When Should a Child Use a Booster Seat?

Your children are the most precious cargo that you transport; and by that standard, the question of when a child should use a booster seat is worth far more than a quick Google search. The safety of your children is so important that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issues new safety recommendations whenever new evidence is found to reduce injury in children. The last time the AAP recommended updates was in spring of 2011 when it advised parents to keep their toddlers in rear-facing car seats until at least age 2, or until they exceed the maximum height and weight for their seats. Car crashes are the leading cause of death among children. However, even with all of this evidence, state laws are still lagging behind on new recommendations for child car safety.

The serious lag in information between state laws and the AAP recommendations contributes to many parents simply following the child safety laws of their state when they move their children from a car seat to a booster seat. This lag can have serious consequences for families of young children. For example, Texas leads the nation in fatal car crashes. However, in Texas, the child occupant laws simply state that all children under 8 years are required to be in an age appropriate seat. Some states, like Alabama, have laws that only require children to be in a child restraint system until the age of 6.

Often, states have oversimplified laws that do not take a child’s weight or height into consideration. There are several factors parents should know before moving their child into a booster seat:

  1. The longer the better. The longer you keep your children rear facing the safer they will be. Sixty percent of car accidents are frontal impacts. When a child is in a rear-facing seat, the force of the crash is more equally diffused along the shell of the car seat and the neck and spine stay in line. Children in rear facing seats are five times safer than their front facing counterparts.
  2. Read the instruction manual. Follow the height and weight requirements specified on your child’s car seat. Generally, infant seats with five point harnesses have a height limit of 19”-32” and weight limits of 22-30 pounds.
  3. One inch rule. It is impossible to give a height limit on car seats because children’s body differ in growth. To know if your child has reached the maximum height of their car seat, remember that there should be at least one inch between the top of a child’s head and the top of the car seat.
  4. Do your research. There have been many advances in car seat technology. There are newer convertible seat models with weight limits of 45 to 50 pounds.
  5. Register your product with the manufacturer. Since 1998, more than 10 million car seats have been recalled. The best way to stay aware of your car seat’s recall status is to register your product with the manufacturer.

The benefit of rear facing is a big one: it saves lives. But there will come a day when your child maxes out of their car seat in both height and weight. When that day comes, there are different styles of booster seat options to choose from.

  • Five point harness booster seat: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends using a five point harness until your child outgrows it.
  • Highback: a highback booster seat does a better job at guiding a car’s seat restraint system to properly across a child’s body. This is also a good choice for children who like to sleep in the car, tend to slouch or otherwise slump out of a position where the child safely protected.
  • Backless: Your children can safely use a backless booster seat when they have reached the maturity to do so. This means that your child is no longer a wiggler and keeps his or her posture during long car rides. To ensure the maximum safety, be sure that your child has a head restraint behind their head.

Transitioning Out of a Booster Seat

As children age, parents become more relaxed about booster seat use. When your child gets in the car with a friend or family member, are you giving them a booster seat? If your child is carpooling with a friend or neighbor to soccer practice, are you giving them a booster seat? Did you cave into your child’s complaining about being in a “baby seat” when all of their friends are using seat belts? Are you just following your state laws without taking your child’s height and weight into consideration?

These are all factors that can lead to parents transitioning their children out of booster seats before they’re ready. In the above, we used Texas as our example state to point out the lag in new information outpacing state laws. But, the law gets more general once a child reaches 8 years old. At age 8, children in Texas are only required to use the adult-sized safety belt in any vehicle—no matter how tall they are or how much they weigh.

Only 3 percent of parents report that their child was the 4’9 height requirement for a seat belt when they switched them over; and only six percent of parents say their child reached the 80 pound weight requirement. Many children between the ages of 4 and 8 are nowhere near the height and weight requirements to safely use a seat belt without the assistance of a booster seat. For children between the ages of 4 and 8, booster seats reduce the risk of injury in a car accident by 45 percent in comparison to children who are using a seat belt.

A 2014 survey by Safe Kids Worldwide, a global organization of groups working to prevent accidental childhood injuries, found that 71 percent of parents did not know the height and weight a child needed to be before moving their child out of a booster seat. The test for when a child should use a booster seat is actually quite simple:

If your child has hit the maximum height and weight requirement of their car seat, but is not yet 4’9 and 80 pounds, then your child should still be using a booster seat.

Children need to stay in booster seats until a seat belt falls in in the right spots. Seat belts are made for adults and will not fit a child properly. In addition to the height and weight requirements, there are some visual cues you can take to see if your child is ready to sit in the car without a booster seat.

  • Your child’s knees should bend at the edge of the seat when he or she is sitting all the way back against the vehicle seat.
  • The shoulder belt should fit comfortable across the middle of the chest and shoulder
  • The lap belt should fit low and snug on the hips and upper thighs, not across the belly.
  • Your child can stay seated like this for long trips.

Parenting is tough and everyday parents are presented with new information that may lead them to second guess the decisions they make. It has long been established that seat belts save lives, but when moving your child from car seat to booster seat and from booster seat to seat belt can be confusing because there is so much competing information out there.

How The Carlson Law Firm Can Help

Many of us at The Carlson Law Firm are parents and want to keep our clients informed on the latest trends in safety for their children. Children who have been in car accidents can suffer from traumatic brain injuries from the force of a car wreck from another’s negligence or from faulty car seat or booster seat equipment. If you or a loved one has been injured from either of this situations, contact The Carlson Law Firm today for a free consultation.


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