According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, car crashes are the leading cause of death—and a major cause of injury—for children under 3. And car seats are by far the easiest way to reduce those risks. In fact, proper use of car seats reduces infants’ risk of dying in a car by 71%, and by 54% for kids ages 1-4. Emphasis on the word “proper.”
Dear Mr. Dad: I’m in charge of installing our 16-month old daughter’s car seat and my wife says I need to turn it around to rear-facing again because there’s a new regulation. But my daughter loves looking forward. Is it really necessary to make her face rear again?
A: Your wife is referring to the updated recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics (probably the most reliable source of information on children’s health and safety) that were published in April 2011. Until then, the APP advised parents to strap their babies into rear-facing car seats until they were at least a year old or weighed 20 pounds—whichever came latest. The new recommendation is to keep toddlers facing backwards until age two, or until they reach the maximum height and weight limits for their rear-facing car seat.
The Academy based its new policy on some recent research that indicates that rear-facing car seats better distribute the force from an impact. That, in turn, protects the baby’s delicate neck, spine, and head in the event of a crash. These findings are pretty conclusive: One of the studies, done in 2007, revealed that kids under two are 75 percent less likely to die or be severely injured in an accident if they’re facing the rear. Since 1997, the number of children killed in crashes has steadily decreased. But with 5,000 children dying as a result of auto accidents every year, crashes are still the leading cause of death for children over age four. In addition to the fatalities about 90,000 children are injured badly enough to require hospitalization and two million suffer injuries that require some kind of medical attention.
As you can see, car seats are serious business. But the Academy’s new recommendations are just guidelines and have no legal authority (at least not yet). Hopefully, though, I’ve got you convinced that you should wait a while longer before having your daughter face forward—no matter how much she wants to see where she’s going instead of where she’s been. Depending on how big she gets and what kind of seat she’s in, she may actually outgrow her rear-facing car seat before she hits two. Or, if she’s small, she may have to wait even longer.
Every state has its own car-seat regulations. Some set very specific age and weight limits (or minimums) and clearly state when it’s okay to switch from rear-facing to front-facing. Others simply require that a child be kept in a “child safety seat” up to a certain age (usually four), without specifying which way that seat should face. After that, you can switch to a booster seat until age seven or so. (The Academy, however, also revised its recommendations for older kids, advising that they stay in booster seats until they’re 57 inches tall—4 foot 9—a height some kids won’t reach before age 12.) And if you’ve looked at your car’s sun visors lately, you’ve probably seen the warnings that children under 12 or 13 should never be allowed to ride in the vehicle’s front seat.
Bottom line: Assuming that your 16-month old daughter is over 20 pounds, it’s not currently against the law to have her facing front (as long as she’s in the back seat of the car). However, why take unnecessary risks? The evidence is crystal clear on this one: she’ll be a lot safer facing the other direction.