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.
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.
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
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
So what do those readiness
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
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:
The child must meet the height and weight requirements of the
specific booster seat.
The lap belt should fit low and tight across the thighs, not
riding up onto the belly.
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
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
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
If you still have
questions, check out the CPS
Technician Search to find a CPST in your area who can help.