Baby's Legs and Rear-Facing Car Seat Safety

Father putting baby in car seat

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While riding in a rear-facing car seat, it is common for a baby or toddler's legs to touch the vehicle seat, or to hang over the end of the car seat. Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean that the child is too big for the seat. As long as they are within the manufacturer's height and weight restrictions for their seat, kids should ride rear-facing, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. This usually means they should be rear-facing until they are at least three, four, or even five years old.

All child passenger safety experts and safety organizations agree that it's safe for little legs to touch the vehicle seat when riding rear-facing.

What About Kids' Comfort?

Parents sometimes ask what children are supposed to do with their long legs if they stay rear-facing for several years. "That can't possibly be comfortable!" is a common sentiment.

Although it looks uncomfortable to our adult eyes, it's actually very comfortable for toddlers to ride in a rear-facing car seat. As you know, little ones can contort themselves into all sorts of positions that would cause serious pain for adults (young kids have significantly more range of motion in their joints than older kids and adults because their joint spaces are wide open and their ligaments are looser). Propping their legs up on a vehicle seat, sitting cross-legged, or hanging their legs over the side of a car seat is minor in comparison.

In fact, kids more often complain in forward-facing seats because their butts fall asleep (similar to the feeling of siting on a bar stool that doesn't have a footrest). The fact that the rear-facing child has a place to put their feet—against the back of the vehicle seat—means that their legs are supported and they don't experience this discomfort.

The Risk of Broken Legs

Some parents worry when they see a rear-facing child's legs touching the back of the vehicle seat that it could break the child's legs or hips in a crash. However, studies of real kids in real crashes shows that leg and hip injuries are much more common in forward-facing kids than rear-facing kids.

When leg injuries do occur to rear-facing kids, it is in side impact crashes where another vehicle hits the child's leg and breaks it. Rear-facing kids do not get hip or leg injuries from being scrunched up. During a crash, their legs pull up into a cannonball-like position, and this is not a cause of injury. Therefore, however scrunched the child's legs are while riding rear-facing is not a safety concern. Riding rear-facing reduces the risk of broken legs and broken necks, while forward-facing increases the risk of both of these injuries.

According to Safe Kids, broken legs are the second most common injury to forward-facing children in crashes. That's because the child's legs are thrown forward during the crash and can strike the front vehicle seat or console. If you're worried about broken legs, changing to a forward-facing car seat is not the answer.

Outgrowing the Car Seat

A common misconception is that babies outgrow their infant car seats when their legs are hanging over the edge and their feet can touch the vehicle seat. The position of your baby's legs does not matter. You'll know that your baby has outgrown the infant car seat when there is less than an inch of hard shell over the top of baby's head or when your baby exceeds the maximum height or weight of the car seat. You should also check the instruction book to see if there are any other size recommendations or instructions pertaining to outgrowing the seat that are specific to your baby's car seat.

For older babies and toddlers whose legs are overhanging the rear-facing car seat, they can sit cross-legged, put their legs over the sides of the car seat, or prop them up on the vehicle seat. Today's convertible car seats have rear-facing limits of 35, 40, and even 50 pounds. Most of those car seats also have tall shells and can accommodate a child who is on the taller side for many years, until three to four years of age, with the goal of providing optimal protection for their head, neck, and spine, regardless of where they put their legs.

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  4. Arbogast KB, Cornejo RA, Kallan MJ, Winston FK, Durbin DR. Injuries to children in forward facing child restraints. Annu Proc Assoc Adv Automot Med. 2002;46:213-30.

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