Keeping Your Baby in a Rear-Facing Car Seat

Rear facing car seat standards

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Many parents ask how long their baby should stay in a rear-facing car seat. Actually, there's not an exact timeline! The rule of thumb now is that babies should be in rear-facing car seats for as long as possible, to the height and weight limits of the car seat.

Riding rear-facing until at least age 2, and then beyond if possible, has big safety advantages that parents should strongly consider. Turning baby's 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 2011-2018, the recommendation was to keep babies rear-facing until they were at least two-years-old and weighed 20 pounds. 

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 3 to 5 years old, depending on the seat and the child’s growth. One-quarter of states in the U.S. have updated their child passenger safety laws to require rear-facing seats until age 2.

Lots of states still have laws that say your baby must be one year old to ride in a forward-facing car seat, and plenty of car seats also use that minimum standard. 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few years out from having newborns and toddlers, though, it's possible, and even likely, that their car seat advice is outdated.

One-quarter of states in the U.S. have updated their child passenger safety laws to require rear-facing seats until age 2.

Forward-Facing Allowed

  • Age: Depends on state law and the car seat your child will be using; varies from 1 to 2 years of age

  • Weight: Depends on state law and the car seat your child will be using; varies from 20 to 25 pounds

  • Height: depends on the car seat your child will be using

Rear-Facing Better

  • Until child reaches the max height OR weight (whichever comes first) for their convertible seat

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 and shoulders. Infants don't have many body parts that are strong enough to withstand crash forces, so the rear-facing car seat distributes the crash forces along the entire back, neck, and head, putting less stress on any one part of the body. The infant's head, which is large and heavy for a still delicate neck to support, is also better supported with a rear-facing car seat. This video helps explain.

Since a baby's bones aren't completed hardened and ligaments are lax, young children are at a greater risk for spinal cord injuries compared to older children and adults. 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 plus the way a rear-facing car seat moves in a crash gives your child the best chance of survival and less chance of injury in a crash.T he 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 Baby Wants to Be Forward-Facing!

Even if your baby's legs are touching the seat back, or the baby cries when rear-facing, you should still keep baby rear-facing until he or she reaches the rear-facing weight or height limit of the car seat. Most convertible car seats have rear-facing weight limits of 35 to 40 pounds, so you should be able to keep your toddler rear-facing to age 2, if not longer. Some children never like sitting in a car seat, and they may cry. However, being properly restrained makes it more likely that a baby or toddler will survive a crash to cry another day.

Many parents worry that their baby will suffer broken legs in a crash because the baby'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. Leg injuries to rear-facing kids are typically from another vehicle hitting the child’s leg. It doesn’t matter what direction the child is facing, since if another vehicle hits the leg it is likely to break.

It's also important to remember that in a crash severe enough to break baby's legs, there would also be enough force to cause severe neck injuries if your baby or toddler was forward-facing. While it's never fun to choose between injuries, the chance of full recovery is greater for broken legs than broken necks.

Similarly, if your baby fusses while in a rear-facing car seat, it may seem easy to turn baby around to keep him or her happy. Again, though, you're choosing between a fussing baby or the chance of severe head, neck and spine injuries.

Car Seats for a 1-Year-Old

When babies turn 1, 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 1-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 3 and 5 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 toddlers 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. Even though your baby's neck may now be strong enough to withstand some types of forward-facing crash forces, he or she is still better protected in a rear-facing car seat because that seat still distributes the force over a greater body area and still gives better support to their young head and neck.

The Bottom Line

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.

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

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Article Sources
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