Here’s a question we hear from new parents often: How long should I keep my child in a rear facing car seat?
Why is rear facing better? Where are your kids supposed to put their legs in a rear facing car seat? Who keeps their child in a rear facing car seat anyway?
This was the single most common question I received when people noticed my daughter sitting in her rear facing car seat well past infancy. Sometimes the question was sincere – the other person simply trying to work out the Tetris logistics of a rear facing car seat. This was especially true for people who were remembering the seats their now-adult children used.
Sometimes the question was asked as though the very act of keeping her rear facing was an implication towards everyone else. A question asked as a challenge in a tone of voice suggesting that they had clearly gotten the better of me. Rear facing? What’s the point? There was an implied mic drop at the end.
My answer about why I kept my daughter in a rear facing car seat was always the same, and always simple. She put her legs wherever she wanted, up the back of the vehicle seat, crisscross applesauce, or over the sides.
From there the script was fairly predictable
Won’t she break her legs if there is an accident? Nope. In fact, lower extremity injuries are the second most common injury in forward facing children, but almost unheard of in rear facing car seats.
She looks cramped up in there! You or I would probably be uncomfortable in a rear facing car seat, but think of the positions children put themselves in regularly. The other night she fell asleep leaning over the bed backwards with her feet on the floor. Sometimes older kids complain once they are forward facing that their dangling legs are more uncomfortable than they were in the rear facing car seat.
What about in a rear end collision? Rear end collisions account for a small percentage of all accidents, and are usually at lower speed.
But. Why? Is this a helicopter parent thing? Choosing to keep my child in a rear facing car seat is a physics thing. Children’s heads are a much larger percentage of their overall body weight and their spines are soft and stretchy. Their spinal columns can stretch up to 2 inches, whereas their spinal cord only stretches about ¼ of an inch. When a forward facing toddler’s heavy head is thrown forward it causes the spinal column to out-stretch the cord, which can cause the spinal cord to break. Rear facing is known to cut the chance of severe injury by up to 500% in a child under the age of two.
If the recommendation is now age two, why is your almost-four year old still rear facing? Just because the data stops at age two does not mean that the increase in safety with rear facing car seats disappears. It just means we ran out of data, because there weren’t enough kids over the age of two who were still in rear facing car seats. We do know that in Sweden children regularly ride rear facing until three to four years old, and they have an incredibly low rate of auto accident injuries and deaths. The older a child is, the more time their spinal column has to strengthen.
I understand why, but how? Seats these days are being built for this. Once your child outgrows the infant bucket seat you move them to a convertible seat, which can be rear or forward facing. Most of those seats will now go to at least 40 pounds rear facing, some go as high as 50 pounds. Adjustable headrests have made many seats work well when reclined for an infant, as well as for taller children.
No part of this conversation was ever intended to shame anyone for making a different choice. My mantra was always, “we know better, we do better.” There is no way to go back in time, but there is plenty of room to move forward. For every person who seemed defensive about my choices, I had several tell me that I had educated them and made a difference. I know that by doing all I can to raise awareness of child passenger safety that I have had a direct impact on the safety of many children. I strive to keep an open but non-judgemental dialogue about best practices, because you never know when it might save a life.
Aside from safety, there are a few other reasons to keep your kids rear facing:
- Fewer toys dropped onto the floorboards of the car.
- You can quietly open a snack for yourself without the kids noticing.
- By the time they see the McDonald’s, you’re already past it.
- They can’t kick the back of your seat.
- In the event of an action movie high-speed car chase they can serve as your look out.
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Rhiannon Giles is an overwhelmed mother who only occasionally considers giving her children to the circus. She has a sarcasm problem and writes regularly at rhiyaya.com. To keep up with new posts and see some of her favorites, join her on Facebook.