car ride.
  • Never put the shoulder belt under their arm or behind their back.
  • Rarely or never fall asleep in the car.
  • Will obey these rules 100 percent of the time, every time.
  • Fit in a high back booster with the shoulder belt across the middle of their collarbone -- not the neck -- and have the lap belt go across the tops of their thighs/pelvis -- not against their gut.

See why it's rare that a 4-year-old is ready? Not only are most 4-year-olds too immature, but most still fit in 5-point harnesses anyway. Regardless, your child will eventually need a booster seat. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently did reviews of 72 booster seats, and only 21 of the 72 were good enough to earn either "Best Bet" (11 seats only!) or "Good Bet" recommendations, which means they install correctly in almost all cars and fit almost all children safely and correctly. There is also a large list of "Not Recommended" seats that either are incredibly difficult to use correctly in most cars (making it useless if it's not used right), fit most children wrong (which can be dangerous or even deadly), or just plain ol' aren't very good seats.

The three boosters at the top of their list of Best Bets were the Frontier 85 (harnesses to 85 pounds and boosters to 120 -- $280 on BabyAge), the Chicco Keyfit Strada (boosters to 100 pounds -- $129.95 on BabyEarth), and the Clek Oobr (some of the coolest designs EVER and boosters to 100 pounds -- $274.95 at chulamama). Check out the entire list of best bets.

“The fit of a safety belt varies from vehicle to vehicle and in different seating positions within the same vehicle. As with all child safety seats, the best booster seat is the one that fits the child, fits the vehicle, and is used properly every time,” says Julie Prom, child safety specialist and nationally certified child passenger safety instructor. “It is important that caregivers take the child with them to choose the proper booster seat. If possible, try the booster with the child in the vehicle before purchasing it. Because of the wide variation of vehicle safety belt systems, it is not uncommon that a booster will be a good choice for one vehicle, but not another,” advises Prom.

A final note about booster seat safety -- children in boosters CAN NEVER be in a location in the car with only the lap belt. Since 1989, it has been a requirement that the seats in the rear of cars have shoulder belts. Even if your child has to sit on the outside instead of the middle, they absolutely have to have a lap AND shoulder belt to be in a booster.

Now that you should have your child harnessed as long as you can, and then moved into a safe booster that they use correctly every time, there's one more step in big kid car seat safety. Eventually they can go without a booster.

Most kids are not ready to go without a booster until they are between 10 and 12 years old.

Just like with going into a booster, the bare minimum is not the safest practice. In more and more states, the law is that children may not go without a booster seat until they're 8 years old AND 80 pounds or 4'9". Most children don't hit 80 pounds or 4'9" until they're preteens, though, making the "8 years" limit the requirement they hit first, but not the only one that matters.

Young children who are placed in vehicle belts rather than booster seats are twice as likely to suffer devastating injuries, including severe damage to the brain, liver, spleen, stomach, and spinal cord. Most children need to use a booster seat until age 10-12 for maximum protection and improved comfort in the car.

Aside from the age and weight and height requirements, there's also a simple 5 Point Test to know if your child is ready to go without a booster, from

1. Does the child sit all the way back against the auto seat?
2. Do the child's knees bend comfortably at the edge of the auto seat?
3. Does the belt cross the shoulder between the neck and arm?
4. Is the lap belt as low as possible, touching the thighs?
5. Can the child stay seated like this for the whole trip?

If you answer "no" to ANY of these, your kiddo isn't quite ready yet, and would also probably be uncomfortable without a booster.

Don't rush it when it comes to car seats. Each step UP in car seats is a step DOWN in safety. Make each stage last as long as possible, because in an accident, you only get one chance to save your child's life, so you need to do it right every single time.

Be sure to check out more Child Passenger Safety tips here.


Images via chiclet731/CafeMom; chulamama

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