Car Seats: Rear facing importance

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Quick, how long should you keep your child rear-facing in their car seat? If you are like most parents, you've probably heard the minimum of 1 year and 20 lbs. - but the truth is, it's actually safer for your child to stay rear facing longer than that.

Child passenger safety advocates agree that it's best to keep children rear-facing until they reach the limits of their convertible car seats, or at least until age 2. (Most convertible car seats are outgrown rear-facing at around 33 lbs., or when the top of the child's head is 1" from the top of the seat's shell.) In a crash, children under age 2 in forward-facing car seats are four times as likely to die or suffer serious injuries than children of the same age who are in rear-facing car seats.

There are many reasons to keep your child rear-facing past 1 year and 20 lbs. Actually, everyone would be safer rear facing in a vehicle, but it's especially true for babies and young children. Why? In a frontal crash - the most common type - a forward-facing child's head is thrown forward. In small children the spinal column can stretch more than the actual spinal cord can; this overstretching is also known as internal decapitation. Their immature spinal cords are simply not meant to stretch so much. In a rear-facing seat, the force of impact would be absorbed entirely by the back of the seat while the child's body is kept in alignment.

Some parents worry that their children will be uncomfortable or their legs will break if they can touch the back of the vehicle seat, but this is simply not true. There have been no documented leg or feet injuries due to extended rear facing. Even if there were, broken legs usually heal easily, but broken necks don't. Furthermore, most children are perfectly comfortable with their feet touching the seat back. They like the leg support instead of having uncomfortable dangling legs. Notice how your child prefers to sit most the time at home, with legs curled or crossed; that is comfort for them, and they don't get stiff and sore like adults do. Extended rear facing is definitely the way to go!

Now, once your child has outgrown the covertible car seat rear-facing, how long should they use a forward-facing five-point harnessed seat? Longer than you may think! It is now recognized that young children are safer in a five-point harness car seat than in a booster seat. Until recently, most forward-facing seats had a weight limit of 40 lbs., or, because the top slots must be at or above the shoulder, were outgrown by height by most children before they reached 40 lbs. Most car seat manufacturers are now designing seats with higher slots and higher weight limits to accommodate children longer. Many seats can now be used to 65 lbs in the harness.

It is important to not move to a booster seat too early because most children are not mature enough to sit properly in them until age 5 or 6. In order to be protected in a booster, the child must have good posture, keep the lap belt over their hips and the shoulder belt crossing their chest and over their shoulder, not putting it behind their back or under their arm. Most 3-4 year olds are not mature enough to sit safely in a booster. A five-point harness car seat also distributes the crash forces over five areas whereas a booster seat spreads that same amount of crash force over only three areas.

Big kids should definitely be in boosters! The Utah legislature recently enacted a law requiring children to use a booster seat in the car until they are 8 years old or 4'9, whichever comes first. However, many children still do not fit an adult seat belt properly at age 8 or 4'9", and it is actually safer for them to continue using their booster seats, law or no law.

Vehicles are designed to fit adults, and improperly-fitting seat belts on children can be deadly. Without boosters, lap belts cross children's stomachs, and the shoulder belts go across the neck instead of shoulder, leaving children vulnerable to serious injury. A booster helps the seat belt to fit children properly.

So, when can my child use the seat belt? NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) has developed a fivestep test to help determine whether your child can safely use just the adult seat belt:

  1. Does the child sit all the way back against the auto seat?
  2. Do the child's knees bend comfortably at the edge of the auto seat?
  3. Does the belt cross the shoulder between the neck and arm?
  4. Is the lap belt as low as possible, touching the thighs?
  5. Can the child stay seated like this for the whole trip?

If you answered no to any of those questions, your child still needs a booster to fit safely in their seatbelt. For help finding a seat that will work the best for you, I urge you to check out, where child passenger safety advocates will help you select the most appropriate car seats based on your child's age and size, your vehicle, and your budget. Remember, there is not one "best" car seat. The safest seat is one that fits your child, fits your budget, is installed properly, and will be used correctly every time.

It is always a good idea to have your seats checked by a technician. Visit to find a Child Passenger Safety Technician or fitting station in your area.

You can visit Holly's blog and read more about car seat safety at

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