When Can My Baby Face Forward in Their Car Seat?

Mother buckling her baby into a car seat.

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Bringing your newborn home from the hospital is an incredible feeling—but putting them in a car seat for the first time? Talk about nerve-racking! Are the straps tight enough? Is the harness adjusted correctly? Should I drive with sloth-like speed?

Car seat safety becomes a top priority the second your baby exits those hospital doors. Rear-facing is a given for infants, but when it comes to toddlers, you might be wondering if you can switch them to a forward-facing seat. The answer depends on different factors, including the child's height and weight.

Here, we'll take a look at when it is considered safe for your baby to face forward in the car seat, why it's important not to make the switch too soon, and any safety precautions you should keep in mind.

When Is It Safe For My Baby to Face Forward in Their Car Seat?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all infants ride rear-facing as long as possible until they reach the highest weight or height limit allowed by their car seat manufacturer. Most convertible seats have limits that will allow children to ride rear-facing for 2 years or more.

Car Seat Guidelines

  • Rear-facing-only car seats: Used for infants up to 22 to 35 pounds and 26 to 35 inches, depending on which model you choose.
  • Convertible car seats: Have higher weight limits for rear-facing (up to 40 or 50 pounds) and then can be converted to forward-facing.
  • All-in-one car seats: Can be used rear-facing (up to 40 or 50 pounds), forward-facing, or as a belt-positioning booster. 

Age aside, make sure you're not switching to a forward-facing car seat for the wrong reasons. A child outgrowing their rear-facing-only car seat does not mean their rear-facing days are over! There are many convertible seats on the market you can switch to that allow your child to remain rear-facing up to 40 or 50 pounds.

"Rear-facing is the safest way to have your child ride in a car, which is why your 2, 3, 4, or even 5-year-old should be rear-facing," explains Florencia Segura, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician at Einstein Pediatrics in Vienna, Virginia.

Along these lines, many parents will also decide to switch to forward-facing if their child's feet are touching the back seat. "Leg length does not affect long a child can stay rear-facing, even though parents are inclined to switch them to forward-facing if their legs look scrunched," says Dr. Segura.

Dr. Garbi adds, "This is not a great concern from a safety perspective, and usually they can get comfortable because they are so flexible."

If you are feeling overwhelmed about which car seat to choose (there are a lot on the market!), always talk to your pediatrician. They can help you determine which type of car seat is best suited for your child's safety.

Every baby is different. Be sure to consult with a pediatrician if you have any questions about rear-facing or forward-facing car seats.

Why Your Baby Should Not Sit Forward-Facing Too Soon

Lyndsey Garbi, MD, the chief of pediatrics of the telehealth platform Blueberry Pediatrics and a member of the Verywell Family review board, stresses that rear-facing car seats better protect young children, especially those two and under, from severe injuries.

Dr. Segura agrees, adding, "[Studies] consistently demonstrate fewer injuries to all body parts, including the head and spine, when kids ride rear-facing compared to forward-facing." 

Increased Risk of Severe Injuries

One of the most recent studies on car seat safety, published in SAE International in 2018, found that rear-facing car seats can significantly reduce infant and toddler fatalities and injuries in frontal, side-impact, and rear-impact crashes. Since rear-impact collisions account for more than 25 percent of all accidents, the study's goal was to determine whether children were truly safer even when facing the direction of the crash.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), rear-end collisions make up about 29 percent of all traffic accidents that result in injury.

The researchers and engineers, who conducted the study at Ohio State College of Medicine’s Injury Biomechanics Research Center, discovered that even when rear-facing, children were safer from severe injuries during a rear-end collision. Rear-facing car seats support the child’s head, neck, and spine while absorbing crash forces and keeping vulnerable body parts well-protected.

Children Are Built Differently

Dr. Segura points out that children are not just little adults. "Their bodies are differently proportioned and structured, and this difference affects their ability to tolerate the whiplash motion."

The reason, she explains, is because a baby's head makes up 25 percent of their body, whereas an adult's head only makes up 6 percent. "A rear-facing baby, instead of pulling forward with four times as much force as an adult's, will slide gently up into the back of [their] car seat," she adds.

Risk of Spinal and Neck Injuries

According to Dr. Garbi, rear-facing car seats are especially effective at protecting the spine, which reduces neck and spinal injuries. Moreover, when a child sits rear-facing, their head, neck, and torso all move together in a straight line, helping them avoid the whiplash motion.

In contrast, when a child is prematurely facing forward during a crash, their disproportionately large head is thrown forward, potentially causing severe injuries to the neck or spine.

Safety Precautions

When it comes to turning your child's car seat forward-facing, there are some important safety precautions to keep in mind.

Make Sure the Car Seat is Properly Installed

When putting your child into a forward-facing car seat, make doubly sure they are strapped in properly. Dr. Garbi explains you should pay attention to the most important safety features, including ensuring it is tightly bound into the car, the straps are tight on their shoulders, and buckles and clips are in the correct places.

Most importantly, for forward-facing seats, always make sure you are securing the tether. The tether is a strap that secures the top of the car seat to an anchor in the back of the car. When the top of the seat is more secure, it decreases how far a child's head is thrown forward during a collision by up to eight inches.

Never Allow a Child to Sit Up Front

Until age 13, all children should sit in the proper car seat in the back seat, even if they are forward-facing or in a booster seat. Because passenger seat airbags were designed for adults, they pose a great risk to small children. The amount of force from a deploying airbag (around 200 miles per hour) can cause significant injuries to the head and neck.

The Middle of the Back Seat is Safest

If possible, children should sit in the back middle seat to help reduce the risk of direct impact from a collision. A study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that the center spot in the back seat is 43% safer than the side. If you have more than one child and one is rear-facing, the forward-facing child should be in the middle since they are less protected.

A Word From Verywell

It can be tempting to switch your baby or toddler to a forward-facing car seat early on, but the safest position for them to be in is rear-facing. Keeping them rear-facing until they've reached the maximum height and weight requirements reduces the risk of serious injuries, including those to the spine, head, and neck.

As any parent can attest, a child's safety is a top priority, and turning their car seat forward at the appropriate time is a crucial part of it. Of course, always speak to your pediatrician if you have any questions about car seat safety. They can help you determine the best option for your child to give you both some much-needed peace of mind while driving!

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7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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