Parents of young children might be tempted to make the change to a forward-facing car seat a bit too early, not recognizing that their child is better protected rear-facing as long as possible.
Safety experts, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), recommend that a child remain in rear-facing car seat as long as possible and never travel forward-facing until they are two years old or until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by the manufacturer of their child safety seat. This is to reduce the risk of serious neck injury and lifelong disability.
New convertible seats are available today that allow children to remain rear-facing until they weigh 30 to 50 pounds, depending on the model.
Benefits in frontal crashes
Riding in a rear-facing car seat is the safest for children, but especially for infants, who would face an increased risk of spinal cord injury in a front-facing car seat during a frontal crash. Babies have heavy heads and fragile necks. In a crash, their soft spinal column can stretch, leading to spinal cord damage if the baby is riding in a forward-facing position.
If a baby is facing forward in a frontal crash – the most common and most severe crash type – the body is secured by the straps, but the head is not. The head is thrust forward, stretching the neck and the easily-injured spinal cord.
The SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. website cites a 2008 article in Pediatrics that children under the age of two are 75 percent less likely to killed or suffer severe injuries in a crash if they are riding rear-facing rather than front-facing. Of importance to parents is the fact that, for children one- to two-years old, facing the rear is five times safer.
In a frontal crash, rear-facing car seats cradle the child’s head, neck, back and torso, spreading the crash forces. Rear-facing seats also prevent the child’s head from snapping relative to the body during a frontal crash.
Benefits in side-impact crashes
Crash tests and field experience show that the head of a child facing rearward is captured by the shell of the child restraint system in side and frontal-oblique crashes. The head of a forward-facing child may be thrown forward, around, and even outside the confines of the child restraint system’s side wings.
According to field data, there are better outcomes for rear-facing children than forward-facing ones, even though most child restraint systems are not designed specifically to protect children during a side-impact crash.
In Sweden, children ride in rear-facing car seats until they are three to five years old. This has substantially decreased traffic death and injury rates.
Bottom line: Don’t be in a hurry to transition your child from rear-facing to forward-facing. Although car seats in the U.S. are not designed to be used rear-facing as long as those in Sweden, safety experts still recommend children be secured in rear-facing car seats as long as possible – at least until they are two years old.
Check out car seat basics on Parents Central, NHTSA’s website devoted to helping keep kids safe in and around cars.