Rear-facing is the safest position the child can ride in. It is strongly recommended that all children stay rear-facing beyond the minimum requirements of 1 year and 20 lbs. Children should not be turned forward-facing until they reach the maximum rear-facing limits of a convertible seat (that allows rear-facing to at least 30 lbs). These limits are either the maximum rear-facing weight limit or when the top of their head is within one inch of the top of the seat shell, whichever comes first. While most parents are aware that they must keep their children rear-facing “until they are AT LEAST 1 year old AND 20 lbs”, very few are told that there are significant safety benefits when a child remains rear-facing as long as the seat allows. For most children, rear-facing can and should continue well into the second year of life.
Aaron, still happily rear-facing at 3 years old (36 months)
Expert Statements confirm that rear-facing is safest.
Highlighted passages are links to original articles.
Rear-facing CRs provide the best protection from injury for any child that can fit in one.
– SafetyBeltSafe USA technical encyclopedia, written by Kathleen Weber, retired Director of the Child Passenger Protection Research Program in the University of Michigan Medical School
…a child should remain rear-facing for as long as possible…even beyond their first birthday, increasing their protection until they are 30 to 35 lbs.
– Dr. Michael Sachs, Pediatrician and Child Passenger Safety Expert
…for optimal protection, the child should remain rear facing until reaching the maximum weight for the car safety seat, as long as the top of the head is below the top of the seat back
– American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement
A child should stay rear-facing for as long as possible
– Flaura Koplin Winston, MD, PhD, principal investigator of Partners for Child Passenger Safety, a research collaboration between The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm Insurance Company.
Basically, the longer a child can ride rear-facing, the better protected his or her spinal cord is in the event of a collision.ï¿½
– Joe Colella, Former Child Passenger Safety Training Manager for the National SAFE KIDS Campaign
Why should my child rear-face past 1 year and 20 lbs?
Every milestone in a child’s life is exciting! First steps, first word, first day of school. Even car seat milestones seem exciting. The truth is, they should be looked at with a certain sense of dread, not longing. Every step in car seat “advancement” is actually a step down in your child’s protection.
Rear-facing is much, much safer than forward-facing. Child safety seats: Rear-face until at least one year discusses the reasons why children should remain rear-facing for a FULL year and 20 lbs. In it, Kathleen Weber states, “In the research and accident review that I did a few years ago, the data seemed to break at about 12 months between severe consequences and more moderate consequences…” This does not mean that there are NO consequences. The consequences may no longer be death from a completely severed spinal cord, but simply life-long injury, including complete paralysis. Research studies suggest that until children are at least four, they are incapable of withstanding crash forces as well as adults – and should remain rear-facing.
In a crash, life-threatening or fatal injuries are generally limited to the head and neck, assuming a child is in a harnessed seat.
When a child is in a forward-facing seat, there is tremendous stress put on the child’s neck, which must hold the large head back. The mass of the head of a small child is about 25% of the body mass whereas the mass of the adult head is only 6%! A small child’s neck sustains massive amounts of force in a crash. The body is held back by the straps while the head is thrown forward – stressing, stretching or even breaking the spinal cord. The child’s head is at greater risk in a forward-facing seat as well. In a crash, the head is thrown outside the confines of the seat and can make dangerous contact with other occupants, vehicle structures, and even intruding objects, like trees or other vehicles.
Rear-facing seats do a phenomenal job of protecting children because there is little or no force applied to the head, neck and spine. When a child is in a rear-facing seat, the head, neck and spine are all kept fully aligned and the child is allowed to “ride down” the crash while the back of the child restraint absorbs the bulk of the crash force. The head is contained within the restraint, and the child is much less likely to come into contact with anything that might cause head injury.
Notice the difference in stress on the child’s body in the two crash test photos below.
Courtesy of University of Michigan Child Passenger Protection
Side by side comparison
Won’t my child be uncomfortable? Where do his legs go?
Many parents have the misconception that children are uncomfortable or at risk for leg injury by having their legs up on the vehicle seat or bent when kept rear-facing. These concepts are completely incorrect. First, children are more flexible than adults so what we perceive as uncomfortable is not for children. Think about how your child sits in everyday play. Do they sit with their legs straight out in front of them? When they sit on the couch, do they purposely sit so their legs dangle out over the edge? No. In real, everyday life, toddlers and preschoolers CHOSE to sit with their legs folded up – that IS comfort to them.
Second, there is not a single documented case of children’s legs, hips, etc. breaking or being injured in a crash due to longer rear-facing. There are plenty of cases of head and neck injury in forward-facing children that could have been prevented if the child had remained rear-facing. However, even if a leg or hip were broken or injured, it can be fixed. A damaged spinal cord (from forward-facing too soon) cannot be repaired and subjects the child to lifelong disability or death.
What if I am hit from behind? Won’t my child be safer facing forward?
Frontal and side impacts are the most common type of crashes. They account for 96% of all crashes. They are also the most deadly type of crashes (especially side impacts) and rear-facing children have MUCH more protection in both types of crashes than forward-facing. In the 4% of rear impact crashes that a rear-facing child would be in, they have at least the same amount of protection that a FF child would have in a frontal impact, with the added benefit of less crash energy being transferred to them, and the fact that the rear impact is usually not as severe.
The forces in a rear impact crash are much different from the forces in a frontal impact crash. In a frontal impact, the forces are much greater because the vehicles are usually traveling in opposite directions. Experts suggest that a frontal crash is the same as hitting a concrete barrier ï¿½ the vehicle and all occupants come to a dead stop within less than 1 second.
When you are struck in a rear impact, the vehicles involved are traveling in the same direction, and the vehicle that is hit in the back has room to move forward. The crash force on the occupants is much less than in a frontal impact. The movement of the impacted vehicle, in addition to the crush zone, absorbs a lot of the crash energy, so it is not transferred to the child. Additionally, the majority of rear impacts are at low speeds.
In short, if your child is rear-facing, he has optimal protection in the types of crashes you are most likely to be in. If he is forward-facing, he may have optimal protection in a rear-end crash, but statistically, that is the least likely to happen and he is 60% more likely to be injured or killed in the types of crashes (frontal, side impact) you are most likely to be in.
You can learn more about the physics of rear-facing at http://www.car-safety.org/rearface.html
Crash Test Footage
Crash test of a Forward-Facing child.
All video shown is of European seats. More videos can be found here. Click on a seat, then in the upper right corner, click on “Frontcrash-video” or “Seitencrash-Video”. Not all seats have video.
The rear-facing videos shown here are of a rear-facing seat that is Braced and Tethered.
In Sweden, it is standard practice to keep their children rear-facing up to the age of 5, or as much as 55 lbs. From 1992 through June 1997, only 9 children properly restrained rear-facing died in motor vehicle crashes in Sweden, and all of these involved catastrophic crashes with severe intrusion and few other survivors. Larger Swedish child restraints are designed to accommodate these larger children. US-certified restraints can be used rear-facing until the maximum weight limit is reached or until the top of the child’s head is within one inch of the top of the seat, whichever comes first.
In the US, motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of death for children. The extra protection offered by rear-facing seats is something that parents should take advantage of as long as possible.
American Academy of Pediatrics 2006 Car Seat Shopping Guide
Why babies must ride rear-facing
Rear-facing vs. Forward-facing
Car-Safety.org: Why Rear-facing is safest
Photo Album of older/heavier children rear-facing – dial-up connections may take up to 2 minutes to load this page.