I remember when my cousins were younger, my aunt told me that she was going to keep the youngest one in a rear-facing car seat for as long as possible. Since I knew the law was 1 year and 20 pounds, I thought my aunt was being crazy and overprotective for no reason. I just didn’t understand why she would do that to her son – it seemed mean and boring and it just made no sense to me.
But then the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with their statement on car seats in 2011, declaring that kids should be kept rear facing until at least 2, and it gave me pause.
After reading their compelling research, I was curious why many parents were still choosing to turn their children around before they outgrow a convertible car seat. As I’ve looked around the Internet, I’ve found several common reasons. Though many seem legitimate at first glance, the reality is that there are some serious misconceptions, and at least these seven require further examination.
Important note: No one here is recommending that you keep a child rear facing beyond the limits of the seat. Always consult your manual for height and weight limits!
Myth 1: It’s as safe to face forward as it is to rear face at 1 year and 20 pounds.
It’s not as safe for a 1 year old to face forward as it is to face backwards. Babies and toddlers have big heads in proportion to the rest of their body and in proportion to their neck muscles. So if you’re in an accident and the child’s head gets thrust in any direction, the neck muscles don’t have the strength necessary to keep the head safely in line with the spine and the result is a horrifying thing called internal decapitation, where the head disconnects from the spine. A study conducted in 2007 showed that the risk of severe injury in children 12-23 months in a forward facing position was 5.32 times higher than in rear facing. FIVE TIMES. For more info, check out the side by side impact crash videos here.
Myth 2: Kids will be uncomfortable with their legs bent/it’ll damage their hips/won’t someone think of the children?
If you watch a child sit on the floor you’ll see that they sit in a few common positions and almost all of them are with the hips and knees flexed, much like in a rear facing position. As for safety on the hips and knees, one of the most stable positions for the hip is for the hips to be in a frog position. In fact, kids with developmental hip dysplasia (poorly developed hip “sockets”) are placed in a brace in this position to help the joint form and settle. Having the hips and knees bent is not a bad position and for most kids, it’s the way they sit when they’re not in the car, too. If you’re concerned about their legs, there are a number of car seats on the market that offer a good amount of leg room. Kids in Sweden rear face until age 5 (though in different, awesome, car seats), so it’s fair to say that leg room wise, most kids in the US should be able to make it to at least age 2.
Myth 3: Extended rear facing will result in broken legs in car accidents
Even if this myth is partially true, personally, I choose broken legs to a spinal cord injury or death. BUT, there is no evidence that extended rear facing results in increased leg injuries, and we have pretty extensive crash testing and recording in this country. Crash test data in 2007 found that the rate of lower extremity injuries in rear facing children was 1 per 1000 children and the rates for forward facing kids are within similar ranges.
Myth 4: Children must be turned around once their feet hit the back of the seat
Rear facing convertible seats have carefully calculated and tested limits that all parents should follow. These typically include height limits, either the child’s standing height or the distance from their head to the top of the shell, as well as weight limits, which for most kids aren’t reached before the height ones are. But there are no seats on the market that need to be turned around when a child’s feet touch the seat. Though it may look uncomfortable, it doesn’t make the seat unsafe.
Myth 5: Children are happier forward facing
If your child has never faced forward, they don’t know what they’re missing and most likely they’re just crying to get out of the car. Yes, turning the seat around will possibly reduce the fighting to get into the seat and provide some entertainment, but let’s all be honest here, it’s still boring to ride in the car for a long time. In my opinion, this is one of those parenting moments where you need to make a decision without regard to your child’s wants. Obviously every child is different, but one way to help is to pack safe toys to keep the kids occupied, and if you’re having difficulty with an upset baby in an infant seat, look into a convertible seat that allows them to rear face in a more upright position. That can go a long way to a happier, and safe, baby.
Myth 6: This is fear mongering on the part of car seat companies looking to get us to spend more money
Sigh. This excuse and anyone who refers to this as a product of a “nanny state” are the kinds of people that I’m unlikely to convince here. There are several seats that can accommodate extended rear facing that cost 100 dollars or less and they’re perfectly safe, so I think we just need to dismiss this myth. Not to mention that even if you turn your child around at age 1, you still have to buy a convertible car seat, so it’s actually not costing any extra money out of your pocket to keep your child 532% safer.
Myth 7: We didn’t even use car seats when I was growing up and I turned out fine.
Yes, you did. And thousands of other children didn’t. We have learned a lot about safety in the 30+ years since we were kids and it’s silly to ignore what we now know. On top of which, we drive faster and farther now than most families did when we were kids and in more traffic, which means the types of accidents are different and in many cases, potentially more severe.
I understand that all mothers get to make these decisions for their children, but in all my research, I haven’t found any caveats that make it safer for a child to face forward before age 2. And if they can face backward longer (within the weight/height limits of the seat) than age 2, that’s even better. Our plan is to keep our son rear facing until he outgrows his convertible seat or until age 4, whichever comes first, because I know it’s what’s safest for him. Though I wish the laws would change to match up with the evidence, it’s still up to us as parents to be aware of the research and keep our kids as safe as possible. Yes this might cause some unhappiness for all, yes this might be an inconvenience, but it’s a situation where the alternative is simply impossible to ignore. Please, keep your kids rear facing until 2 if their seat allows it.
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