Booster Seat or Seat Belts?

Car Safety Reminder

Little boy sitting in high back booster car seat fasten with seat belt.

MementoImage / Getty Images

Parents almost always know they need to put their newborn, infant, or toddler in an age-appropriate car seat, but sometimes get confused about when their kids are ready for regular seat belts and no longer need a car seat or booster seat.

Booster Seats

Unlike a car seat, which actually straps your child in with harness straps, a booster seat simply raises or "boosts" your child up so that the car's regular seat belts fit better.

New car seat laws, some which require kids to be in a booster seat until they are 8 years old, have been a good reminder for many parents that a booster seat is the safest way for kids ride in the car until they are ready for seat belts.

Booster Seat Recommendations

Some state laws—like South Dakota's—only require car seats for kids who are less than 5 years old. This is well below most expert recommendations, including that children should ride in a booster after they have outgrown their forward-facing car seat and until:

  • They are 4 feet 9 inches in height, which is usually between ages 8 and 12 (American Academy of Pediatrics car seat guideline)
  • Ages 8 to 12, when they are big enough to fit in seat belts (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommendation)

If you need another reminder to put your child in a booster seat, keep in mind that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for young children. The rate of injuries from car accidents steadily increases after age 4, which could be because that is the age when kids are less likely to be properly restrained if they are no longer in a booster seat.

Booster Seat vs Seat Belts

Most importantly, after they outgrow a car seat with harness straps, your child should sit in a booster seat until your car's regular seat belts fit correctly with:

  • The shoulder harness fitting across your child's chest and resting on their shoulder.
  • The lap belt resting low across the hip or pelvis area and upper thighs.

There is no need to put the shoulder harness under your child's arm or behind his back because it is crossing his neck.

Keep your kids in a booster seat until they are ready for regular seat belts.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Car Seats: Information for Families.

  2. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Car Seats and Booster Seats.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). CDC Childhood Injury Report.

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.