How long must my child use a rear-facing car seat?

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A question many parents ask is when their baby can move out of a rear-facing car seat. Many families see this as another exciting milestone in a little one’s journey. The answer is one that parents are often resistant to hearing: your child should be rear facing for as long as possible, ideally until at least the age of four years.

Crash dynamics

In a car crash, the body takes on the weight of the speed you were travelling multiplied by your actual weight. As an adult, the seat belt catches your body at the strongest points of your body… across your hips, rib cage and shoulder.

The seat belt catches you and pulls you back into your seat, and your head snaps backwards and forwards with massive force, resulting in whiplash. Whiplash can be severe and have long-term effects on some. But most often the adult spinal column protects the spinal cord and the result is intense neck and shoulder pain that heals on its own.

Scientifically, rear-facing your child provides their developing body with a lot more protection than forward-facing in a crash.

But a child is not just a miniature adult. Look at a photo of your baby. What makes them look so over-the-top adorable is the size of their head. A small child’s head makes up 25% of their body weight. Their skeleton is still developing, largely made up of cartilage, with particular weakness in the neck. This is why rear-facing is so important.

A child in a forward-facing car seat is going to have massive forces throwing their overly large, heavy head forward with only the delicate spinal column and undeveloped neck to support it. Rear-facing car seats distribute the crash force evenly across the larger area of the back and solid head.

“Scientifically, rear facing your child provides their developing body with a lot more protection than forward facing in a crash.”

Addressing rear-facing concerns and questions

  • My baby hates facing backwards

Your baby doesn’t know any different. Often little ones who have begun to sit up unassisted and engage more with the world start to resist going into the car seat. This has little to do with the direction of travel and more to do with the need for more stimulation. At around six months of age, once they can sit for extended periods of time unassisted, you can move your baby from their infant seat into a rear-facing toddler seat. The toddler seats tend to be positioned higher up in the car, allowing your little one to see out the side windows easily.

  • I want to see my child for safety reasons

I recently had to move my daughter from her rear-facing seat to full-back seat belt positioning booster seats. Having her forward-facing makes it more difficult to keep an eye on her. There are special safety glass mirrors you can buy at baby stores that attach to the vehicle headrest and align with your rear-view mirror. This way your baby can see your eyes at all times and you can glance at baby every time you check your mirror, without taking your eyes off the road. Having to turn my head every time my daughter asks a question from the back or crane my neck to see her in the rear-view mirror now is exhausting and distracting!

  • Where do they put their legs when rear-facing?

Have you ever seen how a toddler sits? I don’t think I’ve ever seen my five-year-old sitting with her legs straight down. Keep in mind that children are very flexible and don’t feel any discomfort folding, bending, extending or randomly “pretzel-ing” themselves. It’s also better for the development of a child’s hips and spine to not sit with their legs hanging forward.

  • Aren’t their legs at risk of being broken in a crash?

There are no known cases of a rear-facing child breaking their legs. It is, however, quite a common injury in forward-facing car crash victims.

  • What if a car hits us from behind?

The best explanation I have come across is from the website Rear Facing Toddlers.  “In a rear-end collision, both vehicles are moving in the same direction, which throws the car that is hit from behind, forward. This means that the forces of the crash are far lower than they are in a frontal impact where the vehicle comes to a sudden halt. In a rear-facing seat, the child’s vulnerable head is positioned towards the centre of the vehicle, away from the point of impact. So rear-facing is safer in all types of crashes. The only time rear-facing would have the same effect as forward-facing would be if you were to reverse into something at high speed, and that is extremely unlikely.”

  • I’ve heard that rear-facing car seats don’t fit in all cars

This is true. In fact, it is true of all car seats, forward or rear-facing. The angle of your vehicle seat, whether you have Isofix or not, whether you have top tether points or not, how deep the vehicle seats are, the size of the footwell area, and how tall the people in front are, all affect the fit of the seat in your car. And it has to be a solid installation or the seat cannot protect your child. Ask the experts on the #CarseatFullstop Facebook group to assist.

  • Rear-facing car seats are so expensive!

Many of the European imported and tested car seats are relatively expensive. There are a multitude of reasons for those costs. The good news is that as the research gets more compelling on the safety of rear-facing car seats, and the countries begin making it illegal to forward face a child under two years of age, there are more options of rear-facing toddler seats appearing on the South African market daily – including affordable seats.

Keep your children rear-facing for as long as you can, whether to 18kg or 25kg. The further their development, the safer they’ll be when you have to turn them.

Also read:

How to choose the best child car seat
Car safety for pregnant drivers