T. had her big seven year-old check-up yesterday. She's been asking about it for weeks now. She actually loves to go to her well-child visits, and looks forward to hearing about how she's grown. Lately, though, she's been anxious about this appointment because she's been hoping that her pediatrician will give the go-ahead for her to move from a car seat with a five-point harness, into a "big kid" booster.
We're pretty conservative when it comes to car seats. Research shows that chidren are safest when they are seated with a five-point harness, and too many parents, in my opinion, bump their kids up to the next seat too early. Even if the child is the "right" age and the "right" weight for the next seat up, their bone development is still not where it needs to be and an accident could cause some serious injuries if the child isn't buckled correctly into the safest seat possible. It's understandable why this happens because there is so much confusion out there, and anecdotal information about when to make the switch and to what, that it's no wonder parents get confused.
But T. is seven now, and she's feeling a bit the "stigma" of still sitting in a five-point harness. Last year we took a friend with us to a birthday party and the girl rode in a backless booster while T. was in her five-point harness.
"Why are you still in a baby seat?" The friend asked.
At 41 pounds T. is still a lightweight for her age, though (and she's not even on the charts for her height) but I think she might be ready for a high-backed booster because her head is finally nearing the top of her current car seat. We told her we'd wait to hear the official go-ahead from her doctor; in the meantime, we did some research to try and determine the difference between a backless booster and a high-backed one and discovered a few interesting facts:
Backless boosters provide the least amount of support and security overall. They are only designed to raise the child up to the appropriate height to be protected by the car's seat belt system.
A child should be in a booster seat (backless or high-backed) until they are 10-12 years of age and pass the 5-step test.
A child shouldn't sit in the front seat of a car until they are at least 13.
A child 3-5 years old should never be in a backless booster, regardless of their weight. They simply don't have the bone development yet; also, too many seat belts can fail upon impact and cause small children to be thrown from the car.
Don'y put your child in a backless booster for carpooling purposes, or because you're "just driving a few blocks." Over 90% of accidents happen at speeds of just 30 miles an hour, and most accidents happen close to home.
A wiggly child may find it easier to sit still in a high-backed booster. I wish we had bought one for L. when we first moved him out of his five point harness (in first grade). He was very wiggly (he still is) and we had to nag him constantly to sit straight, not flop over, and keep the belt across his chest. I think he probably would have done better in a high-back booster and, given what we know now about how much safer they are, we certainly should have chosen that kind over his backless one.
If your car/van is not equipped with side-curtain air bags (ours is), then a high-backed booster is a must. They offer better side impact protection. A high-backed booster provides whiplash protection in vehicles with low seatbacks and no or low built-in headrests.
The downside of a high-backed booster: they aren't as portable. So if you're switching boosters between cars, or need to buy one for carpool, etc., it's a little more cumbersome to move the high-backed booster in and out of cars. Many, though, are very lightweight and some come with removable backs.
Update: T. had her appointment and her pediatrician okayed her move into a booster. But she recommended what we knew already: that we should buy a high-backed booster and not a backless one. Also, she told us that given T.'s small size, we should buy the booster, have her try it out, but then be prepared to return it if the seatbelt doesn't fit across her chest correctly. I hope we don't have to do this, since T. is jumping up and down with excitement over making the switch and we'd hate to disappoint her; however, I have the sinking feeling that she'll need to stay in a five-point harness a little longer. In the end, safety is the priority.
Anyway, before we know it, she'll be out of car seats entirely, begging for a learner's permit, and we'll be wishing we could strap her into a five point harness again.