Keeping Your Baby in a Rear-Facing Car Seat

Toddler girl in rear-facing car seat

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Many parents ask how long their child should stay in a rear-facing car seat. Actually, there's not an exact timeline. The rule of thumb is that children should be in rear-facing car seats for as long as possible, to the height or weight limits of the car seat (once one limit is reached, the child is too big for the seat; it is dangerous to exceed one limit even if the child is still within the other limit).

Riding rear-facing until the limit allowed by your child's convertible seat has big safety advantages that parents should strongly consider. Turning a car seat around isn't a milestone to rush. It's actually a step down in safety, so don't be in a hurry to make the big switch.

Old and New Advice

From 2011 to 2018, the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) was to keep children rear-facing until they were at least two years old, but ideally longer—until reaching the rear-facing height or weight limit for their convertible seat.

Current Recommendations

The current recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics is to keep children rear-facing until they reach the maximum height or weight for their convertible seat. This is usually at three to five years old, depending on the seat and the child’s growth. One-third of states in the U.S. have updated their child passenger safety laws to require rear-facing seats until age two.

Some state laws and some convertible car seats say that kids can ride forward facing if they are at least one year old. This can easily fool a parent into thinking that it is safe for a one-year-old to ride forward facing, when the evidence is clear that one-year-olds are safer rear-facing. Seeing "one-year-old" in print alongside "forward-facing car seat" leads many families to believe it is safe for their little one to switch to forward-facing far too young.

New parents also naturally turn to their family and friends with parenting experience when it comes to car seat safety advice. If your family and friends are a few years out from having newborns and toddlers, though, it's possible, and even likely, that their car seat advice is outdated.

Rear-Facing Better
  • Age: Any age, so long as the child is within the height and weight limits for their rear-facing car seat

  • Weight: Depends on the car seat, but most convertible seats have rear-facing weight limits of 40 to 50 pounds

  • Height: Depends on the car seat, but most convertible seats have rear-facing height limits that require the child's head to be at least 1 inch below the top (the child's legs touching the vehicle seat back is not an indication that they are too tall)

Forward-Facing Allowed
  • Age: Depends on state law and the car seat your child will be using

  • Weight: Depends on state law and the car seat your child will be using

  • Height: Depends on state law and the car seat your child will be using

Why Rear-Facing?

Car seats are designed to absorb some crash forces and spread the remaining crash forces over a larger area of the body. For adults, seat belts distribute force to the strongest parts of the body—the hips, chest bone, and collarbone. When forward-facing, the head pulls forward, which puts stress on the neck. When rear-facing, the head, neck, and back all move in unison and are cradled by the shell of the rear-facing car seat. This video helps explain.

The bones running down a young child's neck and back are not yet solid bone (they still have a lot of stretchy cartilage). A young child's head is also much heavier, in proportion to the body, than that of an older child or adult. So the head pulls forward with proportionately much more force on bones that are stretchier. As the bones stretch, they can force the spinal cord to stretch. After it is stretched more than one-quarter of an inch, the spinal cord breaks. Riding in a rear-facing car seat helps reduce that risk by supporting the child's head.

The incidence of severe head and neck injuries for babies and toddlers is greatly reduced in rear-facing car seats.

The additional support the rear-facing car seat provides to the head and neck reduces your child's chance of being injured or worse in a crash. The rear-facing car seat is absorbing some of the energy of the crash, and then distributing the remaining energy along the child’s head, neck and back. With the forward-facing child, the car seat isn't able to absorb as much of the energy, and more of it is transferred to the child—in particular to the head and neck as they pull away from the chest. The difference can be seen in a video comparing rear-facing and forward-facing car seats in a crash test.

My Child Wants to Be Forward-Facing!

Even if your child's legs are touching the seat back, or they cry when rear-facing, you should still keep your child rear-facing until they reach the rear-facing weight or height limit of the car seat. Most convertible car seats have rear-facing weight limits of 35 to 50 pounds, so most kids can ride rear-facing until age three to five. Some children never like sitting in a car seat, and they may cry. However, being properly restrained makes it more likely that a child will survive a crash to cry another day.

Many parents worry that their child will suffer broken legs or hips in a crash because the child's legs touch the seat back or look cramped when rear-facing. In fact, there are more leg injuries when forward-facing, as the legs fly up and the feet go into the back of the front seat. As everything moves forward, compression forces into the hip and femur can break the leg of the forward-facing child.

Studies of real kids in real crashes shows that leg and hip injuries in rear-facing kids are very uncommon. When they do happen, it is in side impacts where another vehicle hits the child right where their leg is, breaking the leg. Rear-facing kids do not get hip or leg injuries from being scrunched up. In fact, during the instant of the crash, rear-facing kids become even more scrunched, with their legs pulling up into a cannonball position. This is not a cause of injury.

Kids often fuss because they are strapped in, not because they are rear-facing. To reduce fussiness in a rear-facing child:

  • If your child can sit upright unsupported, sit the car seat more upright (if the car seat allows) to give the child a better view out the window.
  • Remove the vehicle head restraint to allow the rear-facing child a better view out the window.
  • Use music to help entertain and calm the child.
  • Use toys that are safe for travel to distract and entertain the child.

Car Seats for a One-Year-Old

When babies turn one, many parents think about moving past the rear-facing only infant car seat with the carrier handle. There are lots of options if you need a new car seat for a one-year-old! Remember, advocates recommend that toddlers and preschoolers ride rear-facing until reaching the maximum weight or height for rear-facing in their convertible car seat, which for most kids is between three and five years of age. So you'll want to find a car seat that can work both rear-facing and forward-facing. Look for a convertible car seat with a high rear-facing weight limit and tall shell, and then use it rear-facing as long as possible.

Several car seats today have rear-facing weight limits up to 50 pounds, which should accommodate almost every child through age 5 (unless they reach the maximum rear-facing height for the seat). You should check the manufacturer's rear-facing height limit to be sure your child is not too tall to safely stay rear-facing to the weight limit.

Most children should be able to remain rear-facing far beyond age 2.

Why would you want to keep your child rear-facing? Crash data shows us that anybody is safer in a crash when riding rear-facing for the reasons outlined above. Young children are better protected in a rear-facing car seat because that seat distributes the force of a crash over a greater body area and gives better support to young heads and necks.

A Word From Verywell

A rear-facing car seat offers the best protection for babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and even young school-age kids and should be properly used for as long as possible, to the limits of the car seat. Keeping your child rear-facing to the limit of the seat is the safest choice. You can check your car seat instruction book or the labels on the car seat sides to find the rear-facing weight and height limits.

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Article Sources
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