Did you know that the mass of the head of a small child is about 25% of the body mass whereas the mass of the adult head is only 6%! In a head on automobile crash the force on a child’s neck and spine is so great that in an infant it can have deadly consequences. This is why it is the law to keep infants rear facing until they are 1 year old AND weight at least 20 lbs. There are new recommendations that suggest keeping infants rear facing until they reach the weight limit on their convertible car seat.
In a rear-facing seat, the head, neck and spine are all kept fully aligned and the child restraint absorbs the bulk of the crash force. The difference is that in a head on collision an infants head would snap forward in a forward facing seat whereas if they are rear facing their entire body sustains the force of the crash therefore preventing their head from snapping forward and causing permanent damage to the spinal cord or even death.
There is no evidence to suggest that just because a child’s feet hit the back of the seat while rear facing that they should be faced forward. While there is no documentation of broken legs while rear facing the choice between a broken leg and a broken spine seems easy to decide. The only limits set on a car seat to be turned around are by height and by weight. In most convertible car seats the weight limit for rear facing is 30, 33, or 35lbs.
The height limits vary by seats but most specify that the child’s head be 1 inch below the top of the shell of the seat. There are a few that allow the head to go over the top of the shell as long as the top of a child’s ears are at or below the top of the shell. On a personal note, my son was 16 months old, 32lbs, and 35 inches tall when we turned him forward facing. If his car seat allowed it he would have stayed rear facing longer.
Frontal and frontal offset crashes account for 72% of all crashes. Rear and rear offset crashes only account for about 4%. This information is directly from Crashtest.com. The speeds involved in frontal crashes are, in most cases, much higher than those in rear crashes. The main reason for this is that in most frontal crashes generally two cars are traveling at high speeds in opposite directions from each other. In a rear crash one car is generally slowed or stopped while another hits it at a relatively low speed.
Children are, as I stated earlier, required by law to remain rear facing until they are at least 1 year old and 20lbs. They must meet both criteria to be turned forward facing. The longer you can keep a child rear-facing, the safer they will be. A common mistake parents make is turning their child around too early because they can sit up, crawl, walk, etc. The guidelines for turning a child around have nothing to do with muscular strength. It is based on skeletal strength. A 9 mo. old baby who can sit, crawl, walk has the same skeletal strength as a 9 mo. who can do none of these things.
While rear facing is a big key in helping prevent injuries in young children if your car seat is improperly installed it will do you no good. 4 out of every 5 child restraints are improperly installed. There are local car seat checks each month at the fire stations and police stations and you can also call them to make an appointment. It takes anywhere from 5-20 minutes but could be the difference between life and death for your child in an accident.
Ultimately the decision as a parent should be clear. Our child’s safety is the number one concern. Rear facing until reaching seats limits is an easy choice and ultimately could save your child’s life in an automobile accident. Are you willing to take the risk?