What To Know About Older Kids And Car Seats

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
Wendy Wisner

My 5-year-old is still in a big old car seat. Yep, the heavy, hulking kind that takes forever to install. The one we bought him when he turned 2, after he’d outgrown his infant seat. The kind with straps that constantly need adjusting, buckles that must be snapped into place, and that annoying chest clip that must always be properly positioned.

I know most kids his age are in booster seats (and in some cases, no car seat at all). And yup, it’s a pain-in-the ass to schlep around his car seat when we travel or when he needs to be transported in another vehicle. And for sure, his grandparents give us the side-eye, telling us that we were never in car seats at this age and turned out just fine.

But my 5-year-old is still in a 5-point-harness car seat — and will likely be for a few more years to come — because however inconvenient it may be, it’s the safest option for him. And why should I bargain with safety when I am talking about the livelihood and well-being of my child?

And take note, naysayers: Car seat experts wholeheartedly agree with me on this one. Check out what the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) has to say about how long to keep your child in a harnessed, forward-facing car seat:

“It is best for children to ride in a seat with a harness as long as possible, at least to 4 years of age. If your child outgrows a seat before reaching 4 years of age, consider using a seat with a harness approved for higher weights and heights.”

Yes. Notice that “as long as possible” is the crux of their argument here, and that most kids can safely fit in car seats well beyond 4 years — because the fact is that most car seat manufacturers make 5-point-harness seats that fit kids up to 7 or 8 years old.

For example, the car seat my son is in, the Diono radian r100, can fit kids up to 65 pounds. Other popular brands like Britax, Recaro, Graco, and The First Years make 5-point-harness seats for kids over 40 pounds.

AAA’s Safe Seats 4 Kids site concurs with the AAP, taking things a step further and urging parents not to hurry into the next-level car seat, especially if they can find a seat that fits their child, according to the height and weight requirements. “Don’t rush to move your child to a booster seat before they’re ready,” writes Safe Seats 4 Kids. “Each time you ‘graduate’ your child to the next seat, there’s a reduction in the level of protection for your child. Keep your child in each stage for as long as possible.”

But probably the most convincing information about how long to keep your child in a 5-point harness comes from The Car Seat Lady (i.e., the car seat safety guru of the interwebs). She lists three criteria to help you determine if your child is ready to “graduate” from a booster. Your child should be 1) at least 4–5 years old, 2) at least 40 pounds, and 3) able to sit properly in their booster for the entire duration of the trip.

Okay, guys. First of all, as for criteria No. 2, while some 4- and 5-year-olds easily hit the 40-pound mark, some definitely do not (including my itty-bitty kiddos), so that is something to keep in mind when deciding when to move your kid to a booster seat.

However, regarding criteria No. 2, I would give you a million-zillion bucks if you could show me a 4-, 5-, or even 6- or 7-year-old who can sit still and properly for the entire duration of a trip. I mean, seriously, almost all kids would fail big time.

As The Car Seat Lady explains further, behaviors that make your kid a bad candidate for a booster include kids who slouch in their seats, lean over to pick up toys, fight with siblings, try to hang out the window, or unbuckle and stretch out of the lap belt. Holy crap. That pretty much describes every child I know under the age of at least 8.

Take, for example, this adorable kid below, who meets the first two requirements The Car Seat Lady lays out, but clearly doesn’t meet the third:

As puts it: “Although this child meets all the minimum requirements, he is not ready to be out of his harness. Booster riders must be mature enough to sit properly 100% of the time.”

So basically, my kid will probably be in his big, heavy, annoying car seat until he’s 20 years old. I kid, of course, but I just don’t see the argument for moving my child out of his seat until he literally can’t safely fit in it anymore.

And then, yes, even after he “graduates” to a booster, he will be in that for a very long time as well (the requirements for ditching the booster are stricter than most parents realize, and the majority of kids don’t age out of them until 10–12 years old). Call me overprotective or annoying.

You can even call me a bit of a sanctimommy for feeling so passionate about this. But with car accidents being a leading cause of death for children, I don’t think there is any real argument for being lax about car seat safety. None at all, really. Our kids’ safety should always be more important than convenience or stress — and certainly more important than what others think of our choices.

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