When you have a kid, it seems like all anybody can talk about is milestones. First you have the proud parents, who are pleased that their child has learned to roll over or crawl or walk (for the record, I haven’t been excited about any of these—when my youngest started rolling over at 5 weeks I tried to explain to him that there was absolutely no hurry to become mobile). Then you have doctors and family members constantly asking you if your kid has done this, that, and the other thing.
Then you have the milestones that you can’t wait to hit. For me, I really wanted my oldest child to start walking, because I was pregnant and he was heavy. And some parents eagerly await that first birthday for a variety of reasons: they look forward to weaning, introducing new foods, and then there’s the ability to put your kid in a forward facing car seat.
I have heard all sorts of arguments as to why parents can’t wait to do this. It’s easier to see your child. Your child prefers to ride forward facing. The car seat fits in the car better. Yup, I’ve heard them all, and I can honestly say that none of them make any difference—rear facing is the safest way to ride in the car for children under four.
I’m sure some of you are extremely surprised to hear this information, but the truth of the matter is, the United States has one of the most lax laws on child safety seats in developed countries. Some European countries require rear-facing until age five or a certain height and weight requirement, whereas here the law states that your child must be one year of age and weigh at least twenty pounds.
However, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends rear-facing until at least age two. Why is that, exactly?
Well, let me give you an example to illustrate. About four years ago I was in an extremely minor car accident. I was going about 10 miles per hour and my brakes failed, and I hit the guy in front of me. I wound up going to my chiropractor that day and had an adjustment, but even then I suffered from inflammation and whiplash in my neck and it took me a couple of weeks to recover.
Now, fortunately for me, my head only accounts for 6% of my body mass. The head of a baby/toddler, however, accounts for 25% of their body mass. So in the event of a car accident, the baby can sustain all sorts of injury to their head and neck, including stretching, stressing, or even breaking the spinal cord. This is apparently because, especially in a forward facing seat, the child’s head is thrown forward while the rest of his body is restrained. This can cause permanent damage–or even death.
However, in a rear-facing seat, the head, neck, and spine are all kept in alignment, and the child will receive little to no stress to the head or neck, especially in a front or side impact crash. The head is also way less likely to come in contact with debris or any other flying objects that may cause injury.
Rear-facing is definitely the way to go. Now, there are some circumstances where you simply can’t keep your child rear-facing—my oldest son is quite tall for his age (he was over three feet at eighteen months) and so he outgrew the height requirement on his car seat when he was 21 months, and so we didn’t quite make it to two years. But the longer you keep your child rear-facing, the more time their body has to develop the protection needed for your child to survive a car crash while forward-facing.
If you have questions about installing your car seat, I highly recommend checking out Seatcheck.org. They list places near your zip code that do free car seat inspections. If you have questions about the benefits of extended rear-facing, CPSafety is a fantastic resource.