Buying a Booster Car Seat? Find the Safest Style for Your Kid

New research indicates that the smaller, more portable seats may sometimes be a better option

The recommendations on car seats have become much clearer in recent years (rear-facing until at least age 2 or your child exceeds the height or weight limits of the seat), but many parents with older kids are flummoxed when it comes to boosters. Which kind is best: a high-back or backless booster seat?

Many parents believe that bulky high-back booster chairs are a safer option for their child. After all, doesn’t more seat = more protection? This belief is so prevalent in Europe that many stores have discontinued backless boosters, also known as booster cushions. But new research and thinking suggests that the better safety choice really depends on your kid, your car and your lifestyle.

"In most situations a high-back booster is as safe -- or safer -- than a backless booster. However, we have identified some situations where the high-back booster puts the child's head into a more forward position which could result in a higher likelihood of impacting the vehicle interior during a frontal impact," says Lotta Jakobsson, adjunct professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, a technical specialist at Volvo Cars Safety Centre and author of a new report via Science Daily. Crash studies find that high-back seats offer more side protection, but don't take into account real-world factors like leaning forward because the seat isn't comfortable.

Kristy Arbogast, a biomechanical engineer specializing in child restraint and automotive biomechanics for children at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), recommends a graduated approach. The first booster, which kids move into once they hit the height or weight limit for a car seat, usually around age 4, should be a high-back. "They need it to provide postural support. Also, while they are still squirmy, it provides structure to keep them upright when all of a sudden they have more freedom of movement." Also, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, high-back boosters should be used in cars with low-back back seats, although those are not commonly driven these days.

However, it might be time to purchase a backless booster if your child is tall or large for his age, and seems uncomfortable in the high-back seat. Also, if carpooling or traveling is keeping you from using a booster, then by all means switch to a smaller, more portable backless booster or even an inflatable version like BubbleBum. Another sign it might be time to downsize: Your 8- to 12-year-old kid whines about the fact that she still has to sit in a "baby seat," but still doesn’t meet the requirements to sit sans booster. (Those requirements are: the shoulder belt must cross the mid-shoulder; the lap belt should sit low on the hips and off the belly and the child needs to be able to sit all the way back with legs bent at the edge of the seat comfortably.) In these cases, a booster cushion can feel less babyish, buying you more compliance and time.

The importance of using a booster should not be understated: According to research from CHOP, using a belt-positioning booster seats lowers the risk of injury to children aged 4 to 8 years by 45 percent. And the most important way to prevent serious internal and spinal injuries, says Arbogast, is to keep kids in boosters as long as possible. Here's how to make your choice: 

A high-back booster is best for:

--Most average-sized kids ages 4 to 8

--Kids who ride in a vehicle with a low backseat

A backless booster (a.k.a. a booster cushion) may be best for:

--Tall-for-their-age kids

--Larger-than-average kids whose shoulders and torso seem tight in a high-back booster

--Kids who carpool

--Kids whose families travel a lot

--A kid who is resisting the idea of a "babyish" seat to a point that it's affecting usage

Read more:
Car Seat Mistakes Even Smart Parents Make
How California's New Booster Seat Law Can Save Your Child's Life
Are You Making This Dangerous Carpooling Mistake? A New Survey Says You Might Be

Mom of two Sasha Emmons is a writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.

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