Looking back – What’s the deal with Rear facing?

We’ve gotten many requests for an article detailing the benefits of keeping your child in a rear facing car seat for as long as possible.

Let’s start with when you may have first heard of this in the news:

A lot of attention was brought to rear facing last year when the American Association of Pediatrics changed their recommendations to say that they recommend all children should remain rear facing til at least 2 years old.

Does that mean that the law has changed?

Many people have interpreted this to mean that the law had changed.  It hasn’t.  In Canada, laws are set from province to province.  However, all provinces (and most territories) have laws that include correct use, and all new seats insist that a child be 1 year old, 22lbs AND walking unassisted before they can turn forward facing.

This child is 14 months old, 26lbs and not only walking but running. Actually, he appears to be making a run for it!

This means that it is legal for a 12 months old, 22lbs, walking baby to ride forward facing in the car.  Which brings us to our next question…

When is it safe for me to turn my child’s seat forward facing?

The answer to that is more complicated then it would seem.  In part, 12 months was chosen for a reason.  It is absolutely safer to ride forward facing at 12 months then it is at 8 months or 10 months,  However, US data has shown that a toddler is up to 75% less likely to suffer from severe injury and death when riding rear facing until the age of two.  This data was responsible for the increased recommendation last year by the American Association of Pediatrics.

The big question of course is why is rear facing so much safer?

What’s the science behind this?  The majority of severe crashes are front impact.  In a collision, everything in the car is thrown towards the point of impact, including arms, legs and heads.  A rear facing child, by contrast, is instead caught and cushioned by their seat, protecting their spine and head.  No pressure is put on the child’s neck and often they escape even severe crashes with no injury at all.  By contrast, a forward facing child is instead thrown forward and their heavy head pulls on their neck.  In extreme circumstances this can lead to a phenomenon called ‘internal decapitation’.

Joel’s Journey – the story of a boy who suffered from severe injuries in a crash.

So should I turn my child forward facing at 2 years old?

Swedish data, which goes back to the 1960’s, has shown that the benefits of rear facing continue past the age of 4.  The Swedes have been rear facing older children for many years now, and public awareness is so common that even without laws, the majority of parents leave their children rear facing until they are ready to move to a booster, skipping the forward facing harness stage all together.  In Sweden, rear facing past the toddler years is made easier because there are many larger seats on the market that offer more legroom and can take a child up to 55lbs.

Swedish Style Rear Facing seat

So when is it safe for my child ride forward facing?

Well, for starters, toddlers have big heads, compared to the rest of their bodies.  Older kids, (starting at about 3 or 4) have heads that are more in proportion to their bodies.  This means that when riding forward facing, that there is less ‘pull’ on their heads in a sudden stop.  In addition, their bones are stronger, and they are better able to take the force of the crash, as distributed by the 5 point harness.

But what about their legs?

Many people worry about a rear facing child’s legs.  Relatives and friends can be horrified – “what about their legs?!?” is something we hear often.  The question is two fold: people worry that their child’s legs are not comfortable and that they are not safe.  First, children are incredibly flexible.  The majority of children curl up in bed, while they play, even while sitting on a kitchen chair.  Being curled up in a car seat is no different. Children sit cross legged, stick their legs strait up or kick them over the sides of their seat. Some older children will even complain when finally turned forward facing because they don’t like the feeling when their legs dangle and go to sleep.

He looks terribly uncomfortable.

Children’s legs are also safer while rear facing.  There have been many reports of broken legs from forward facing seats because their legs fly forward in a crash and strike the vehicle interior.  There are few reports of an injury to a child’s legs while rear facing, and none of them can be directly attributed to the direction the child was facing.  The more important point is that even if children’s legs WERE being broken while rear facing, it doesn’t change the fact that we are trying to protect their necks.  Legs are a lot easier to fix than necks.  There is a catch phrase among techs – ‘Broken leg, cast it; broken neck, casket’.

What would happen if you got rear ended?

Other people will comment on how a rear facing child is at risk during a rear impact collision.  This is also not true.   Since most crashes are frontal impact, the majority of the force is being thrown towards the front.  In order to duplicate this force backwards, both cars would have to be reversing at high speed.  Most reversing crashes happen in parking lots, and the speeds (and the risks)  just aren’t the same.

An amazing story of why rear facing is so important, even in a rear ending

Rear facing also offers excellent protection during side impact crashes.  Again, because the majority of cars are moving forward, side impact forces happen at an angle.  Rear facing children are thrown into the corner of their seat, with their head and torso staying contained inside the shell.  By contrast, a forward facing child’s limbs and head both are thrown outwards towards the point of impact possibly striking the vehicle interior and putting stress on the child’s neck.

The dummy shows how the limbs and head are thrown forward in a crash.

Is there ever a time when forward facing is safer than rear facing?

Rear facing becomes unsafe is when the car seat is being used incorrectly.  This means that you must respect the weight limits, height guidelines and installation methods of your car seat.
Okay, I understand that I should keep my child rear facing for as long as possible – How exactly should I do that?

Set proper expectations.
It helps to know you will be rear facing for several years so you can plan accordingly. This means that you can set the proper expectation with friends and relatives from the start, and avoid the questions and confusion down the road.

It really helps to buy the right seat.
This means buying an infant/child (convertible) seat after your child has outgrown their infant seat.  (Or, depending on the seat – skipping the infant seat all together if you choose – more on that another day.)

When shopping for an infant/child seat, look for one that has a nice high rear facing weight limit and a tall shell.  This will help to keep your child rear facing for longer, eliminating the possibility of having to buy another seat down the road, or the need to turn the child forward facing earlier than you had intended.

It also helps to buy a seat with tall top harness slots so that when you do turn your child forward facing, they will fit in the seat until they are really ready to move to a booster seat.
(More on that in another blog post)

The Graco MyRide 65 will get most children to a safe booster age.

You can make rear facing more comfortable for you and your child.
It also helps to know that once children have good head control they can be put at a more upright angle – 30* from vertical for most seats.  This more upright angle not only gives you more space for the driver and passenger, it is also safer for your growing child.  Newborns need the 45* angle because when their heads tilt forward it can close their airways, not because a car seat is necessarily safer that way.

If you have a smaller vehicle and don’t think a larger seat will fit in your vehicle, remember that most infant/child seats actually take up less room than an infant seat.  If once you install the seat if it is bumping up against the front seats, try the seat in the centre.  Some narrower seats will fit better this way, so that the top of the seat comes out between the driver and passenger seats almost overlapping the front seats.  (remember that you will probably need to install with the seat belt in the centre as most vehicles do not allow UAS in the centre seating position.)

A 6lbs newborn in the First Years True Fit

Think about buying a seat for each vehicle your child rides in regularly.
Moving a rear facing infant/child seat can be time consuming and frustrating if you have to do it often.

Plan how you will get your child into the car.
Older children can climb in themselves.  This can be very motivating for some kids!  In messy spring and winter weather, you may prefer to carry your child so that their shoes stay dry.  Alternatively, some parents remove shoes before the child sits down all the way.  This can also be more comfortable on longer drives.

Don’t worry that your child will want to turn around.
Many children are able to flip back and forth in different vehicles and never have a problem.  Also, for many children, it would never occur to them that they could ride in a different way then the one they are presented with.

Even if your child does start to protest rear facing, think about it.  Are they protesting rear facing? or are they objecting to being confined?  Many young toddlers hate to be strapped down, no matter which direction the seat is facing.  And this this safety decision shouldn’t be any different from any other.  If your child wanted to play in the road, or with a sharp knife you would not allow it, no matter how much they fussed .  This is a safety decision and one that is not theirs to make.

Rear facing with the whole family!

With a little forethought and planning, rear facing your child through the toddler years and beyond can be no big deal, and knowing that your child is 75% safer should keep you both smiling.

About Atlantic Car Seat Safety

We are two Children's Restraint Systems Technicians who live in the Halifax area and volunteer through the IWK's Child Safety Link. We aim to answer questions and provide support as well as posting recalls, updates, reviews and how-tos.
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12 Responses to Looking back – What’s the deal with Rear facing?

  1. love this!!! great article!! REAR FACING IS SAFEST!!

  2. rachel humphrey says:

    I agree with why its safer but I don’t agree its a good idea to do. The only thing they bring up about long legs rear facing it broken legs but what about broken faces from knees? Though I still say, Our children would be safest staying at home so why don’t we just pass a suggestion to keep our children home. They may be stipid from lack of education but saving from the chance of breaking a neck from the one accident they could be in in 20yrs is most important, more than education….

    • Hi Rachel,

      There have been no reports of broken faces caused from rear facing. It is actually safer to stay at home or take public transit. However in many areas of North America, it’s not possible to do all the time. For those who must make the choice, rear facing is always the safest option for children who still fit in their seats that way. We do encourage you to keep your children rear facing for as long as possible. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Anne says:

    A small correction- there are reports of broken legs rear-facing. However, there are no verifiable reports of broken legs CAUSED BY rear-facing, by the way the child moved while restrained in the seat in that orientation- and the crash circumstances in these instances were such that if the child had been forward-facing, death would almost certainly have occurred (intrusion into the vehicle by a tree branch where the legs were located, etc. have caused these injuries. Had the head been there, a broken head would have resulted rather than broken legs.)

    Broken limbs are among the most common of forward-facing injuries, and rear-facing is very protective of limbs as well as spines and heads!

  4. lourdes says:

    how can i send this to my email?

  5. Laura Swanson says:

    Do you need to purchase a “special” car seat for REAR-Facing? Or can most seats be faced to the rear? I’m having a hard time finding this information out and all the information on the seats we have (bought new about 4 years ago) say nothing about facing forward or rear, but show pictures of seatbelt placement for forward facing.

  6. we bought two britax blvds for our daughter (one in each car, cuz youre right…taking them out is a huge pain!) and never once regretted the choice. We appreciated that the seat is designed for extended rearfacing,it has a base that features SafeCells designed to compress in a crash, significantly lowering the center of gravity and counteracting the forward rotation of the child seat which normally propels the child toward the front seat, Integrated Steel Bars that strengthen the connection to the vehicle and reduce forward flexing of the child seat during a crash, and an Energy-Absorbing Versa-Tether that features a staged-release tether webbing to slow the forward movement, reducing the crash forces reaching the child, and a two-point attachment to minimize forward rotation while anchoring the top of the child seat.

    When you compare this to the lower-end brands, its a wonder how anyone would even consider buying a lower-end car seat.

    • Interestingly enough, most of the features you are talking about are solely available on Britax seats. This means that you are taking Britax’s word that they help. We don’t know – they don’t release their crash data. The things we know help a child in a crash are staying rear facing as long as possible, sitting in a seat which is appropriate to their age, height, weight and development and which is used correctly every time. Other ‘lower end’ seat have other ways of dealing with crash forces.

      Check out our article ‘Bursting the Britax Bubble’ for more information.

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