When Should My Child Switch from a Car Seat to a Booster Seat?

Know the Guidelines to Keep Your Preschooler Safe

A child sleeping in his car seat
Jeneil S/Moment/Getty Images

As parents, our number one job, above all else, is to keep our children safe. One of the areas of child safety that causes the most questions and confusion for parents is car travel, and specifically for parents of preschoolers, when to switch a child from a car seat to a booster seat.

The short answer is pretty simple. You can switch your child from a car seat to a booster seat when he is 4 years old and weighs 40 pounds or more or, has grown too tall for his car seat.

Seems straightforward enough, but there is a lot more to consider.

Age Is Just a Number

Many parents consider putting their child into a booster seat as soon as their 4th birthday rolls around. Not a great idea. 

A forward-facing car seat with a five-point harness is always going to be the safest option, so as long as your little one fits in his current car seat (his shoulders are lower than the uppermost set of harness slots), you should keep him in there.

Advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics

In April 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics advised parents that toddlers "should stay in a rear-facing seat until they turn 2, or until they reach the maximum height and weight for their particular seat."

At that time, they also advised that most children "should ride in a belt-positioning booster seat until they have reached 4 feet 9 inches tall and are between 8 and 12 years of age."

“Parents often look forward to transitioning from one stage to the next, but these transitions should generally be delayed until they’re necessary, when the child fully outgrows the limits for his or her current stage,” said Dennis Durbin, MD, FAAP, lead author of the policy statement and accompanying technical report.

“For larger children, a forward-facing seat with a harness is safer than a booster, and a belt-positioning booster seat provides better protection than a seat belt alone until the seat belt fits correctly.”

The AAP also said that "children should transition from a rear-facing seat to a forward-facing seat with a harness, until they reach the maximum weight or height for that seat.

Then a booster will make sure the vehicle’s lap-and-shoulder belt fit properly. The shoulder belt should lie across the middle of the chest and shoulder, not near the neck or face. The lap belt should fit low and snug on the hips and upper thighs, not across the belly. Most children will need a booster seat until they have reached 4 feet 9 inches tall and are between 8 and 12 years old."

How to Choose a Booster Seat

Ultimately, the purpose of a booster seat is to elevate your child in the car so the seat belt fits her properly. When deciding upon a booster seat, choose one that uses both sets of seat belts -- the belt-positioning seat (shoulder belts) and shield-style (lap belts).

Many booster seats offer the option to use a back or backless (or you can purchase a backless one on its own -- they are generally less expensive). There are pros and cons to both.

It may seem like less protection, but backless boosters generally fit cars better, although make sure the model you choose comes with a clip so the shoulder belt can be properly positioned. Many high-back booster seats have a shoulder belt guide, which helps keep the belt in the proper space, better protecting your child.

If you can, do a test of the seat in the store (some may even permit you to bring the floor model to your car).

See how comfortable your child is with all the restraints in place.

For a list of AAP-approved car and booster seats, click here.

Other Car Seat Tips

There are other things to consider when switching your child to a booster seat:

  • Always put your child in the back seat of the car. In fact, according to the AAP, kids should stay in the rear seat of a vehicle until they are at least 13.
  • Many parents make the mistake of putting their child right in a seat belt after they've outgrown their forward-facing car seat with harness. This is very unsafe because a booster seat makes sure that the lap and shoulder belts are positioned correctly on your child. Without a booster seat, these belts usually fall too high on a child and can be very harmful in a crash.
  • Once you purchase a seat, be sure to register it with the manufacturer so you can be notified in case of a recall.
  • Common sense and your child's safety should always prevail. In Florida, the law says that, after age 3, a child only needs to be in a seat belt. It's important to do what is best for your child, keeping them as safe as can be. If that means doing more than what the law states, then by all means, do it!

Continue Reading