When it’s time for booster seats

Q: My child has outgrown the car seat but doesn’t seem ready for a regular seat belt. Is there something else I should use?

You’re way ahead of most parents on this one. Many parents are unaware that children who have outgrown their cars seats should not go straight to seat belts, says Nancy Quay, R.N., program manager for the Injury Prevention Center at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

Booster seats provide the best protection during that in-between stage of growth. The injury prevention section of the hospital’s website, recommends booster seats for kids between 40 and 80 pounds and less than 4 feet 9 inches tall.

Regular lap belts are only effective when they ride across a person’s hips; corresponding shoulder belts should ride across the upper middle body. But that’s not going to happen for kids under 80 pounds unless a booster seat is in place. When strapped into a regular seat belt, these kids’ short legs won’t bend over the edge of the seat. As they scoot forward to try to bend their knees or slouch down into the base of the seat, lap belts straddle their tummies, not their hips.

Quay has seen auto accidents in which children are forced completely out of improperly fitted seat belts. The results can be deadly. And when a seat belt rides up too high on a child’s abdomen, it increases the risk of sustaining abdominal and spinal cord injuries during an accident. Booster seats raise children high enough so that seat belts fit properly.

Use the 40- to 80-pound recommendation as a rough guideline, says Quay. When a child can sit all the way back at the crack of the car’s seat with knees over the edge and feet on the ground, the child is ready for regular seat belts. Often this happens when kids turn 8 or 9 years old; for some it may take longer.

Don’t be embarrassed if your older child still needs a booster seat, urges Phoenix mother Ashley Armstrong. Unfazed by questioning looks, Armstrong insists that all children who ride with her on field trips for her daughter’s third grade class at Villa Montessori use them. At just 45 pounds, 8-year-old Zoe uses what Armstrong calls a “butt booster.” It simply sits under her bottom and does not have a piece that runs up the back. Five-year-old sister Madeline uses a high-back booster seat, a seat with a tall, attached back/head support.

Both types of boosters use seatbelts to secure the child, but the bottom-only version seems a lot less “babyish.” Armstrong says 5- or 6-year-olds don’t seem to mind the high-back styles but most 7- or 8-year-olds find them mortifying. Whatever you choose, use it with both a lap and shoulder belt. Experts advise adding shoulder belts if your car does not have them already.

So how do you convince a third grader to use a booster seat? It’s easiest if you’ve never gone without one in the first place, Armstrong says. If you’ve already allowed an older child to travel in a regular seat belt, you’ll have a tougher “sell.”

Instead of focusing on weight or size, explain the advantages of booster seats. They make for a heck of a nice view out the car window and many models come with cool accessories like built-in cup holders. Just steer clear of bunny and yellow duckie motifs.

All kidding aside, this stuff is serious business. So serious, in fact, that Arizona has laws governing the use of “child restraints” like seat belts and car seats. You can check them out at the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

To become truly car-seat savvy, visit the National SAFE Kids Campaign at safekids.org. The site offers a wealth of information about age/size guidelines, proper fit and types of car seats, including adaptive seats for children with special needs.

Four out of every five car seats is improperly installed, SAFE Kids notes, adding that one-third of children use a restraint that is wrong for their age and size. A whopping two-thirds of children who should be using belt-positioning booster seats are not.

Don’t let your child be one of them.

Editor’s Note: Channel 12 offers free car/booster seat checkups with the Safe Kids Coalition of Maricopa County. Call 480-429-9535 to schedule an appointment, and a safety expert will make sure your seats are installed correctly and have not been recalled for problems. For automobile and car seat safety reports nationwide, call 800-424-9393. To report an unrestrained child, call 800-505-BABY.