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Throughout most of your kid’s childhood, you’ll rely on car seats or booster seats to keep them safe while driving.

The United States regulates car seats to meet safety standards, and there are different seats for kids of every age and size. These regulations are the same in every state but may differ from regulations in other countries.

You’ll know your child is ready for a booster when they:

  • are at least 4 years old and at least 35 inches (88 cm) tall
  • have grown out of their forward-facing car seat

You’ll also want to follow the specific guidelines for the booster seat you’re using.

All car seats and booster seats are designed and labeled with their own height and weight limits. Follow these guidelines to decide if a particular seat is right for your child’s height and weight and to determine when they have outgrown their current seat.

A child has outgrown their forward-facing car seat when their height or weight exceeds the limits for that particular seat.

The three stages of car seats

Children generally move through three stages of car seats:

Rear-facing car seat

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends babies be in rear-facing seats until they reach the car seat’s height or weight limit. That’s usually 30 to 60 pounds (13.6 to 27.2 kg), depending on the seat.

If a child outgrows their rear-facing car seat before age 2, a convertible car seat placed rear-facing is recommended.

Forward-facing car seat

When your child outgrows the height or weight limit for their rear-facing car seat, use a forward-facing car seat until they reach the height or weight limit for that seat. That can be anywhere from 60 to 100 pounds (27.2 to 45.4kg) depending on the seat.

Booster seat

Once your child outgrows their car seat, they’ll still need a booster seat to help them properly fit your car’s own seat and safety belt until they’re over 57 inches (145 cm) tall. And they should sit in the back of your car until they’re 13 years old.

Why are booster seats important?

Although more people use seat belts today than ever before, car accidents remain a leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 13. Even though you or your child might be eager to move on from car seats altogether, it’s vitally important you don’t do so too early.

A car safety belt is designed to fit and serve adults. Booster seats literally “boost” your child so that the safety belt works better for them. Without a booster, car seat belts will not protect your child and may actually hurt them if they’re in a car accident.

Types of booster seats

Booster seats are different than car seats. Car seats are secured into a car and use their own 5-point safety belt. A booster seat is not installed into the car and doesn’t have its own safety belt. It just sits on the seat, and your child sits on it and buckles themselves in with the car’s own seat belt.

There are two kinds of booster seats: high-back and backless. Both have the same age, height, and weight requirements.

High-back booster seat

High-back booster seats are appropriate for cars with low seat backs or no headrests.

  • Pro: You can get this kind of booster in a combination seat. That’s a car seat with it’s own harness that can be removed and later used as just a booster. This means you can use the seat longer without replacing it. These seats also typically come with loops or hooks through which your car seat belt can be threaded and directed across your child’s body at the proper angle.
  • Con: They’re bulky and may be more expensive than backless booster seats.

Backless booster seat

Backless booster seats are appropriate for cars with headrests and higher seat backs.

  • Pro: These seats are usually cheaper and easier to move between cars. Kids may also prefer them because they look less like a baby car seat.
  • Con: It doesn’t come with a loop to position your car’s seat belt across your child’s body at the best angle.

How to use a booster seat

To safely install a booster seat, read the manufacturer’s guidelines. You can always take your car seat or booster seat to a local fire or police station to check that it’s properly used. This might require an appointment, so call ahead.

Also, be sure you fill out the safety recall card that came with the seat. This is so the manufacturer can notify you quickly if they become aware of any defects or safety concerns with your seat.

To use a booster seat:

  • Center the booster seat on one of the car’s back seats.
  • Have your child sit on the booster seat.
  • Guide the car’s shoulder belt and lap belt through loops or hooks provided on the booster seat.
  • Tighten the lap belt low and flat against your child’s thighs.
  • Make sure the shoulder strap doesn’t touch your child’s neck but crosses at the middle of their chest.
  • Never use a booster seat if a car only has a lap belt. Children must use both a lap belt and a shoulder belt.
  • Never use a booster seat in the front seat because a child who still fits the requirements for a booster is too small to be in the front. Front car seat air bags can hurt kids.

If your child is struggling to accept the booster seat, try to make it fun by calling it their race car seat.

Car safety tips

Don’t use seat belt positioners or accessories unless they came specifically with your booster seat. Accessories sold separately aren’t regulated for safety.

Children under the age of 13 should sit in the back seat, not the front, even if they no longer use a booster.

A car seat is always safer than a booster until your child outgrows the height or weight limit. Never advance to a less restrictive seat until your child is physically big enough.

Kids can be very distracting in the car. If they’re asking for your attention, explain to them that it’s more important in this moment for you to focus and drive everyone safely.

The takeaway

From the day they’re born, kids need proper car seats to keep them safe. Each kind of seat is designed to work with your vehicle’s attachment system or safety belt for children of different ages and sizes.

It’s very important that you use the right seat for your child, and use it properly. Keep your child in each car seat stage until they have fully outgrown their particular seat, regardless of age.

No one expects to get in an accident, but if one occurs, you’ll be glad you’ve taken every safety measure.