Booster seats. They are an important step in child passenger safety and yet they are very often underestimated or worse, completely skipped over. Last week a story went viral about a 6 year old girl who was nearly cut in half because of the seat belt she was using in a crash. Seat belts are life saving devices - but they were designed for adults. Kids need a little more help in this area until they fit well in a seat belt alone. Skipping a booster is a dangerous and potentially deadly mistake.
But a common misconception is that you can throw any ol' booster in the car and the job is done. If only it were so easy! Alas, like mama always said, anything worth doing is worth doing well - and sometimes that translates to a little more work than anticipated.
Don't get me wrong - it is true that boosters are easier to use than a typical child restraint. But there are some variables that need to be taken into consideration, and the good news is that by simply trying a booster seat out in your car you can virtually eliminate any misuse due to poor vehicle fit.
Buckle stalks are one way in which vehicles can cramp a booster seat's style. Depending on how they are angled, how long or short they are, and if they are in a fixed spot they can make it difficult - or even impossible - for a child to buckle themselves. Sometimes the width of a booster seat can completely cover the belt buckle. This can cause the base of the booster to encroach on a seating position next to it which can be quite problematic if you have another car seat there... or if your kids just like to scream at every perceived grievance like mine do.
Another thing to take a look at is head restraint geometry. Some newer cars have advanced head restraints that are designed to help protect against whiplash in the event of a crash (which is super neat, by the way) but they can make the game of Car Seat Tetris that much more difficult. To further complicate matters, some of them are not removable. Why does this matter? Well, the angle is what causes the problem.
In the circled portion of the image above you can see the head restraint and how it tilts forward. Good for whiplash protection, annoying for ponytail wearers, and bad for some high-back booster seats.
Also, an aside to those of you who have vehicles with inflatable seat belts: make sure the manufacturer of the booster seat allows them to be used with this feature! If they don't, consider moving your booster aged child to a different seating position without the inflatable belt.
Of course, all of this research will be wasted if the booster doesn't provide a good belt fit for your child. Here's what you're looking for:
Head: make sure the child has some sort of the head rest behind them, whether it's the vehicle head restraint (for backless boosters) or a full high-back booster. This is very important in order to protect against whiplash-like injuries. The top of your child's ears should be lower than the head rest in order to provide full protection.
Shoulders: the shoulder belt should lay flat between the neck and the curve of the shoulder. A high-back booster will have a belt guide designed to make the shoulder belt do exactly that, and you can raise and lower the back of the booster in order to perfect the fit. If your child is in a backless booster and the shoulder belt is digging into their neck or there's a gap between the shoulder belt and your child's body, check to see if there's a shoulder belt adjustment clip (some are provided with the booster, and some vehicles actually have them built in). No clip? Try another seating position.
Hips: the lap belt should lay across the child's hips right at the tops of their thighs. If the lap belt is too high those soft internal organs are at risk, but if the lap belt is too low on the thighs your child could slip out from underneath the belt in a crash. Not good. If your child's backless booster seat doesn't fit them well in the lap area, consider a high-back. That added few inches at their back will move them forward a bit and help the lap belt stay where it belongs.
|Photo courtesy of IIHS|
This all sounds pretty overwhelming, doesn't it? Well, here's the good news: you can quickly and easily determine which booster seats work for your vehicle by simply trying them out before you buy them! Most car seat retailers do allow this and by doing this simple thing you can prevent tons of headaches going forward.
One more thing: make sure you'll be able to use this booster until your child passes the 5 step test and can safely ride with the seat belt alone. Take a look at the weight restrictions and the shoulder belt guide height. This information is easily found on the manufacturer's website and can help you determine how long you'll be able to use it. For example, my daughter is petite with a long torso, so I don't need to worry about weight restrictions as much as I do the shoulder belt guide.
As always: if you have questions, reach out for help! See below for information on how to reach me or any other CPST. Happy travels!