3 years old and still happy rear facing!
The reason behind keeping children rear-facing as long as possible, is to allow the seat to absorb the impact from a crash instead of their neck/spine. This is even more important for small children because their heads are huge in comparison to their bodies, and until the vertebrae begin to fuse (between ages 3-6), the spine can stretch farther than the spinal cord can. If an adult gets whiplash from a crash, imagine what would happen if our head weighed 50lbs, which comparable to how a toddler’s head/body is proportioned.
The question I hear the most is, “what about their legs?” Children find it perfectly comfortable to either cross their legs or hang them over the sides. Leg injuries while rear-facing are almost unheard of, but if they happen, they are easier to fix then neck injuries. A favorite quote of mine is Broken legs: cast it, broken neck: casket. Broken legs are a common injury in children in forward-facing seats, as their legs often impact the seat in front of them during a collision.
Your child is safest staying rear-facing until they reach the maximum weight or height limit of the seat - whichever comes first. When rear-facing, the general rule for height is that there needs to be at least 1 inch of hard shell above the child’s head. As always, check your manual to be sure. Lastly, the harness should be at or below the child’s shoulders when rear-facing.
Once your child is turned forward-facing, keeping your child harnessed as long as possible in a 5-point harness is key. The 5-point harness will evenly distribute the forces of a crash over the child’s entire body, compared to a seatbelt having only 3-points of contact. Look for a car seat that can keep your child harnessed until at least 50lbs. These seats have significantly taller top slots than seats that only harness to 40lbs, as 40lb seats are most often outgrown by height well before 40lbs. A forward-facing seat is outgrown when either the child reaches the maximum weight limit, or when their shoulders are above the top slots.
GMA: 5 point harness/booster
Rear facing/Forward facing
Rear facing/Forward facing: A grandfather’s story
Part 1 / Part 3 / Part 4