Although many parents are anxious to move their child’s rear-facing child safety seat forward, new studies have shown that parents should hold off another year. Traditionally, parents move their child from a rear-facing seat to a forward-facing seat at age one. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) now strongly urges parents to wait until their child is at least 2 years old or until they reach the maximum height and weight for their seat.
“We’ve been teaching parents to keep their infants in rear-facing seats beyond age one for the past several years,” Boyd says. “The shell of the car seat system helps the body to ride down the crash forces so they are not as intense on the body. The seat spreads the crash forces over a wider area and also protects the head, neck and spinal column.”
Boyd says it’s all about physics. In every crash, there are actually three collisions:
- Vehicle – the car hits an outside force
- Human – the body travels at the same rate of speed as the vehicle was traveling until it hits something (harness system, airbag, dashboard, etc.)
- Internal – all of your organs continue to travel at the same rate of speed until they hit the inside shell of the body (skull, ribs, etc.)
With that information in mind, consider one of the most common types of car crashes: hitting something with the front of the car. If you’re in the car, facing forward, your full force hits the harness system — either your seat belt or the five-point harness for a child. If an infant is facing forward in the car seat at the time of impact, that’s a lot of stress on a little body.
“If the infant is in a rear-facing seat, he or she has the whole shell of the car seat acting like a catcher’s mitt,” Boyd says, “the baby is like the ball and just slides up into the mitt with his or her head, neck and spinal column protected.”
Dr. Durbin MD, FAAP, lead author of the AAP policy statement and accompanying technical report, agrees with Boyd’s assessment and adds that “for larger children, a forward-facing seat with a harness is safer than a booster, and a belt-positioning booster seat provides better protection than a seat belt alone until the seat belt fits correctly.”
According to HealthyChildren.org, while the rate of deaths in motor vehicle crashes in children under age 16 has decreased substantially – dropping 45% between 1997 and 2009 – it is still the leading cause of death for children ages 4 and older. Counting children and teens up to age 21, there are more than 5,000 deaths each year. Fatalities are just the tip of the iceberg; for every fatality, roughly 18 children are hospitalized and more than 400 are injured seriously enough to require medical treatment.
Wondering which type of safety seat (and which direction) is right for your child? Boyd recommends the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration‘s (NHTSA’s) single-page Car Seat Recommendations flyer. It lists the different types of restraints and the appropriate age ranges for each one.
A couple of pointers:
- Remember, if your child is ahead or behind on your pediatrician’s growth chart you may need to adjust for his or her size and weight.
- Always refer to your car seat manufacturer’s instructions and make sure it’s installed correctly (FMH offers free car seat safety checks, call 240-379-6000 to set up an appointment).
- Keep your child in a rear-facing seat as long as possible, as long as he or she meets the manufacturer’s height and weight requirements.
- Keep your child in the back seat until at least age 12.