Updated January 2020.
A quick run through of how to make sure your rear-facers are as safe as can be! Want to read in more detail?
1. Do it as long as you can. Really. Not the minimums. Who wants minimums when it comes to safety? And not just any old easily avoidable dangerous situation – but the most dangerous place your kids are every day…the CAR! The longer you can rear face for (2 years, 3 years, ideally as close to 4 as you can get) the better, as that’s most protective for the head, neck, and spine.
2. Research what will fit your car, and try before you buy. You can use a rear-facing only infant-style seat from birth (most common for sure) or you can skip straight to theconvertible seat (or 3-in-1 seat). Pros and cons to both and what you choose will depend on your lifestyle. But go into your purchase eyes open, knowing how the seat will fit your car long term. Imagine having other back seat passengers, such as visiting parents or future babies. Are you or a partner tall? Is your vehicle very small? Do you carpool? Have to reinstall frequently? Consider all of this. Do you make big babies? Having twins? Growth patterns matter, and not all seats start at the same minimum weight, and they certainly don’t all last as long by height, weight, and fit. You want everyone in the vehicle to be safe and comfortable, not eating the dash (and too close to the air bag) for years.
3. Rear-facing seats are outgrown by height OR by weight OR by some fit criteria, usually how much clearance there is above the head – whichever comes first. The seat that’s labelled to 40lbs rear-facing might have a relatively low height limit on it. The seat with the high height limit might have an overall shorter usage if your child has a long torso and a big noggin, maxing out the functional usage time by fit.
4. Use the rear-facing belt path with a rear-facing seat. Convertible seats (the type that later also install forward-facing) typically have one path to route the seat belt or UAS (LATCH) strap through when used rear-facing, and another totally separate one for forward-facing. Not okay to mix them up. The rear-facing belt path is under the child’s knees, whereas the forward-facing one is behind the lower back. Sometimes they’re hard to see, so poke around and make sure you’re threading the seat belt or UAS strap correctly. Then, make sure you have tightened the belt or strap so that the seat moves 1″ or less at the belt path in any direction. Give it a firm handshake – if it shifts more than that something isn’t right.
5. Leg room. Some seats have more than others, for sure. That is a comfort issue though, and not a safety issue. Legs touching the back seat — or scrunched up cross-legged, dangling over the sides, or sticking up into the air (or, ahem, poking the sister in the face) — is not a safety issue. Most crashes are frontal, where everything moves forward in a crash. This is the most common type of crash, and the most frequently fatal, so that’s the kind we plan for. Legs move too, away from the back seat. At the same time, handily enough, the head, neck, and spine are well-protected because they’re also moving forward, directly into the shell of the car seat. Well done, car seat. Protect that melon.
6. Strap positioning and tightness. When rear facing you want the harness to be coming from AT or BELOW the level of the shoulders. This is so if you’re in a crash the child will be held down in the seat. That tight harness will prevent the child from sliding up the shell of the seat. You want the child to stay in the seat, so the seat and its highly engineered parts can take the brunt of the crash, not your baby. How tight is tight enough? We like to do a pinch test to check, every time, and no bulky clothes.
7. Child preference for forward-facing. This is a reasonable consideration with a 4 year old. Probably also a 3 year old. But small children do not get to make their own safety decisions. Furthermore, if they don’t know any better, how can they prefer to forward-face? We don’t let young children dart into traffic, play with steak knives, or take the family car for a spin just because they want to. All kids go through phases of not wanting to be contained, of not wanting to cooperate (this phase does end some time, right!), and certainly those phases can be intensely frustrating. But stick it out, as long as you can!
8. Physics yo. There’s parental choice and then there’s physics. You know, force and mass and vectors and stuff. So many things in parenting is choice, with pros and cons to each. But the laws of physics are such that a big wobbly bobble-head perched atop an underdeveloped, weak little neck (it’s like an orange on a toothpick!) is absolutely best protected rear-facing. Having an opinion to the contrary doesn’t make that little body and brain safer in the car, because it’s not substantiated by anything. You can tell yourself that your baby is just as safe forward-facing but that doesn’t make it true.
9. Read the manual. Cover to cover, even if it seems like gibberish. It often does seem like it was written in a language you don’t understand, but there’s a ton of info in there. Even if it doesn’t make any sense it will give you a starting place to ask some questions. Also haul out your vehicle manual and read the child restraint section and the airbag section. Lots of good stuff there too. No matter what you read online, are told at playgroup, or by your doctor, the car seat and vehicle manuals have the final say. If you have questions, the manufacturers of those products are excellent resources. They want you to use their products correctly and safely.
10. Meet with a certified Technician. We’re quite friendly, and we like what we do. Even if you are 100% confident that your car seat is installed and used properly you might learn something useful for the next stage.