It may seem like there are about a million and one different types of car seats out there, but it helps to group them into the four stages of your child’s growth. Newborns come home from the hospital and spend at least their first few months in an infant seat, then move up to a larger rear-facing child seat, then onto a forward facing car seat with full harness, and finally a booster seat. However, many companies have designed seats that work well for more than one of those stages, adjusting to accommodate the growth of your child, so one seat can be perfectly safe for many years of service.
We’ll cover each type eventually, but for this instalment we will be focusing on booster seats without harnesses and focus on simpler booster seats that rely on vehicles’ seatbelts to secure your kiddo. Even within the booster category, there are several different types of seats, from latching fixed-back seats to removable-back to compact, portable seats, so we looked for the best in each category. To learn more about booster seats, use the table of contents to navigate, but we’re going to start out with the list of best booster seats you can buy.
Updated 09/18/2020 with new production recommendations!
Table of contents
- 1. Editor’s Pick: Evenflo Big Kid High Back Booster Car Seat
- 2. Graco AFFIX Youth Booster Seat
- 3. Graco Backless TurboBooster
- 4. BubbleBum Backless Inflatable Travel Booster Car Seat
- 5. Chicco KidFit 2-in-1 Belt Positioning Booster
- 6. Cosco Finale DX 2-in-1 Combination Booster Car Seat
- 7. Britax Highpoint Cool Flow Belt-Positioning Booster Seat
- Why do I Need a Booster Seat?
- When's the Right Time to Buy a Booster Seat?
- What to Look for in a Good Booster Seat
- What to Avoid When Buying Booster Seats
The Evenflo Big Kid High Back Booster Car Seat is the one I bought for my own daughter and bought AGAIN for my son when he got big enough. That's about the biggest endorsement for a booster seat I can make.
1. Editor’s Pick: Evenflo Big Kid High Back Booster Car Seat
This isn’t just the one I’m recommending for you, this is actually the one I bought for my daughter several years ago and then bought again for my son now that he has moved into booster seats. Why did I choose this one? Mainly value – it’s affordable, it gets the job done (this too is an IIHS Best Bet), looks nice (there are a variety of different colors and patterns available) and even has rudimentary cupholders, though they only work for smaller beverages and taller bottles just fly right out of there at the first turn.
Still, the kids have never complained of any discomfort, they can thread the seatbelt through the guide loop and buckle them up themselves in most cars – some cars with rear bucket seats are too narrow, so the seat does not sit level. Plus, the back can be removed so that we can use it as a backless booster for my daughter since she is tall enough not to need the belt path guide anymore.
2. Graco AFFIX Youth Booster Seat
It’s no surprise that this is the bestselling model of all booster seats, as it has pretty much everything for an incredible value. The Graco AFFIX Youth Booster Seat Featuring LATCH System accommodates children weighing 30 to 100 pounds and from 38 to 57 inches tall, latches in to the car’s anchors, is tested for side impact protection with additional extensions around the head, features armrests and full padding for comfort, fully enclosed cupholder on the right and storage tray on the left that can slide under the seat for hidden treasures (meaning you have to make sure they don’t hide bread crusts or banana peels in there), and removable cover for cleaning.
As you can likely infer from the size range, the seat is adjustable, with the headrest and belt path guide height adjustable to grow with your child, and the back entirely removable once they are old enough. While the LATCH anchors are the old fashioned clips and not quick release, they are tightened by a pair of easily accessible straps coming out of the front. I kind of wish I had spent the little bit extra on this one instead of the Evenflo I got (keep reading), even if it was just for the enclosed cupholder and storage tray.
3. Graco Backless TurboBooster
Now, if you’re sick of moving a latching highback booster between the family van and your spouse’s car or into grandma’s car for a day trip, backless boosters are a more affordable option and still provide the right positioning for bigger kids. This Graco TurboBooster Backless is another great value product from Graco, and comes in a variety of colors and patterns, even offering a dinosaur pattern for your junior paleontologists. This backless version skips the LATCH anchor system, so it’s a simple grab and go, and without the back, it’s much lighter, so it’s easy to move around and great if you need to send your kid off in carpools or other cars they don’t normally travel in. It’s meant for kids 40 to 100 pounds and up to 57 inches tall, hideaway cupholders on both sides, and adjustable, padded armrests for delicate little elbows.
If you worry about the safety of backless boosters, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) awarded The Graco TurboBooster a Best Bet rating, assuring that it provides “good belt fit for typical 4 to 8 year-olds in almost any car, minivan or SUV.” For a full list of Best Bet boosters, visit the IIHS website, which also explains how they evaluate booster seats.
4. BubbleBum Backless Inflatable Travel Booster Car Seat
While it is possible to travel with car seats and full booster seats, you probably have other things you want to carry along, and since all booster seats have to meet Federal safety standards, a smaller, easier-to-pack portable booster is a great idea when flying away for a vacation with little ones. They’re not very expensive since they are usually very compact, and the small size means they can also easily fit three across comfortably. This BubbleBum Booster still has a strap with a loop for positioning the belt for shorter kids, so it also earns a Best Bet from IIHS.
The BubbleBum Booster is inflatable, but the air bladder is reinforced with memory foam to add support and comfort. When it’s deflated, it comes with a matching travel bag and is small enough that you can even fit it in your kid’s backpack, stuffed into a carry-on, or even a purse. As it is a backless booster, it’s only meant for bigger kids from 40 to 100 pounds and up to 57 inches.
5. Chicco KidFit 2-in-1 Belt Positioning Booster
OK, while all of my previous selections have balanced value and quality, this last one is a cost-is-no-object, best-of-the-best booster seat pick. When sifting through the ratings for all the booster seats, most of them will have a few people who were dissatisfied, scoring one or two stars and bringing the average down. But the Chicco KidFit 2-in-1 Belt Positioning Booster, after 58 reviews, has not had a single rating of two or less, and only one person gave it three stars, mainly because: “I thought this seat came with a snack box, but not this model.” That’s right, they downgraded it because of the lack of a snack box… Come on, people!
This one has just about everything that booster seats offer, with head and shoulder side-impact protection, 10 height positions, double foam padding and armrests for comfort, two removable cupholders, removable machine washable cover, and removable backrest. LATCH anchors make it easy to clip in and remove, with a Super Cinch strap to tighten it securely, and it weighs just 10 pounds so it should also be easy to move around between cars.
Reviewers complimented its ease of installation, security of the installation thanks to its LATCH anchors, with some noting the excellent positioning of the two cupholders, and many passing on how comfortable their kids found it.
6. Cosco Finale DX 2-in-1 Combination Booster Car Seat
This recommendation is a 2-in-1 booster seat that features a 5-point safety harness that converts to a belt positioning booster seat as your child grows. As a result, the car seat can accommodate children from 35 to 65 pounds (32 inches to 49 inches tall) forward facing with a harness, and 40 pounds to 100 pounds (43 to 52 inches tall) as a belt positioning booster. As a booster, it has been rewarded an IIHS Best Bet rating.
Parents are busy people, and children will inevitably cause a mess on a booster car seat. Thankfully, the car seat pad on this booster is easily removable and can be tossed into the washing machine and dryer for quick cleaning. Don’t have a serious mess on your hands? Simply grab a damp cloth and wipe down the seat. In addition, there’s a dishwasher-safe cup holder that can be used on either side of the car seat.
You can choose from Dusk, Sport Blue, and Sweet Berry finishes, whether you want something that matches your child’s attitude or the rest of your car’s interior. This booster meets or exceeds federal, ASTM, and JPMA safety standards and Cosco includes a one-year limited warranty.
7. Britax Highpoint Cool Flow Belt-Positioning Booster Seat
If your precious little cargo requires the absolute best and you’re willing to spare no expense, you’ll probably want to get a Britax, which are heavy, bulky, and high-priced, but offer extensive safety system above and beyond simply elevating your child to the right height and ensuring the seatbelt is positioned correctly. Although the previous generation Parkway SGL had higher ratings, it is replaced by the Highpoint Belt-Positioning Booster, which updates the safety, look, and comfort.
The big selling point of this pricey booster is safety, and the Britax Highpoint tops many competitors with three layers of side impact protection featuring external impact cushions and a lap-belt positioning clip that prevents a child from sliding under the seatbelt in a collision. Color-coded belt guides make it easy to buckle up your child correctly, and it weighs only 13 pounds so it won’t be much trouble to carry it when switching cars. However, some reviews found that the belt path guides sometimes get in the way of the seatbelt retracting properly and providing a nice tight fit.
The headrest has 10 adjustable positions so that it can grow with your child, and it is rated for kids from 40 to 120 pounds and 38 to 63 inches, so it’s one of the few boosters that accommodate kids up to that size. It comes in four stylish fabrics, one of them a “Cool Flow” breathable mesh fabric and plenty of cushioning that helps your kiddo stay cool and comfortable on long rides, and the two cupholders are removable and dishwasher safe.
Why do I Need a Booster Seat?
If you have kids between the ages of 4 and 12 and they’ve outgrown their big tank of a car seat, a booster seat is an absolute necessity!
First, let me strike some fear into you: According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), car crashes are a leading cause of death among children under the age of 13 and are the cause of one of every four unintentional injury deaths according to the CDC. Using appropriate restraints offers children a much better chance at surviving in vehicle collisions, and the Journal of Pediatrics found that “children ages 4 to 8 using belt-positioning boosters are 45 percent less likely to be injured than children using belts alone.”
And although it is tempting to free your kids and your backseat from boosters and car seats for convenience, NHTSA and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children ride in a belt-positioning booster seat until they are 4 feet 9 inches tall and 8 to 12 years of age.
The most important thing isn’t the child’s age or height specifically, but how the seatbelt fits: The shoulder belt should cross the middle of the chest and shoulder, not up at the neck or face or sliding below the shoulder and the lap belt should be tightly secured across the hips and upper thighs, not at the belly. You should only make the leap to having your kid ride boosterless when she can have her back against the seatback and her thighs reach the full length of the seat bottom, her knees bent over the edge without strain, and her feet reaching the floor and resting flat, and again, the shoulder belt crossing her chest across the middle, not cutting into the neck.
When's the Right Time to Buy a Booster Seat?
Although you might like to plan ahead, all car seats have a limited life span, and most expire after six years, so especially if you have two or more kids and hope to use them for many years, only buy one when your child has outgrown the full harness in the car seat and is ready to switch to a booster seat.
While most booster seats cover the same period of a child’s growth from four to eight years, there will be differences in weight and height requirements (both minimums and maximum), so be sure to look into that and buy one that will be a good fit for several years. Since a child should be in a booster seat until they reach a height of 4’9”, look for a booster whose maximum height is 57” so it will see you through until they’re ready for regular seatbelts.
What to Look for in a Good Booster Seat
A good booster seat will fit securely in your car and position your child for the seatbelt to cross his or her shoulder and lap correctly and fasten snugly. All car seat and boosters on sale must meet basic government safety standards, so they’re all essentially safe (unless there’s a recall), but that is dependent on them being used correctly, so look for seats that are easy to install with clear instructions. The NHTSA offers an “Ease-of-Use” rating using their Five Star rating system evaluating whether the labels and instructions are easy to follow and the seat will be easy to install, and IIHS has a list of Best Bets to give you confidence that the seat is likely to fit most children aged four to eight and most vehicles.
Although they all meet the basic federal requirements, some offer added safety features like padding and side protection.
Once you’re confident that a seat will be a good fit, consider other factors like comfort and convenience, from armrests and cupholders to padding and removable covers that are machine washable.
If the seat is likely to live in just one car, or you’ll be getting one for each vehicle, consider getting one with LATCH fasteners that keep the seat secure and stable, but require a bit more effort every time you move a seat from car to car. On the other hand, if you move the seat around a lot, consider one that is light and easy to move and install.
Although not every car seat will have reviews by owners of the same make and model, search out reviews to see if any owners of vehicles similar to yours have had issues with that particular booster seat.
What to Avoid When Buying Booster Seats
Avoid buying a booster seat that you cannot return. Every car is a bit different, and unless it’s one you’ve tried before and know for sure it will fit, make sure it is returnable in case a headrest or seat shape interferes with proper installation.
As much as it pains me to say this for value shoppers, avoid buying used – you just don’t know how long it’s been in use or if there was any damage that might prevent it from doing its job effectively. Definitely don’t purchase or use a seat with cracks in the frame or missing parts. Any reputable second-hand store won’t even accept them as donations for this reason, although if a family member or friend has a hand-me-down and you know it’s recent and still in good condition, that is a great way to get the most use out of seats that are still safe.
And definitely take a moment to double check the IIHS booster seat evaluations to make sure it is not on the “Not recommended” page; heck, with so many options that qualify as Best Bets, it doesn’t make sense to get something that one rates a Good Bet. While you’re checking, plug in the make and mode into NHTSA’s recall page to make sure there aren’t outstanding safety defects for that product.
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