Booster Seat or Seat Belts?

Car Safety Reminder

A child sitting in a noback booster seat looking out the window.
Older kids should be in a booster until they are ready for seat belts.. Photo by Jessica Lynn Culver/Getty Images

Parents almost always know they need to put their newborn, infant, or toddler in an age-appropriate car seat, but sometimes get confused about when their kids are ready for regular seat belts and no longer need a car seat or booster seat.

Booster Seats

Unlike a car seat, which actually straps your child in with harness straps, a booster seat simply raises or "boosts" your child up so that the car's regular seat belts fit better.

New car seat laws, some which require kids to be in a booster seat until they are eight years old, have been a good reminder for many parents that a booster seat is the safest way for kids ride in the car until they are ready for seat belts.

Booster Seat Recommendations

Some state laws -- like South Dakota -- only require car seats for kids who are less than five years old. This is well below the recommendations of most experts, including that children should ride in a booster after they have outgrown their forward-facing car seat and until:

  • they are 4'9" in height (57 inches), which is usually between 8 and 12 years of age (American Academy of Pediatrics car seat guideline)
  • age 8 to 12 years, when they are big enough to fit in seat belts (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommendation)

Booster Seat vs Seat Belts

Most importantly, after they outgrow a car seat with harness straps, your child should sit in a booster seat until your car's regular seat belts fit correctly with:

  • the shoulder harness fitting across your child's chest and resting on his shoulder
  • the lap belt resting low across the hip or pelvis area and upper thighs

There is no need to put the shoulder harness under your child's arm or behind his back because it is crossing his neck.

If you need another reminder to put your child in a booster seat, keep in mind that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for young children.

And the rate of injuries from car accidents steadily increases after age four years, which could be because that is the age when kids are less likely to be properly restrained if they are no longer in a booster seat.

So keep your kids in a booster seat until they are ready for regular seat belts.


American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement. Child Passenger Safety. Pediatrics 2011;127:788-793.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A Parent's Guide to Buying and Using Booster Seats.

Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System. Unintentional MV-Occupant Nonfatal Injuries and Rates per 100,000. 2008. Accessed February 2010.

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