In 2011 The American Academy of Pediatrics published new recommendations on car seat safety. The most notable change advised parents that one year olds should no longer be forward facing. In fact, no child under the age of two should be in a forward facing seat. And that is just a minimum.
The AAP states that children should ideally be left rear facing until they outgrow the safety limits for their seat (weight and height limits). For some kids, this could mean rear facing until they are 3 or 4 years old. For those who are used to the idea that kids get flipped around at age one, waiting until the age of 3 has proven to be a tough sell.
But, science backs up these recommendations – and in a big way.
Just consider this.
Most crashes, some 60 percent, are frontal collisions. This means that when an accident happens, everyone in the car jolts forward, towards the point of impact. This isn’t good for anyone in the car, it’s why we use seat belts. But, for babies and toddlers, that thrust forward is especially dangerous.
To put it simply, big heads. A toddler’s head is huge compared to the rest of their body. In fact, a toddler’s head makes up nearly a quarter of their total body weight. An adult head, just 6 percent.
When a toddler is left rear facing, the car seat helps to distribute the force of the crash along the back of the seat as well as the toddler’s entire body. As a result, their relatively big heads are offered more support, which in turn puts significantly less strain on the neck and spine. This means less fatalities and serious injuries for rear facing children.
On top of your toddler’s big head size is their immature spinal column. Toddlers vertebrae are connected, at least partially, with cartilage instead of bone like in an adults body. Cartilidge is much more flexible than bone. In fact, if enough force is applied, the cartilage connecting your toddler’s vertebrae can stretch up to 2 inches. This can be a life threatening problem in a car crash because it only takes 1/4 of an inch stretch for the spinal column to rupture.
Again, the support provided by a rear facing seat is key. It helps to distribute the force of the crash in a way that significantly reduces the strain put on their spinal column. This all adds up to a reduced risk of paralysis and death. In short, rear facing longer saves lives.
However, many parents are still following outdated recommendations and allowing their toddlers to switch to a forward facing seat at a year (or sooner).
Anyone who has had to ride in the car with an unhappy toddler knows how unpleasant it can be. Turning their seat forward is an understandably tempting option to help relieve stress and frustrations. It seems like such a simple fix until you consider the risk flipping your toddler’s seat too soon really poses.
Another concern many parents have are their toddler’s legs. Obviously, as babies grow into toddlers, their legs get longer. In a rear facing seat this usually means that at some point feet are either touching the seat back or the toddler is forced to bend their knees and sit “criss-cross”. Parents are concerned that their children’s legs will be broken if a car accident were to happen.
You might be surprised to hear, however, that leg injuries are very uncommon for rear facing kids. In fact, I could not find any documented cases in which a child’s legs or feet were broken from being in a rear facing seat.
But, even if it was very common, a broken leg is still favorable to a broken neck.
It is also important to note that toddlers are very flexible. This is because their joints and bones are less developed than an adults. This is as nature intended, allowing for more “mistakes” as they learn gross motor skills like balance. So in a car seat, what may look like a horribly uncomfortable position to an adult, probably doesn’t bother a toddler in the least.
What are the laws regarding toddlers and car seat use?
This is a gray area. Like most things in the United States, car seat laws vary from state to state. And like most laws, car seat laws have not kept pace with current scientific research.
For instance, in North Carolina, where I live, all children under 8 are required to use a booster seat or ride in a car seat. And although they echo the recommendations laid out by the AAP, the current law still states that only children under the age of one (or less than 20 pounds) are required to be rear facing.
In other states, like Oklahoma, only children 5 and under are required to use a booster seat or ride in a car seat.
Although a bill in California was proposed earlier this year, no states currently require toddlers to be rear facing until the age of 2. This is not because states disagree with the AAP’s findings. It is simply because the process of creating and changing laws is often very slow.
In a Nutshell
- AAP recommends children remain in rear facing car seats for a minimum of two years but ideally until they outgrow their current seats height and weight recommendations.
- Rear facing car seats help support the neck and spine of toddlers. This is vital because of their relatively large head sizes and immature spinal columns.
- Switching a toddler forward facing too soon, for any reason, greatly increases their risk of serious injury and death.
- Car seat laws vary from state to state. No state currently has a law stating that children must be 2 years old before riding in a forward facing car seat.