Booster seats help seat belts fit children correctly
Booster seats are designed to keep your children safe when they are too large for a convertible car seat but too small for your car's seat belt alone. They do this by raising a child and positioning the seat belt safely across their body. Fortunately for parents, they are often cheaper and easier to use than car seats for younger children such as infant car and convertible car seats; the former ca double as infant carriers, the latter can accommodate infants in the rear-facing position and older children in the forward-facing position. We cover both of those types in our separate report on car seats.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), children can't ditch their booster seat until their lap belt lies snugly across the upper thighs, not stomach, and their shoulder belt stays snug across the shoulder and chest instead of crossing the neck or face. The age at which this happens can vary widely, but is typically sometime between 8 and 12, NHTSA says.
Types of booster seats
Traditional booster seats both boost your child up and use seat belt positioning guides so that the car's seat belt fits properly -- over a child's thighs and shoulders, instead of his more vulnerable belly and neck. Most of these seats have high backs, but some can convert to backless booster seats. Booster seats with a high back offer additional head, side and back support over backless booster seats, but are less versatile than combination booster seats.
Combination booster seats go a step beyond simply raising a child for proper belt fit. Combination booster seats include a five-point harness that can keep younger children safe until they're ready to use the vehicle safety belt, at which point the harness can be removed and the seat is held in place with a seat belt positioning system. For that reason, combination booster seats often have a longer usable life than belt-positioning boosters. They're also typically heavier, bulkier and more expensive. Don't be in too big of a hurry to remove that harness though, experts say it's safest to keep children strapped into a five-point harness as long as possible, past the old recommendation of 4 years and 40 pounds, and experts with CarSeatsForTheLittles.org say most kids are 5 at the youngest before they're mature enough to sit properly in a belt-positioning booster.
Backless booster seats are safe alternatives for a child who is able to sit in them properly, according to NHTSA and other child passenger safety experts. Backless boosters use a seat belt positioning system for a safe fit, and are smaller, lighter and more portable than high-back seats. This makes them ideal for families who travel, kids who carpool or vehicles where space is tight, including cars that may need to fit three child safety seats in one row. And, for older children, backless boosters are more inconspicuous and potentially less embarrassing to use than high-back seats. According to editors at ConsumerReports.org, backless boosters aren't as likely as high-back boosters to position a vehicle's seat belt in line with a child's shoulders and keep it there, so be sure the backless booster seat you choose is a proper fit for your child.
As always, check for recalls before buying a booster seat
Evenflo recently recalled certain Transitions combination booster seats manufactured before February 2016 because children could too easily loosen the harness on their own. In 2014, safety hazards posed by hard-to-use seat buckles resulted in more than 4 million car seat recalls by Evenflo, Graco and Baby Trend combined. Those recalls affected popular combination booster seats, including the Evenflo Maestro and Graco Nautilus. Parents can search by brand and seat model to see whether a seat is affected by any current recalls at SaferCar.gov, a NHTSA website.
There are several quality expert resources on booster seats involving hands-on testing. They include recommendations and reviews from CarSeatBlog.com and CarSeatsForTheLittles.org, sites run by certified child passenger safety technicians. Ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and ConsumerReports.org are helpful in evaluating safety, while NHTSA tests focus on ease of use. The book "Baby Bargains" and BabyCenter.com help round out our research with highly comparative rankings and thorough reviews, while parent feedback from Amazon.com and Walmart.com provides real-world perspective on each booster seat. We considered safety, ease of use, and lifestyle considerations in evaluating these resources to help you find the best booster seat for your child.
The best booster seats
The high-back Recaro Performance Booster (Est. $120) is a traditional belt-positioning seat with some nice comfort and safety upgrades, reviewers say. It has enhanced side-impact protection with deep head wings and side cushions, energy-absorbing foam and LATCH connectors to keep the seat from becoming a projectile in a crash. Seat-belt guides help ensure proper belt placement. The IIHS gives the seat a "best bet" rating for proper belt fit.
Reviewers say the Performance Booster's belt guides keep the seat belt where it should be, though some say the seat's width makes it tricky for children to independently buckle themselves. Some parents recommend seat belt extenders to solve this issue, but child passenger safety experts caution that these devices are not safe because they can interfere with proper belt fit. The seat comes fully assembled. NHTSA gives the seat three stars out of five for ease of use, with testers citing incomplete or unclear labeling as a place for improvement.
The Performance Booster has two integrated cup holders with removable liners, armrests and an adjustable headrest. It does not convert to a backless booster. Parents are big fans of the memory foam cushioning and breathable fabrics, which they say keep their kids more comfortable than competing seats. The seat cover is removable but must be hand-washed. This is not a seat for parents who need to save space in a cramped back seat -- as BabyCenter.com editors note, at 22 inches across it's as wide as many convertible car seats. "In smaller cars … you can forget about having a third seat in the middle," notes one reviewer. For that reason, they say, it's a particularly good pick for bigger kids. Recaro recommends the seat for children 30 to 120 pounds and 37 to 61 inches tall. It does not give an age range, so parents should use caution not to switch very young children who would be safer in a harnessed seat too soon. It has a six-year lifespan before expiration.
If you're looking for a budget-friendly belt-positioning booster seat without a harness, reviewers say it's hard to do better than the Graco Highback TurboBooster (Est. $50). It has energy-absorbing foam and open-loop belt guides for more accurate belt placement, but lacks the deeper side-impact protection that some competing models have, experts note. A souped-up TurboBooster with Safety Surround offers more side padding for an additional $30, while an Elite version also adds LATCH connectors for about $50 more to keep the seat from becoming a projectile in a crash. All three models have received a "best bet" rating for proper belt fit from the IIHS.
Reviewers say the TurboBooster is easy to install, though a few parents complain that the seat belt slips out of or gets stuck in the belt guide. The headrest is easy to adjust, they say. Experts caution that the seat requires assembly with small parts that are easily lost. While relatively lightweight, the back easily detaches from the seat when it's being carried, reviewers say. NHTSA gives the seat three stars overall for ease of use, with testers citing needed assembly and incomplete or unclear labeling.
The TurboBooster converts from a high-back to a backless booster seat. It has two retractable cup holders and adjustable armrests. Reviewers say the narrow seat base makes it a good pick for small vehicles or those with multiple car seats, but it might not be quite as comfy for larger kids. The seat cover is machine washable, and parents say it is easy to remove. Graco recommends the TurboBooster in high-back mode for children ages 3 and up from 30 to 100 pounds and 38 to 57 inches; in backless mode, for ages 4 and up from 40 to 100 pounds and 40 to 57 inches. It can be used for 10 years before expiration.
While the TurboBooster is a solid budget pick for older children, it lacks a harness that can accommodate younger ones. If you prefer a combination booster seat that also has a harness for a younger child, the Britax Frontier ClickTight (Est. $265) is well worth its steep price, reviewers say. It has a five-point harness, side-impact protection, a chest clip, seat tether, chest pads, energy-absorbing foam and base, and LATCH connectors. The IIHS gives it a "best bet" rating for proper belt fit in booster mode, though independent experts say they did have an issue with the belt guide keeping the seat belt from fully retracting. Note that while some Britax ClickTight seats for younger children have been affected by recent recalls, the Frontier is not among them.
Reviewers say the Frontier ClickTight, which comes fully assembled, is extremely easy to install because of its namesake seat-belt installation system. Darren Qunell with CarSeatBlog.com says ClickTight makes the seat "a dream" to install in just a few minutes' time: You simply open an easily accessible panel behind the seat cover, route the seat belt through specified slots, remove any belt slack, and close the panel. The seat also features a front-adjust, no-rethread harness, though a few parents say it can be difficult to tighten, and the adjuster can be hard to find at first. Switching to booster mode is easy because the seat does not have to be uninstalled for harness removal. The seat has not yet been rated for ease of use by NHTSA.
The Frontier ClickTight converts from a harnessed seat to a high-back belt-positioning booster. It has armrests and two integrated cup holders. But this is not a seat that travels well or saves space in smaller cars, reviewers note: It's bulky and heavy at 25 pounds; it's also tall and wide. However, this does make it a good pick for big kids. Some reviewers say the fabric on the bottom seat cover can easily become unclipped from the base, while others complain the seat is too hard, especially at this price point. The seat cover is machine washable and available in 10 colors and patterns. Harness mode can be used for children ages 2 and up who are 25 to 90 pounds and 30 to 58 inches; booster mode can be used for children 40 to 120 pounds and 45 to 62 inches. The seat has a nine-year lifespan before expiration.
If you want the harness option at a budget price, the Evenflo Maestro (Est. $75) is a solid pick for a combination booster seat that doesn't cost a premium, reviewers say. It has a five-point harness, side-impact protection, a chest clip, seat tether, chest pads, energy-absorbing foam, and LATCH connectors. The IIHS gives it a "best bet" rating for proper belt fit in booster mode. Independent experts say shoulder belt fit was poor in their tests, but Evenflo now allows a new over-the-shoulder belt path to alleviate the issue. Note that a safety recall regarding stiff buckles affects some Maestros manufactured as late as October 2013.
Experts with CarSeatsForTheLittles.org say "installation is straightforward" in harness mode whether parents use the safety belt or LATCH. In booster mode, reviewers say belt guides are easy to use; an auto-adjust belt path helps keep the safety belt where it should be. Reviewers note that the LATCH anchors are older hook-style anchors that can be trickier to release, and others wish they didn't have to uninstall the seat to adjust the harness height from the back of the seat. The harness must be removed completely to convert the seat to a booster. NHTSA gives the seat four stars for ease of use overall in both harness and booster mode, noting that changing between the two modes can be tricky.
The Maestro has armrests with two integrated cup holders and a nonadjustable headrest. It gets mixed reviews for comfort -- some parents say it's well padded, while others say it's too firm for their children. It won't hog as much space in your car as the bigger, pricier Britax Frontier ClickTight combination booster, but the trade off is a shorter lifespan: Experts say many children may well outgrow the seat's booster mode not long after they're done with the harness. Evenflo recommends harness mode for children ages 1 and up who are 22 to 50 pounds and 28 to 50 inches; booster mode can be used for children ages 4 and up from 40 to 110 pounds and 43.3 inches to 57 inches. (Note that despite Evenflo's recommendation, experts say children as young as 1 are still much safer in a rear-facing car seat.) The seat has a six-year life span before expiration.