Every morning and every afternoon I end up holding up the carpool line at my daughter’s school. Other kids dash to and from their cars, buckling and unbuckling themselves fluidly, but I have to get out of my car and strap my six-year-old into a five-point harness car seat, one snap at a time. It’s an inconvenience, of course, but I won’t make apologies for delaying the carpool line by a few seconds to protect my daughter’s safety, and I wish that other parents were willing to do the same. The fact is that most school-age kids should be in five-point harness car seats, not booster seats or regular seatbelts. Most parents are transitioning their school-age children to booster seats far too early.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children say in harness car seats into school age, as long as they’re under the height and weight limit for the car seat. My school-age daughter’s car seat can comfortably accommodate a child up to 65 pounds, and I know very few children her age who would exceed its limit. Many of her classmates are still under the 40-pound minimum to ride safely in a booster seat, and are far under the 65-pound maximum of most five-point harness car seats. There is no reason for a child to be out of a harness car seat until she has exceeded her seat’s height and weight limits, which probably won’t happen until after she begins school.
Of course, five-point harness car seats are an inconvenience when you’re dealing with school-age kids, especially if they have younger brothers and sisters who still need to be buckled into car seats themselves. No one wants to deal with an entire back seat full of harness car seats when driving kids to sleepovers or sports events or school. And, since it was not normal twenty or thirty years ago to ride in car seats after infancy, many parents still think of it as odd, unusual, or even embarrassing to have a school-age child in a car seat. I’m certainly no stranger to the eye rolls when I’m buckling my daughter into the car.
At the same time, though, our children’s safety needs to come before our own convenience. The AAP has good reason for its current guidelines, which recommend keeping kids in harness car seats for as long as possible. Children in five-point harnesses are much, much less likely to die in a car accident compared to their peers in booster seats and regular seatbelts. Since many school-age children don’t yet have the maturity to stay buckled-up and upright while using a booster seat or normal seatbelt, harness car seats also help to guarantee that they stay properly buckled while parents watch the road. In an accident, a five-point harness car seat can save your child’s life.
If you absolutely can’t handle the inconvenience of keeping your school-age child in a five-point harness car seat, it’s okay to use a booster seat as long as your little one weighs at least 40 pounds and can be trusted to stay buckled in and upright. Some state laws even grant permission for toddlers as young as three years and 30 pounds to ride without a harness. But, if your kiddo is still under 40 pounds or has a tendency to unbuckle himself, it’s in your best interest to use a five-point harness car seat for as long as possible. If you have any questions about the appropriate use of car seats for school-age children, touch base with your pediatrician or local health department for advice.