Updated December 2019.
The message to rear face a child well past the bare minimums seems to be getting out there into the world, the baby and parenting groups, and mainstream media, which is great. But did you know that current recommendations are to rear face for as long as possible to the limits of your convertible seat?
With many seats on the market now easily able to accommodate children to age three, four, or longer, many people wonder why. Isn’t it hard to do? Don’t kids get uncomfortable? This article will attempt to explain the significant safety benefits of rear facing your children, and how to accomplish it as smoothly as possible.
Legal bare minimums to forward face vary from province to territory but generally are somewhere in the neighbourhood of age 1 and 20 lbs. That minimum is ages behind what Transport Canada requires, which is itself ages behind the capacity now available on most convertible car seats.
Manufacturers may set additional limits as regarding age, weight, or developmental milestone before a child may ride forward-facing. A parent or caregiver must adhere to the strictest limits, which in almost every case, is the labelling on the seat itself.
When it comes to child safety, what parent wants the bare minimum? Regarding the most dangerous place kids are every day — the car — it IS possible to well-protect your children if you understand why current recommendations are what they are.
What we know: physics and research
Traffic safety data from the Sweden shows an amazingly low frequency of child fatalities in car crashes. However, it’s not easy to directly compare Swedish statistics to Canadian ones as the cars, roads, driving habits, drivers, types of car seats, and longevity of rear facing vary greatly, but the record is compelling.
US and Canadian data lacks real world data with real crashes with real kids to pinpoint an exact age at which a child is safe to ride forward facing. Roads are getting safer, and more caregivers are using seats correctly more often.
Some older studies suggested age two was the turning point, and for a long time that’s the number we saw thrown around. Those studies have been shown to have some methodological problems though…so we don’t really know what the magic age is. Given the availability of restraints today that can accommodate the average child rear facing to the age of four, and the increased awareness among caregivers to rear face for longer, we expect to see better crash outcomes.
The physics of rear versus forward facing are undeniably convincing. In a frontal impact (for which cars and car seats are designed as most crashes are frontal or frontal-offset), a rear-facing restraint spreads the crash forces across a child’s head, neck, shoulders, and back, cradled and protected by the shell of the car seat. The concept was developed in Sweden in the 1960s, with inspiration from the Gemini mission astronauts for their take-off and re-entry. In contrast, a forward-facing restraint holds back the body but not the head, and the weak neck and heavy head focus a great deal of force on the spinal cord.
This video illustrates the differences in how a child moves in frontal collision seated in a forward-facing restraint and a rear-facing restraint. Watch here: Rear vs foward facing comparison.
Babies have markedly different body proportions than adults, with a large and heavy head making up approximately 25% of their body weight. An adult male’s head comprises only about 6% of body weight. Swedish studies found that children are better protected if they ride rear facing up to an age and size when the size/weight of the head is proportionally less and the neck is much stronger, to at least age 3-4. If a child is faced forward too soon, a hideous injury referred to as internal decapitation can occur, where the bones and muscles stretch in a crash, but the spinal cord in the neck does not. It is as horrific as it sounds.
Transport Canada, the Child Passenger Safety Association of Canada, and child passenger safety advocates everywhere encourage parents to keep children rear facing until they outgrow their larger convertible car seat, and promote shopping for a convertible seat that will accommodate your child for as long as possible. For many children this is realistically to age four.
Parents often worry about their child’s legs at this age – what on earth do they do with them!? Won’t they break in a crash? Research indicates that injuries to the legs are uncommon in rear-facing children, with a greater frequency of injuries in forward-facing children. Remember that in a crash everything moves towards the point of impact, so in a frontal crash everything goes forwards, including legs. Rear-facing car seats are designed to best protect the head, neck, and spine; even if legs were injured in a crash, they’re much easier to fix than a head or spinal injury. Leg room varies greatly from car seat to car seat, so that is one factor to consider when shopping. Kids are much more flexible than adults, and can sit in ways where we would be very uncomfortable.
When transitioning from the infant seat (or shopping for a convertible seat right from the start look carefully at your child’s build: height, torso height, and weight. Average to small kids have plenty of options; tall and long-torsoed kids have fewer options for seats that will take them well past age two rear facing. Look at your child’s growth pattern on a growth chart to get a sense of how old they will be at a certain height, and then shop for a seat that has both a high standing height limit for rear facing AND a tall shell.
Try before you buy
Before you buy it absolutely try it in your vehicle, and install it. Try it in various seating positions, install with UAS and then try the seat belt (not both at the same time), and then try it forward-facing too.
The BEST car seat is the one that fits your child, your budget, your car, and that you will use correctly every single time. It does not need to be the most expensive one or the one with the prettiest cover. What does a bit of extra money get you? Read here.
All seats for sale in Canada pass the same crash tests, and it’s a pass/fail system. Most manufacturers don’t release their crash test data, so we don’t know how a particular seat performs beyond that it passes. It’s also important to remember that you don’t drive a test sled, your child is not a fibreglass dummy, and you don’t get to pick your crash!
The logistics of how to rear face a child beyond the minimums will be simple for some, and a barrier for others. Living in a cold or wet climate means dealing with boots. It’s easy and generally more comfortable for the child to remove them altogether while in the vehicle. Carrying a child out to the car and bringing boots with you minimizes mess (but don’t forget to bring them…oops, learned from experience!). Getting a seat protector for where your child’s feet rest helps keep upholstery clean, but a simple fix for captain’s chairs is to fit an old t-shirt over the seat, popping the head rest right through the neck hole. Easy to throw in the wash when it gets dirty.
Once kids are agile enough to do it they usually like to climb in themselves…writing this I am hearing “I do it MY SELF!” as my youngest would shriek if I tried to lift her in. Hoisting a heavy child up and into a seat can be challenging, but let them learn to scamper up and you’ll save your back (but quite possibly try your patience).
Once a child has excellent head control their seat, if it allows it, can be installed at a more upright angle. This means more room for driver and front passenger, and most older kids prefer a more upright angle. This is another factor to consider when shopping, and generally if you can fit an infant seat in your vehicle (that does require a very reclined angle to protect that newborn airway) you can fit a larger convertible seat installed more upright.
Dealing with complaints
Most children do go through a phase of complaining in the car seat, and don’t be tricked into thinking that forward facing them will solve the problem entirely. The novelty of it may distract them for a while, but often it’s a phase of independence, and not liking being restrained at all in any orientation.
It is a critical safety decision to keep them rear facing despite their protests and it’s not their decision to make — don’t mistake comfort for safety.
Parents make other safety choices for their kids all the time, despite their protests: No, you may not play with the sharp knife. No, you may not eat the whole bottle of vitamins. No, you may not run out into the street just because it looks fun. Sorry kid, not your decision. Try some new music, a car-seat-only soft toy, or something else that your child will respond positively to.
Have you already turned your child forward? It’s okay to turn them back. Make it fun and a novelty. Many kids aren’t bothered at all by the switch. Is your child outgrowing their convertible seat rear facing but you’re not ready to go forward facing yet? It’s okay to consider a higher capacity seat to rear face for longer, but if that’s not possible for you don’t feel guilty – you rear faced your child to the limit of their seat, which IS the recommendation.
Take home message
Rear face for as long as you can. Shop carefully for a convertible seat that will take you to your rear facing goals, and plan ahead so you can watch for a sale (we announce them every Friday on our Facebook page).
Read your car seat and vehicle manuals carefully. Need some install help? Check out our YouTube videos for some guidance, and after all of that it doesn’t hurt to meet with a tech for a check even if you think everything is perfect.
We’ve since written a follow-up article going into some technical details of rear facing, including elements not covered here. It was getting kind of long as it was!
Thank you to those who provided photos of rear facing kids of a range of ages and in a variety of seats!