Keeping your child safe while riding in the car is undoubtedly one of your top priorities as a concerned parent. Safety seats come in several types and styles that may make you scratch your head and wonder what the differences between booster seats and car seats are as you try to select the best seat for your child. Besides looking at the basic function of each type, consider the age, height and weight recommendations for each seat. In addition, matching the restraint types on the seat to those in the vehicle helps you select the right seat for each stage of your child's development -- from a newborn car seat to booster seats made for school-age children.
State laws vary regarding the recommended ages for using the various types of car seats, but they generally serve as a guide for the typical ages children reach sufficient size to graduate from a car seat to a booster seat. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends rear-facing car seats for infants and toddlers up to 2 years old. However, the Minnesota Child Passenger Safety Program advises that some 1-year-old children can move to a forward-facing car seat and remain in it until approximately 4 years of age. When your child outgrows the car seat -- usually between 4 and 8 years old -- he graduates to a booster seat until he is ready to move into adult safety restraints, at 8 to 12 years old.
Height and Weight
Height and weight are more reliable indicators of the most appropriate type of safety seat for your child as children develop at different rates. Depending on the style of car seat, its weight limits may range from 20 to 40 pounds. The AAP advises that your child move to a booster seat when she exceeds the weight and height limits indicated in her car seat's user manual; or when her shoulders are higher than the top harness slots or her ears are at the top edge of the seat. Booster seats usually have an 80-pound weight limit and your child should use one until she reaches at least 4 feet, 9 inches and comfortably fits the adult safety restraints.
Rear-facing car seats for infants and forward-facing car seats for toddlers have "a harness and in a crash, cradles (that) moves with your child to reduce the stress to the child's fragile neck and spinal cord," according to the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA). Booster seats, on the other hand, simply raise a larger or older child up high enough to allow the regular lap and shoulder belts to fit properly.
As of September 1, 2002, all new cars, minivans and light trucks are required under federal LATCH law to have anchor points between the vehicle's seat cushion and seat back in at least two rear-seating positions, reports Chrysler's SeatCheck initiative program. Car seats must be similarly equipped to allow the child safety seats to hook into the connectors and secure the seat in place without using the vehicle restraints. Parents with older cars or car seats can still use them with the regular seat belt system. Booster seats do not use the LATCH system and still require parents to use the existing lap and shoulder belts to ensure their child's safety.
Car seats generally come equipped with either an overhead shield that swings over the baby's head with shoulder and crotch straps attached; a rubber T-shield that connects the shoulder straps and buckles at the crotch; or a five-point harness with two shoulder straps, two hip straps and a crotch strap. The NHTSA and AAP agree that shield restraints are not for use with infants and recommend the five-point harnesses. By contrast, booster seats are simply a raised platform on which the older child sits. Some have high backs with head support and side-impact protection and some are backless, requiring a high-back vehicle seat or headrest. Most do not have built-in harnesses because they make use of the existing vehicle restraints. High-back boosters often have grooves along the sides of the seat through which you can thread the vehicle restraints to guide them properly across the shoulder and hips. Backless boosters sometimes come with a positioning clip or strap for the same purpose. Either way, it positions the shoulder belt across the shoulder rather than cutting into the face and neck and keeps the lap belt low and snug.