Is it time to move your kiddo to a booster seat? How do you pick one? Aren’t they all the same? All boosters were not created equal! Here’s a guide to help you make your purchase…
STEP 1: To start, ask yourself these questions…
What is the child’s age? This will determine if you need a seat that rear faces, forward faces, or a booster. The recommended ages and stages are:
- Rear Facing: From birth until a MINIMUM of age 2, preferably until age 4+ or when they outgrow the limits of their rear facing convertible seat.
- Forward Facing with a harness: From a MINIMUM of age 2 until a MINIMUM of age 5, usually age 6+, when the child is mature enough to sit with the seatbelt correctly 100% of the time, and/or they have maxed out the limits of the forward facing harnessed seat.
- Booster: From a MINIMUM of age 5 until the child fits properly in an adult seat belt, usually around 11 or 12 years old.
What is the child’s weight and height? The child’s weight and height will determine if you need a booster with a large weight or height limit (for tall and/or heavy children), or if an average sized seat will do.
What is my budget? It is important to know that all car seat and boosters pass the same safety tests and save children’s lives, whether it is a $25 seat, or a $250 seat. More expensive seats may have higher limits and more features, but they all offer safety.
What kind of car will this go in? Does it need to fit next to other passengers or car seats? The size of the booster is important when it is going in a small car or next to other passengers or car seats.
Do you have head restraints in all positions, and are they moveable? Some booster seats require head restraints behind them, and some do not sit well with a head restraint that does not move.
Do you have inflatable seat belts (Ford)? If so, you will be limited to booster seats that are compatible per the manufacturer’s instructions.
As CPSTs, we take all of this into account when giving seat recommendations to a parent or caregiver.
STEP 2: If you have determined that you need a BOOSTER seat, you’ll need to determine what type you would like to purchase…
Harnessed Booster (Combination) Car Seat or All-in-1: These seats have a harness and turn into a booster by removing the straps. If you are looking for a booster, it is unlikely you will need this type of seat, unless you plan on passing it down to a younger sibling that will need a harness or it will be shared between several children and some need a harness. For tips on comparing these seats, check out our posts on rear facing and forward facing seats.
High Back Booster: This seat boosts the child up and has lap belt guides to help the adult sized seat belt fit low across the hips. High back boosters, as the name suggests, have a high (adjustable) back with a shoulder belt guide to keep the belt in the correct position on the shoulder. They offer some side impact protection as well. Some high back boosters have a removable back for when children outgrow the high back portion. This seat is a good choice for smaller or younger booster riders or bigger kids who fall out of position while sleeping without a high back.
No Back Booster: This seat has no back, and just adjusts the fit of the lap belt. Some come with an attached shoulder belt guide on a thin strap. A no back booster should be reserved for older, bigger children who are used to riding in a booster.
STEP 3: Once you have decided what type of seat will work for your lifestyle, you can start looking at limits and sizes…
Height/Weight limits: This is the best place to start! Look at the child’s growth percentiles on the CDC growth curve, and decide what age you want to booster to in order to determine what limits will be necessary. A tall or heavy child will need a larger seat than a petite child.
Top booster height: Although listed height and weight limits may be the same, shoulder height usually differs, and this will impact the longevity of a seat for most children. Children have an average of 1” of torso growth a year, so a booster with a 20” top belt guide will last about 2 years longer than one with an 18” belt guide. You can measure your child’s torso by having them sit on the floor, with their back against a wall and then measure from the ground to the child’s shoulder.
Overall size side to side: Take car size and other car seats into account. If you need to fit other passengers or car seats, pay attention to the width.
Expiration date: If you want to invest in a seat that will be passed down to a younger sibling, look at seats with an extended life (8-10 years) as opposed to seats with 6 years until expiration.
STEP 4: Now you can focus on the ease of use and bonus safety features. These do not necessarily affect fit, but are personal preference and good to take into consideration when comparing seats…
Lower anchors: Does it come with lower anchors? Empty boosters can be a projectile in a crash if not buckled in, so a seat with lower anchors will mean you do not need to remember to do this.
Headrest: Is it easy to move up and down?
Arm rests: How high are the armrests? Will your kiddo be able to buckle the seat belt? Are they comfortable?
Weight: Will you be moving it from car to car? If so, how heavy is it?
Fabric: Does your child want a fun pattern or something that will blend in with the car?
Safety features: Are there extra safety features such as extra side impact protection? All seats pass the same safety testing, but extra features are worth taking into account when comparing seats.
After narrowing down your choices, head over to your local baby store and check out the car seats in person. Have your kiddo sit in the seat to see how comfortable it is, and if the store allows, take the demo seat to your car and buckle them in. Once you are comfortable with your final decision, buy the seat and search for a CPST at cert.safekids.org for a seat check!