The Booster Seat Decision:
Can I put my child in a booster? Vs. Should I put my child in a booster?

“Can I put my child in a booster seat?”

The short answer is “It depends.”

First of all, you must confirm that your child meets the minimum weight, height, and age requirement for the booster seat. The label and instructions of the booster seat will list weight ranges, height ranges, and sometimes the lowest age for a child to use the seat. The booster seat manufacturer may determine that a child who is younger than four years old can not be secured safely by that product.

More importantly, a child’s behavior and developmental readiness should be considered before moving him/her into a booster seat. Even the best behaved child can become a wiggle-worm, sleep-slumper, or toy picker-upper once she is restrained by a lap/shoulder seat belt instead of a car seat harness system.

Which leads to the next question:

“Should I put my child in a booster seat?”

Parents and care providers should not be in a rush to “graduate” a child from a harnessed car seat into a booster seat.  The purpose of a harness system is to hold the child upright and in place against the car seat shell, with the straps correctly positioned over the body so that the child is held safely in the restraint during emergency braking or a collision.  In other words, it’s a “child-sized” restraint. 

The purpose of a booster seat is pre-crash positioning.  That is, it is designed to physically raise a “child-sized” body up into the “adult-sized” seat belt so that it correctly fits by aligning the seat belt over the child’s hips/upper thigh area and centering it on the chest, resting on the collarbone.  But note the fact that it does not stay tight on the child at all times. It is possible (and likely) that a child will discover that s/he has new-found freedom in a booster seat!

Suddenly, s/he can buckle and unbuckle the seat belt, lean forward to pick-up something s/he dropped, shift to the side so the shoulder belt no longer contacts the body, or grab the belt and introduce slack. For children who fall asleep in the car, they can slowly slump forward or lean to the side and change the protection offered by the seat belt. Many young, curious, or active children learn to unbuckle the seat belt allowing them to move around in the car, reach the door handles, or crawl into the front seat to “help” the driver!

The bottom line?  Even when a child meets the height, weight, and age limits of using a booster seat, parents might need to consider a car seat with a harness which can accommodate a taller or heavier child. Luckily, there are more options than ever for restraint systems (including car seats, special needs products, and vests) which allow children weighing more than 40 pounds to use a harness system vs. a booster seat.

Remember: Children are not crash-test dummies! They don’t always sit where you put them, and they don’t come in set heights or weights. And unlike crash-test dummies, we never “plan” to be in a car crash… so always be prepared by correctly buckling all occupants in the right restraints.