Transitioning from Convertible to Booster Car Seat
Once your child has outgrown their convertible car seat (either by height or weight), you will need to find some sort of booster seat to replace it with. Please bear in mind that, when I say “outgrown”, I don’t mean the point at which they reach the minimum size for a new booster seat, but instead mean when they exceed the maximum size for their convertible car seat.
Although it’s always nice to see your child reach certain milestones, you should not be in any rush to transition your child to a booster seat and many convertible car seats are useable up to 65-70 lbs.
Many parents transition their children straight into backless booster seats that are rated as “suitable for use from 40 lbs” and which have passed the minimum federal safety tests – often long before the child is ready for them.
But, although they have all passed the relevant national safety tests, are backless booster seats safe?
The safety of backless booster seats is a controversial subject and opinion is divided on the issue. Whilst some manufacturers have doggedly used the positive test results to shield themselves from any criticism, other manufacturers (like Britax) feel so strongly about this issue that they have actually withdrawn their backless booster seats from sale.
If they have passed the crash tests, they must be perfectly fine?
One thing that you need to know about the national safety tests is that there is one very important flaw in them when it comes to assessing backless booster seats – they DO NOT include any form of side impact crash testing! This is a truly remarkable state of affairs since side impact collisions are said to account for as many as 25% of all road traffic accidents and they often involve the greatest risk of death and serious injury to child passengers.
So, the fact that backless booster seats pass the minimum national safety tests does not impress me at all – since those tests fail to include any side impact crash testing whatsoever.
The good news is that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has proposed new side impact safety tests in the near future. The bad news is that those tests will not apply to any seat that is rated for use from 40 lbs or more. Since most (if not all) backless booster seats are designed for use by children weighing 40 lbs or more, they will almost certainly escape these new rigorous side impact crash tests.
Because these seats are all officially approved by the NHTSA I cannot publicly state that they are definitely unsafe, but it is abundantly clear to me that there are much better options to choose from if you want to maximise the safety of your child, and I would personally very much like to see backless booster seats phased out for good – certainly for kids between the ages of about 4 to 7 years.
I should point out that, although I don’t like backless booster seats, I would agree with those that argue that they are better than using no seat at all.
So, what are the available booster seat options?
The 3 Different Types of Booster Seat
Broadly speaking there are 3 different types of booster seat for parents to consider:
- Backless Booster Seats
- High-backed Belt-positioning Booster Seats
- 5-Point Harness to Booster Seats
#1 – Backless Booster Seats
These are cushions that simply raise the height of your child to make it easier for them to get the shoulder seat belt strap into a correct position. They also come with lap belt positioning guides to help your get a proper restraint across that part of your child’s body.
The obvious problem with trying to get a proper shoulder seat belt fit with a backless booster cushion is that the same seat will raise different sized children to different levels. When you bear in mind that these backless booster cushions are designed for use by children aged between 4 and 12 years of age, the problem of achieving a universal good fit with all of these children becomes all the more obvious.
Unlike high-backed booster seats, the backless versions DO NOT have any form of shoulder belt positioning guide that can adjust to suit the current height of your child.
This is in stark contrast to the best high-backed booster seats, which actually come with adjustable head rests that have belt-potioning guide clips attached to ensure that you can get a good fit across your child’s chest.
The other safety feature that backless booster seats lack is any form of Side Impact Protection. Since, they have no sides to speak of, the manufacturers cannot even consider adding any protective feature to the seat to attempt to reduced the amount of crash forces that are transferred to your child in the event of a side impact collision.
There are also practical reasons why these seats are a very poor choice for kids aged between about 4 to 7 years. Unless you have an unusually calm and compliant 4 year old, they will have a tendency to fidget, squirm, fall asleep, slouch and generally tinker with things in the back of the vehicle.
I have tested backless booster seats with my own 5 year old twins boys and, even on a short trip to school, they repeatedly got themselves into a less than ideal position – often with the shoulder belt strap across their neck and sometimes even slumped horizontally across the back row!
#2 – High-Backed Belt-positioning Booster Seats
High-backed booster seats have 2 main advantages over backless booster seats.
Firstly, they have shoulder belt-positioing guides that can be adjusted to the correct height by simply moving the headrest up and down.
Secondly, they usually come fitted with headrests and side impact protection features – these not only offer added protection in the event of a collision but they also help to prevent your child from slouching or slumping across the seat when they are tired or just in a fidgety mood.
There are a wide variety of high-backed booster seats to suit every budget.
If you want a seat that costs under $100, I highly recommend the Graco Affix – It only costs about $70, gets excellent user reviews and recently received a “Best Bet” score from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
If money is no object and you want to buy a top of the range premium high-backed booster seat that comes fitted with the best possible safety features, you should check out the Clek Oobr seat here.
The price of the Clek Oobr seat ranges from $220 to $300, depending upon your choice of fabric color.
It has all of the usual safety features found on a high-backed booster seat, but also comes with a metal substructure to improve side impact protection even further.
#3 – 5 Point Harness to Booster Seats
Even with high-backed boosters, there is still a tendency for very young children to fidget and get themselves into positions that are not ideal in terms of shoulder belt position. It doesn’t happen as often as with backless boosters, but it happens nonetheless.
5-point harness to booster seats, like the Britax Pinnacle 90 or the Diono Radian RXT, prolong the use of harnesses until your child reaches 90 lbs and only then convert to belt-positioning booster seats. By this time, your child ought to have achieved a far greater degree of maturity and will be better able to sit upright for longer and, therefore, remain in a safe seating position.
I have previously written extensively about 5-point harness to booster seats and I suggest that you read my in-depth reviews for more information about them.
After purchasing any child car seat, you should always read the User Manual thoroughly before using it. It is also advisable to visit your local Fire Department or NHTSA Child Car Seat Inspection Centre to ensure that the seat is definitely suitable for your child’s specific requirements and that you have installed it correctly. These services are usually provided free of charge.
You can find your nearest NHTSA Centre here.
I don’t like backless booster seats and I would like them to be removed from the market as soon as possible.
There are much better options for parents looking to keep their children safe during car journeys once they have outgrown their convertible car seats.
If you have any thoughts on the subject of backless booster seats, please leave a comment in the box below.