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 an infant 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 or even four 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. 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 Kids' Comfort?

Parents sometimes ask what toddlers 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. 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.

Comfort is important, but safety is a priority. 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 a rear-facing car seat might put a 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 spinal 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 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 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.

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