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Bad News: You Probably Moved Your Kid to a Booster Seat Too Soon

Photograph by Twenty20

Before I became a mother, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about car seats. Why would I? I didn’t have a kid of my own to worry about, and all my friends seemed plenty on top of the safety of their own children. While I had opinions on everything from vaccines to early childhood education (mostly in relation to the choices I would one day make for my future children), I kind of figured the car seat choice wasn’t one you had to put much thought into. I would buy one that my kid fit into and call it good.

Then, my daughter was born. We left the hospital with her in an infant car seat handed down to us from a friend. I am now fairly sure my daughter didn’t fit in the car seat correctly—or at least, I didn’t adjust the straps correctly.

You live and learn. Thankfully, we made it home from the hospital safely that day.

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Even more thankfully, I had a friend of a friend reach out to me shortly after my daughter’s birth, offering to answer any car seat questions I may have.

It’s not a matter of, 'Well we survived, and our kids will too!' Or, 'We can’t just keep them in a bubble their entire lives!'

That friend was Leanne Goolsby Thompson, a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) who openly admits that car seat safety is a bit of a passion of hers. And the more I talked to her, the more it became a passion of mine as well. Because I realized pretty quickly that a car seat only works to improve your child’s safety if you have the right one for your kiddo, and if you’re using it correctly.

Unfortunately, few parents are. It's not because parents who are using car seats incorrectly don’t care, but simply because they don’t know any better … just like I didn’t.

It’s not a matter of, “Well we survived, and our kids will too!” Or, “We can’t just keep them in a bubble their entire lives!” Plenty of kids haven’t survived crashes where they weren’t properly restrained, and opting for the safest options in the car is one of those things we can do to reduce risk without hindering too much of our children’s freedom.

When first responders are advocating for something, it’s worth listening to.

Because of my friendship with Leanne, and the research she was able to point me toward advocating for extended rear-facing, I only recently turned my daughter around in the car—she’s 3 years and 8 months old and was just about to hit the height limits for rear-facing in her car seat. When I took her to the fire station to meet with a CPST there and ensure I had the forward-facing install correct, one of the firefighters told me, “We all keep our kids rear-facing as long as possible. Mine both made it to 4.”

I’ve had a lot of friends make fun of me for keeping my girl rear-facing as long as I did, but when first responders—men and women who actually see the difference in crash outcomes for kids who are kept rear-facing as long as possible, versus those who are turned around at 2 or younger—are advocating for something, it’s worth listening to.

Which was why my ears perked up when those same first responders advised me to keep my daughter forward-facing in the 5-point harness until she was truly “ready” for a booster. “We know the booster seats are easier to move around, but most kids aren’t able to safely ride in them until they’re between 6 and 7 years old.” They explained.

Technically, my daughter will meet the legal height and weight requirements for riding in a booster when she turns 4. But because of my friendship with Leanne, and my conversation with those first responders, she’ll be remaining in her 5-point harness until she meets the “readiness” requirements, not just the height and weight recommendations.

So what do those readiness requirements entail?

According to Leanne, the height and weight requirements for most booster seats are “woefully low.” What’s more important is the maturity level of the child and their ability to remain properly seated 100 percent of the time.

A 5-point harness (the kind used when your child is rear- or forward-facing in a standard car seat) holds your child safely in place no matter what—whether they are sleeping, goofing around or trying to peer out the window. But a belt-positioning booster has far more give, and a child who can’t remain sitting upright for the entire car ride isn’t being safely restrained.

A child who is in that belt-positioning booster is essentially 100 percent in charge of their own safety, because the booster is relying on them to sit properly the entire ride. Let’s be honest: There aren’t a lot of 4-, 5- or even 6-year-olds who are mature enough to handle that responsibility.

This is a big deal, because we know from research that a properly fitted seat belt reduces a child’s risk of serious injury by 45 percent. If you do happen to get in a crash and your child is out of position (they’re leaning forward, have the belt under their arm, or they’re turning around to poke their sister) the booster won’t function properly—and that means your child isn’t safe.

Leanne’s son was just ready to start safely riding in a booster this year. He’s 7. According to her, “He fit boosters perfectly fine (weight and height wise) but just couldn’t be counted on to sit properly for the entire ride. A few minutes, sure. But then it was like, 'Ooooooh, squirrel!’ and he’d be twisted around in the booster looking at something and the belt fit was all wrong.”

What are the chances that sounds like your child?

Like most moms, I’m counting down the days until my daughter is ready to transition to a booster—until the day I no longer have to lug her heavy car seat around. But I’ll be following the safety recommendations of actual car seat professionals on this one:

1. The child must meet the height and weight requirements of the specific booster seat.

2. The lap belt should fit low and tight across the thighs, not riding up onto the belly.

3. The shoulder belt must fit snugly across the chest and shoulder while making contact with the body. It should not fall off the shoulder or cut into the neck.

4. Most importantly, the child needs to sit correctly 100 percent of the time. That’s a maturity level simply not found in 4- or 5-year-olds, even if they meet the basic physical requirements of the seat.

Leanne, and those first responders I spoke to, both confirmed that 6 is usually a reasonable age to begin evaluating booster seat readiness, but it really depends on the child. Some may not be mature enough for that transition until 7 or 8, and that’s OK. Keeping them safe is worth lugging that heavy seat around for another year or two, until they are ready.

Keep in mind that all these suggestions are assuming a child is “neurotypical.” Children with intellectual disabilities or behavioral disorders may need even longer to be able to safely ride in a booster. There are special needs-trained CPSTs who can work with you and your medical team to find an appropriate solution.

For Leanne’s part, she always recommends starting with a high back booster when you do determine your child’s readiness to transition. The shoulder guide and additional protection are often exactly what kids need when they begin to make that switch from the 5-point harness.

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Don’t just take our word for it, though. Look into the research and recommendations of car seat safety experts. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends keeping your child in a 5-point harness until they outgrow the limits of the seat. And Car Seats for Littles, a “community driven, education oriented organization, staffed by CPSTs from the U.S. and Canada,” has compiled the research to back up exactly why that’s important.

You research most of the decisions you make for your children, and you probably routinely follow expert recommendations when it comes to things like medical care and education. Car seat safety is no different, and your willingness to factor in the data and recommendations of experts in making this decision could save your child’s life.

If you still have questions, check out the CPS Technician Search to find a CPST in your area who can help.

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