All infants start out in a rear-facing seat in the car, no matter what kind of car seat they have. They are supposed to continue rear-facing until they are at least 12 months and 20 pounds. However, that standard is a minimum. Rear-facing car seats provide excellent protection because the back of the car seat cradles a child’s head and neck in a crash. Young children need the extra cushion because their spinal cords are under-developed, containing more cartilage where adults have fully developed bones. The strong impact of a car crash could snap a child’s head forward and stretch the spinal cord, severely damaging or breaking it. For this reason, many car safety experts say that your child should ride rear-facing until they reach the maximum rear-facing weight limit for the seat, or until your child’s head is as high as the top of the plastic shell of the car seat.
So what are the reasons not to keep your child rear-facing for as long as possible? For most families – especially those with small cars or tall children – it’s a matter of the kids’ comfort. One issue is that kids’ legs grow long enough that they are soon crunched up against the back of the seat. However, safety experts say that there is not a problem with a child having legs bent and/or touching the back seat – and in fact this is safer and more preferable to facing forward.
Other moms have an issue with kids not cooperating in the car. Some kids – especially those with older siblings who already face forward – will create a miserable and disruptive environment in the car while they are facing backwards. It’s at this point that some parents decide it’s safer to have everyone calm and collected and facing forward, rather than risk an accident with an uncooperative rear-facing child. Additionally, a small number of children have troubles with car-sickness while facing backwards.
Nevertheless, the idea of extended use of a rear-facing car seat is gaining momentum and is being recommended by an increasing number of safety experts. In fact, a recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics cites new research suggesting that children are five times safer if they stay rear-facing until age 2 (rather than age 1).
Given all of this information, many parents are opting to keep their kids facing backwards for as long as possible. If you are on the fence about whether to turn them, you may want to err on the side of keeping them rear-facing as long as you can. But no matter which way they are facing, make sure you install the car seats properly and adjust the belts correctly. To read more about local laws, and to find local resources for proper carseat adjustment, see seatcheck.org or use the child safety seat inspection station locator provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. As the parent of any child who has been in an accident will tell you. it’s worth it to take the extra time to make your children safe.