Is your child big enough for a booster seat? After children are too big to sit in rear-facing seat, NHTSA recommends keeping kids in a forward-facing seat with a five-point harness as long as allowed by the seat's manufacturer. After that, but generally not until at least age 4, children are ready for a belt-positioning booster, always in the back seat. While some manufacturers list minimum weights for their belt-positioning boosters as low as 30 pounds, experts agree that using a five-point harness for as long as possible is by far the safest bet. A combination seat that converts from a forward-facing seat with a harness to a belt-positioning booster can give parents the best of both worlds.
Do you travel frequently, or will your child often be carpooling with friends? Many booster seats are heavy and bulky -- not exactly ideal for kids who will be switching vehicles. Choose a lightweight, easy-to-tote seat for traveling or carpooling. Backless booster seats are particularly worth a look for their ease of use and portability.
Is space tight in your vehicle? You may have a smaller vehicle with a cramped back seat, or perhaps you need to fit three car seats in one row. Look for a seat with a narrow width to maximize space. Just make sure it doesn't put the squeeze on your child by testing it first.
Do you frequently take long trips? You may be past the days of driving aimlessly in hopes of getting your child to nap, but boosters should still be comfortable enough to accommodate a short snooze. At a minimum, look for an adequately padded seat and adjustable armrests. If your child is a good car sleeper, consider a high-back booster with deep head wings to minimize head slump. Cup holders are also a nice bonus, but ensure they're big enough to be functional -- they should at least accommodate a standard water bottle.
Are you picky about how the seat looks? Many boosters come in an array of fabric choices, from neutral shades to vibrant colors. However, to find the widest selection, you may need to shop online. Major retailers often only stock a few options for even the most popular booster seats. Kids that may otherwise balk at booster seats due to their age may be more cooperative if they pick out a fabric or style they like.
Can you rely on your child to keep the seat clean? While spit-up and diaper blowouts may be a thing of the past, your booster seat will still need to stand up to grime, spilled drinks and snacks, and even the occasional episode of car sickness. Ensure that the seat cover is easily removable and machine washable -- most are, but not all.
Does your vehicle have contoured seats or low seat backs? A booster seat needs to fit well in your vehicle and grip the seat surface properly. If you have low seat backs or no head rests, a high-back booster will better protect your child in a crash.
Do you want to use the seat for more than one child? Like all car seats, booster seats expire. Unlike infant or toddler seats, however, you could be using a booster with a single child for four or more years. This makes it especially crucial to check the seat's expiration date if you hope to use it again. Many models expire six years after they're manufactured, but a few have longer shelf lives -- check before you buy.
The LATCH (lower anchors and tethers for children) system is intended to make installing car seats easier. While many boosters are secured only with seat belts, some models -- particularly combination seats with five-point harnesses – include LATCH connectors. Some vehicle manufacturers limit use of LATCH to children weighing 40 to 48 pounds, while some boosters intended for children who weigh far beyond those limits include conflicting weight recommendations or none at all.
Federal regulations set to take effect in 2014 will limit LATCH use to a combined 65 pounds for a child's weight and the car seat itself. That means parents who were attracted to a combination booster with LATCH may have to reinstall the booster using seat belts not long after their child begins using it. Belt-positioning boosters with LATCH are an exception -- because LATCH is used only to restrain the seat, not the child, they are not subject to the weight limits.