The day will inevitably come when you try to buckle your child into their front-facing car seat and… they just won’t fit. When your child’s harness becomes too snug, it may be time for them to graduate to a different type of car seat — a “big kid” booster seat.

If, like most parents, you don’t have a ton of time to spend on car seat research, you’ve turned to the right place. We’ve got you covered with all the information you need about booster seats as well as some suggestions to help you narrow down the right seat for you and your growing kiddo.

What is a booster seat?

After your little one outgrows the weight or height limit of their forward-facing car seat, they still likely won’t be big enough to properly fit your car’s seat belt system.

Because seat belt straps that cover the wrong part of the body can actually do more harm than good in an accident, it’s essential for your little one to get an extra boost!

While offering extra height, booster seats do not come with their own seat belt system. Instead, they raise a child into the appropriate position to use the car’s seat belts. Booster seats typically use clips and other mechanisms to keep seat belt straps in the right position.

When do you need a booster seat?

A booster seat is appropriate after your child has outgrown their forward-facing car seat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it should not be used until your child is at least 5 years old and will stay seated the entire ride in the back seat with a seat belt across the shoulder and hips.

State laws differ on the length of time a child is required to be in a car seat, but you should definitely plan to continue using a booster seat until your child is big enough that the seat belt lies across the shoulder and lap appropriately without the extra height.

Reminder: The CDC also says that even when children outgrow their booster seat, they need to sit in the back seat of the car until they’re 13.

What types of booster seats are there?

There are two major categories of booster seats:

High-back boosters

Similar to a car seat, these types of seat have a back and a bottom. Instead of an internal harness system though, these seats typically have guides to thread the car’s shoulder and lap belts though to keep them in the proper position. On many, the back can be adjusted to various heights and most have a padded head rest to protect your child and keep them comfy.

Backless boosters

Clearly distinguishable from a car seat, these booster seats consist of a bottom seat to “boost” your child into the right height, but no back. Since they don’t have backs, these are generally significantly cheaper than high-back boosters.

Booster safety

It’s very important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions and make sure that your booster seat is properly installed. A seat that is not properly installed may not keep your little one in a safe position should an accident occur, which can lead to serious injury.

Some booster seats use the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren) installation system, while others rely on a seat belt to hold the chair in place. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), both methods are equally safe, so when picking a product, it’s really up to your personal preference.

You’ll also need to make sure that your child stays seated and leaves the seatbelt buckled. To use a backless booster, your child’s ears must come up to the vehicle seat. Otherwise, they’ll need the extra support and protection a high-back booster provides.

Lastly, the AAP cautions that children should stay in their rear-facing and forward-facing car seats for as long as possible until they outgrow the weight or height limit — don’t rush into transitioning to a booster seat until you need to.

How we chose

When considering what seats to include, we considered price point, safety features, and of course, reviews from parents like you! We also gave a lot of thought to installation and cleaning ease.

Price guide

  • $ = under $40
  • $$ = $40–$60
  • $$$ = $60–$100
  • $$$$ = over $100

Best overall booster seat

Best backless booster seat

Best high-back booster seat

Best booster seat for small cars

Best convertible booster seat

Best 2-in-1 booster seat

Best budget-friendly booster seat

Cosco Topside Booster

Price: $

This seat is certainly easy on the pocketbook! It may not have as many bells and whistles as some of the other backless booster seats on the market, but it does have plush padding for comfort and is specially designed to not leave marks in cars.

It’s also compact enough to fit several across a back seat and light enough for easy traveling. However, this seat relies on the seat belt alone to stay put. So if you’re looking for a booster with a LATCH system, this might not be your pick.

Takeaway

Just because your little one has outgrown their forward-facing car seat does not mean that they’re ready to sit in a car without some additional support.

Until your child is big enough that the car’s seat belt fits comfortably (the way they would on an adult — across the lap and shoulder), you’ll need to make sure they are appropriately elevated with a booster seat and sitting in the back seat of your car (until age 13 in the back seat).

If you’re ever in an accident, you’ll be beyond grateful you did!