Who’s the Safest Passenger in the Vehicle? Keep Your Baby Rear-Facing as Long as Possible!

Parents often ask child safety seat experts what is the safest seat for their baby. Truth be told, for an infant or young child, it is not the brand of seat they purchase, but the direction they face the seat in their vehicle that will save their child’s life. Since 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has been recommending that children stay rear-facing until age 2 or to the limit of the seat for the best crash protection. The reasoning behind this recommendation is that rear-facing car seats support the head, neck and spine of infants and toddlers, and distribute crash forces over the entire body rather than at the harnesses. So why do children need the extra protection of the rear-facing seat? The main reason is that the neck and spine of an infant or young child are not fully developed and need extra protection. A small child’s head is a larger proportion of their body weight than it is for an adult — 25 percent for a child compared to about six percent for an adult. That extra weight needs a strong neck and spine to help support it during a crash when the head can be violently snapped forward causing a spinal injury, which can lead to paralysis or death.

Unfortunately, for many parents, age one is often considered as a milestone, which means time to turn your baby forward-facing. However, this has always represented the bare minimum — at least 1-years-old and 20 pounds. But this bare minimum is not best practice and will not keep a baby from suffering a broken neck or spinal injury in a crash. One of the main reasons parents turn their child forward-facing is that they are concerned that their child is unhappy and uncomfortable staying in a rear-facing position because their legs touch the back of the seat. It is important to know that children’s joints are not fully formed until they are older. Sitting cross-legged is not uncomfortable for a small child.

It is also important to note that as a child progresses to the next step of a child safety seat they are actually being demoted in terms of the safety provided by that seat. Children should stay in the rear-facing infant seat until they outgrow the weight and height limit of that seat, and then move to a rear-facing convertible seat until they reach the rear-facing size limit of that seat. For most convertibles, the weight limit is 40 pounds, but now there are some seats that go as high as 50 pounds for rear-facing, which could keep an average 4-year-old rear-facing. The rear-facing child will be the safest passenger in the vehicle.

The AAP recommends that parents not be too quick to transition children to the next step, but instead to keep children in seats with harnesses as long as possible to the limit of the seat. Often times, parents move a child to a booster seat too soon. Children should be at least 4-years-old, 40 pounds, and mature enough to sit still for the entire trip before being put in a booster seat.

For a car seat to do its job right, it has to be appropriate for your child’s age, size, developmental stage, and adjusted to fit your child securely and be installed properly in your vehicle. Unfortunately, most car seats are not used correctly. The best way to make sure your child is protected is to have a free inspection by a certified child passenger safety technician in your area.

That’s why the Texas AgriLife Extension Service Passenger Safety Project and Leticia Hardy, County Community Health Educator in Fort Bend County is urging all parents and caregivers to get a free car seat inspection by a certified technician. Visit: http://buckleup.tamu.edu to find a technician in your area. Technicians can provide hands-on advice and instruction to make sure your children are safe and riding in the proper seat for their age, weight, height, and developmental stage.

The Texas AgriLife Extension Service of Fort Bend County will be having a Child Seat Safety Seat Check up on May 29 and on June 20. Appointments are needed to attend and will be between 9 am and 11am and from 1 pm to 3 pm on each day. Your child must be present at the appointment and be a minimum of 4 years old and 40 lbs. There are a limited number of seats available and appointment times. Register for an appointment by contacting the Family & Community Health Department at 281-342-3034.

Best practice recommendations include:

  1. All infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing car seat until they are 2-years-old, or until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by the manufacturer of their child safety seat.
  2. Children who have outgrown the rear-facing weight or height limit for their car seat should use a forward-facing seat with a harness for as long as possible — up to the highest weight or height allowed by the manufacturer.
  3. All children whose weight or height is above the forward-facing limit for their car seat should use a belt-positioning booster seat until the vehicle lap-and-shoulder seat belt fits properly. Typically, this happens sometime between 8 and 12 years of age.
  4. When children are old enough and large enough to use the vehicle seat belt alone, they should always use lap-and-shoulder seat belts for optimal protection.
  5. Remember: All child passengers under age 13 should ride securely restrained in the back seat, where they are safest — every trip, every time.