We recommend reading our full review of booster seats to learn which products performed well and why. Using this buying guide in conjunction with the full review will provide you with all the information you need to make an informed buying decision.
Why Buy a Booster Seat?
Studies show it is important to keep little ones in the correct safety seat for as long as the manufacturer of the seat recommends and rear facing if possible according to the user manual. For some convertible car seats, this can mean until children are 65 lbs or more. However, at some point, your child will outgrow their convertible car seat and graduate into a booster seat as required by Federal law. According to the law, children can start using a booster seat at four years of age and 40 lbs. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends that children stay in their convertible seat with 5-point harness as long as they fall within the weight and height limitations outlined by the manufacturer. For this reason, we recommend keeping children in their convertible seats until they outgrow them even if they meet the requirements for a booster before then.
Do not be in a rush to switch to a booster seat, as your child's convertible seat offers more protection thanks to the 5-point harness and overall structure. Wait until they reach the maximum height or weight allowed by the convertible car seat manufacturer. Children should not transition out of a booster seat until they turn eight, weigh more than 80 lbs, or are taller than 4 feet 9 inches at a minimum. As long as they fall within the limits of the booster, it is safer to use the booster. Some boosters in this review can be used up to 100+ lbs.
Height and Weight Limits
It is important to pay attention to the height and weight restrictions of your booster. Each option has different limits, and those ranges can vary depending on several factors including whether or not the booster is being used with or without the back, with or without the 5-point harness (if it has one) and whether or not it is installed using LATCH (if it has LATCH). Each booster in this review will work when your child is at least 40 lbs, some will work using a 5-point harness at lower weights, and all of the options we tested work up to at least 100 lbs with some up to 120 lbs. The most important thing to remember is the ranges vary, and you should regularly check your user's manual when making any change to the booster's configuration to ensure that your child remains as safe as possible.
While it can be easier for parents to monitor their child's weight, children will often reach the height limit of a seat before the weight limit. It is just as important to monitor the height of your child as it is their weight. Height will affect the adjustment of the headrest and shoulder strap as well as when your child has outgrown their booster.
Types of Safety Seats
There are three types of safety seats, the infant car seat, the convertible car seat, and the booster seat. An infant seat is for use from birth up to about 9-12 months depending on the size of your baby. A convertible car seat can work both rear and forward facing with weight limits around 65 lbs (though some are higher).
A booster seat can work after your child turns 4 or 40 lbs and is suitable until weight limits near 100+ lbs. Each safety seat is a must have for different stages of your child's development, and a booster seat is no exception. In fact, a booster is required by law and should not be overlooked for convenience sake.
Booster seats are designed to help position smaller passengers, so the vehicle belt crosses the strongest part of their body. Most have the additional benefit of raising the child's head above the door frame, which potentially increases protection from head injuries related to the intrusion of the door into the car as a result of a side impact collision.
A seat belt fits properly when the lap belt lies snugly across your child's upper thighs, not their hips or their stomach. The shoulder belt should rest snugly (but comfortably) across their shoulder and chest, and should not cross their neck or face and should not cross under their shoulder across the armpit. For most children under 4 ft 10 in, proper seatbelt alignment requires the use of a booster.
Boosters come in three basic varieties, a high backed booster (above left), backless (above middle), and belt-positioning (above right). While a belt-positioning device is not technically a booster, as little ones are not "boosted" in any way, we have included one in this review because we understand that their size and weight make them a tempting choice for busy parents with limited space who travel or carpool often. It is also important to realize that many high-backed boosters can work without the back making them essentially two products in one, which makes them a versatile solution that meets more than one need.
In general, we prefer the high back boosters. We believe that it logically makes sense that this style of a booster is intrinsically safer thanks to the protection that the frame, shell, and headrest provide that isn't present in the backless booster or belt-positioner. While this theory is difficult to test, we think it is likely that the frame and shell better protect little ones from side-impact collisions in a manner similar to convertible car seat shells, and as a result, prefer the additional safety features found in the high-backed products. Also, to protect from the intrusion into your child's space of car parts or other objects that can result from a collision, we think the boosters with backs make more sense. We also prefer backless boosters over belt-positioners because belt positioners fail to boost children up and clear of the door frame.
Know the Basics
All of the boosters in this review (and others available in the US) meet or exceed Federal safety requirements. But, they are not all equal in their function, features, safety, or ease of use. Here we cover the features and performance results you may want to consider when choosing which booster to purchase.
Crash test results are key to the performance of boosters and can be instrumental in helping you differentiate between options. Every booster must comply with a Federal crash test safety standard, and the NHTSA randomly chooses products for testing each year. The chosen boosters are crash tested in a facility designed to simulate a 30 mile per hour head-on collision using a crash sled and crash test dummy. The test collects G-force data in sensors located in the test dummy head and chest. The sensors measure and record the amount of force exerted on the head and chest, and the information is used to estimate the potential for injury when using each booster.
Because all of the boosters for sale in the US must pass the Federal requirements, all of the products we tested can be considered safe. Some products, however, pass the test with better results indicating (in our mind) an additional level of protection. The ten booster seats in this review were tested in the same facility that NHTSA uses, using the same methods and style of the dummy. This test method provides us with the data we need to analyze them side-by-side to compare each seat to the others and the Federal maximum allowable G-forces.
Some of the boosters in this review include LATCH connectors to secure the booster to the car. For some, this is for use in combination with the 5-point harness. It is also a way of securing the booster to the car, so it isn't free floating when the booster is not in use. For safety, it is important that boosters not be loose in the car to avoid injury related to impact from the booster hitting a human in the event of an accident. LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren (LATCH). This connection is easy and simple, and you should use it if available. If it is not available, you should always secure the booster to the car using the vehicle belt when not in use to avoid potential injury.
We gave higher scores to the boosters with lower levels of recorded G forces in their crash test dummy sensors. The assumption is that these products offer an extra margin of protection based on crash test results. We believe this should be a factor parents consider when making a decision about which seat to purchase.
Side Impact Protection (SIP) Claims: Buyer Beware
Because there is no agreed-upon definition of SIP, we can't say precisely what individual claims of SIP mean for each manufacturer. Clek offers more information on their website than any other we could find, but overall, data to support SIP claims is surprisingly lacking.
At this time, there is no standardized testing or common language agreement governing what SIP means, how it should be tested, or how to interpret the results for any safety seat. While many of the boosters in this review claim some kind of SIP protection, the term itself is somewhat nebulous. Because it is difficult or impossible to determine what manufacturers mean by SIP or what type of testing they have performed on their SIP features (if they did test them), and because there is no industry standard, we think consumers shouldremain skeptical about any SIP claims.
Additional safety is always a good thing, and we welcome logical, tested safety designs that improve products for your child's protection. However, we are concerned with what appears to be possible "Safety Washing" concerning the marketing of side impact features. Given the lack of an industry standard for SIP and the different definitions used by each manufacturer, any SIP claim requires that parents research it to determine what the manufacturer means, whether the design has been tested, and how. This research is a big responsibility to put on parents, and after extensive research, we can tell you the information is mostly not available even if you do take the time to look for it.
We think many manufacturers are using SIP as a marketing claim to increase product interest. Going forward, we would like to see an industry standard that forces manufacturers to provide information and test results to support their claims so the claims can be compared. For this reason, we were unable to analyze or consider any SIP claims in our testing process.
High backed boosters are similar in construction to the backless options, but with the addition of a back and headrest. Both have a plastic shell, hard foam for impact absorption, soft foam for comfort, and a fabric cover. But, the high backed boosters have a back shell, and some have metal frame components or features designed to increase shell stability and potentially improve protection in the event of a crash (this is difficult to prove in the current standard test). The high backed boosters also have headrests, but the lack of clarification from the manufacturers makes it difficult for us to determine if the headrest designs truly improve safety or if they are strictly for comfort and positioning. We think the differences in booster materials and construction that really matter are those that impact crash test performance and comfort.
Shoulder Height Adjustment
The high-backed boosters have the belt strap retainer located in the headrest (above left). The headrest needs to be adjusted so that the vehicle belt crosses the body in the correct location. Some of the headrests were easier to adjust than others, but all were easier to use than the retainer clips on the backless boosters. The backless boosters have a strap with a retainer clip (above right) that attaches to the bottom of the booster and allows the shoulder belt to cross little one's shoulders and chest at the right angle. This style was harder for passengers to manage and the retainer moved periodically during use making them seem less effective than the stationary retainers on the boosters with backs.
The weight of a booster seat can be important if you plan to use your booster frequently while traveling or for carpooling. Being able to carry, transport and move a booster can be useful if your child will be riding in cars other than your own, or if you need to take it on a trip. The backless boosters are the lightest in the group weighing around 1 lb for the BubbleBum (above left), while the boosters with backs all weigh over 10 lbs with the heaviest being over 20 (above right). The lightest high-backed boosters are the Chicco KidFit and the Evenflo Spectrum with weights of 10.4 and 11.6 respectively.
Often the devil is in the details, and the less obvious features of the boosters played a role in their overall performance.
Namely, the headrest shape and depth, as well as the seat bottom depth, played a role in how comfortable the products were to our little testers. The deeper and narrower the headrest the better it is for napping, and the deeper the seat bottom, the less likely it is for legs to dangly uncomfortably. Having armrests was also important to passengers, and they ranked those options without rests lower than the competition for comfort. The Evenflo Spectrum is the most comfortable option according to our testing tots, with armrests, a deep headrest, and ample seat bottom. The next highest scoring products were 2 points lower and included the Clek Oobr and Diono Monterey XT with scores of 7.
Being able to secure a booster to the car via LATCH anchors is also a neat feature and relieves you of the responsibility of remembering to buckle in an empty booster when you drive without little ones. Four of the top five products in our tests have LATCH capabilities, including the Clek Oobr with a rigid LATCH and the Chicco KidFit.
The final cool thing to consider is a 5-point harness. While not found on all the products, it is safer than a vehicle belt, and some of the options in this review will work with the harness up to 65+ lbs. The Britax Frontier ClickTight can be used up to 90 lbs with the 5-point harness, and it is also the highest ranking booster that offers a 5-point harness which helped it win a Top Pick award.
How do I decide which booster seat is best for my child?
With so many seemingly similar products to choose from, the decision about which booster to choose can feel frustrating as you try to sort out their differences. We've broken down the decision-making process into smaller steps to help you determine what is most important about boosters so that you can find the best choice for you and your child. These steps are designed to help you find the best fit even if it isn't one of our high ranking products.
Step 1: How and where you will use your booster
If your booster will sit in your back seat with only the occasional move for travel or into another car, then the more substantial boosters may be acceptable for you. Unlike parents who need a booster that is easy for children to carry for after school carpooling, weight is less of a consideration when the booster is unlikely to move. This means the high-backed boosters are a good place to start your search and we prefer them because of the shell and frame components that indicate additional protection. Alternatively, moving the booster frequently or using public transportation or carpooling will likely have you looking at a backless booster or at least a booster that can work without the back. These boosters are smaller and lighter making them ideal for moving and carrying long distances.
Step 2: Safety
All of the products in this review passed the minimum requirements for crash testing as defined by Federal regulations. Therefore, all of them have a basic level of protection. Some seats, however, had significantly better crash test data than others and can be considered as offering an extra margin of protection compared to other options.
In addition to their crash test results, we think the high-backed boosters are intrinsically safer because they provide a frame and shell with additional foam for protection compared to the backless boosters. For this reason, we prefer the boosters with backs for overall safety, and we like those with steel frames like the Clek Oobr. Considering the crash test scores in conjunction with the style of the booster will help you narrow your options down to a couple of possible choices.
Step 3: Budget
You've considered whether or not you need to worry about moving or carrying your booster, you've chosen a few options with crash test scores and designs you feel meet your needs, now you can consider your budget. While most of the top performers in our review were very budget friendly, we recognize that budget is often a concern when it comes to baby gear. We feel driving safety is a big deal and any safety seat you purchase should be the absolute best option you can afford. Luckily, as our crash tests show, spending more doesn't always translate into a better or even safer booster. All of the award winners in this review earned better crash test results and three of the top five cost $100 or less. This means you can have a booster that offers an additional margin of protection while saving money at the same time.
Purchasing a booster seat doesn't have to be frustrating or confusing. With a few steps, you can narrow your options down to one or two which should have you well on your way to a final choice. Using this guide plus our complete review will give you all the information you need to make a well-informed decision for your family. We think our award winners fill just about every need and budget, but there may be a non-award winner that better suits your style or desires. Now you have all the information you need to make the best decision for your child without the frustration.