Baby's Legs and Rear-Facing Car Seat Safety

Father putting baby in car seat
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Is it safe for baby's legs to touch the vehicle seat while riding in a rear-facing car seat? What about those little legs hanging over the end of an infant car seat? Does that mean the baby is too big for the seat?

Many new parents ask these common questions, but unfortunately, lots of well-meaning but incorrect answers are floating around. New parents hear car seat advice from well-meaning friends and family, or even from strangers, that their baby is too big to ride rear-facing or in a certain car seat.

The Verdict

All child passenger safety experts and safety organizations agree that it's safe for those cute little legs to touch the vehicle seat when riding rear-facing. If you're still unsure, check the instruction manual for your baby's car seat. It will give you detailed advice on how to use that specific car seat safely. If it doesn't warn you about legs touching the seat, it's a non-issue.

What about comfort?

Other parents and car seat critics ask what a toddler is supposed to do with his or her long legs if they stay rear-facing for several years. "That can't possibly be comfortable!" is a common statement.

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. Propping their legs up on a seat or hanging them over the side of a car seat is minor in comparison. More importantly, though, it is safe for baby's legs to touch the vehicle seat when riding in a rear-facing car seat.

The Broken Leg Myth

It may seem that staying in the rear-facing car seat might put the baby at risk of broken legs in a crash. ​Staying rear-facing provides a great deal more protection for the head, neck, and spine in a crash. In any crash severe enough to cause broken legs, there would also be great potential for head, neck and spine injuries. So it's a matter of choosing to protect the most important parts. It's much easier to fix a broken leg than a broken neck, for example.

According to a Safe Kids, technical training session, 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 mentioned above 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 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 is 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 much longer than the bare minimum recommendation, which is two years old. Toddlers who are three or even four years old can remain rear-facing safely and comfortably in one of these car seats, with the goal of providing optimal protection for their head, neck, and spine, regardless of where they put their legs.

Heather Wootton Corley is a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician-Instructor.

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