School-age

How to know when your kid can ride without his booster seat

Your kid might technically be old enough to ditch the booster, but that doesn’t mean you should.

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Photo: Courtesy of NHTSA

Eight-year-old Maran had already been bugging her parents about being allowed to sit in the car without a booster seat when a family vacation brought the issue to the forefront. The eight-year-old girl in the family they were travelling with wasn’t sitting in a booster. “We told Maran that different families have different rules around booster-seat usage,” says her mom, Bronwyn Gray. But it can be tough to tell a big kid to do something that seems babyish, especially when her friends don’t have to do it. And when you’re so close to being car seat–free, there’s a temptation to rush your kid on to the next step.

The fact is, even our various provincial and territorial governments can’t agree on the right time for families to toss their kids’ juice-stained boosters. In Ontario, for example, legislation says kids have to be at least eight years old or four-foot-nine or 80 pounds to ride without a booster, while in Manitoba, kids don’t get that privilege until they’re at least nine years old if they haven’t reached those same height and weight requirements. Some provinces don’t have any regulations at all.

Although boosters can be a source of constant battle, there’s a bona fide safety reason for their use. “These seats raise children up and bring them forward a little bit,” says Alex Kelly, the national spokesperson for Parachute, a charity focused on injury prevention. “This allows seat belts to fit across children properly.” If your kid is in a car crash and the belt isn’t positioned on his bony hips and shoulders, he can suffer from something called “seat-belt syndrome,” where the belt causes damage to internal organs and the spinal cord, says Jen Shapka, a Barrie, Ont., instructor with the Child Passenger Safety Association of Canada.   

While some provinces say kids can ditch the booster when they’ve reached a certain age or weight, that doesn’t mean they should. Rather, height is the most important factor. According to Shapka, your kid should be able to sit all the way to the back of the seat, her knees bent comfortably at the front edge, the lap belt low across her hips and the shoulder belt across her collarbone, between her neck and arm. If she can sit like this for the whole ride, the booster can be banished.

So how do you convince your kid to stay put, especially if all his friends are riding booster-free? Like Gray, you could stress the safety factor. Or accentuate the positive, like Moncton mom-of-two Mariam Mesbah’s daughter Leila. “She says it makes her taller when looking out the window and says her seat belt is more comfortable,” says Mesbah. If you’ve been using your convertible car seat as a booster, you could take your kid to pick out a new  one in a favourite colour. Stashing an extra seat in the trunk for after-school playdates also sends the message that all kids in your car need to sit in a booster.

But to ensure the booster is doing its job, make sure your kid is buckling up properly, with the belt pulled tight. “One of the biggest mistakes we see is the seat belt up across the neck or under the arm and across the belly,” says Michelle Ponti, a London, Ont., paediatrician and member of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s public education advisory committee. Once you give them booster-seat freedom, keep in mind that the back seat is still safest for children younger than 12, notes Transport Canada. “That’s to do with the airbags going off,” says Ponti. “Those are meant to protect adults sitting there, not a small 12-year-old,” she says, adding that the back seat is, in fact, the safest place for all passengers. And even when the booster seat is a thing of the past, buckling up properly is still important.

Expert tip: Both high-backed and backless boosters can provide your kid with a safe ride. But if it doesn’t look like the belt is sitting properly, you might want to opt for a high-backed model, which will have a guide for the shoulder belt. Also, if your kid’s head isn’t supported by the seat or headrest, choose a high-backed booster seat.

A version of this article appeared in our November 2015 issue with the headline, “Riding High,” p.52.

Read more:
Booster seat guidelines by province>

How to install a booster seat>
Car seat cheat sheet: Forward-facing seats>