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Jeffrey Downs
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Child Safety: Toddlers Should Remain in Rear-Facing Car Seats until at Least 2 Years of Age

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Parents of newborn children certainly have their eye out for the next milestone in their child’s life. In kind, the excitement of taking your child out for a day at the park, to visit grandparents, or taking him or her to a friend’s house for a play date are all exciting and helpful in your child’s growth and socialization. It is important to always look out for hazards that can affect your child’s safety, and a parent should have a well thought out child safety action plan. As part of the plan, and when taking your child in a car to another destination and back, the American Academy of Pediatrics (“AAP”) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, have recently advised that parents should keep children in rear-facing car seats until at least age 2, or until the height or weight of your child exceeds the limitations found on the back of the car seat.

Car seats do keep children safe when used in accordance with safety guidelines and when appropriately secured to your car. Yet, so many parents in the excitement to mark that new milestone want to switch from rear-facing to forward -facing car seats before it is in the best interest of their child’s safety. While it is true that the AAP previously advised parents to keep children in rear-facing car seats as long as possible, within the maximum limit allowed by the seat, conventional wisdom was such that the one year mark also marked the switch from rear-facing to forward -facing car seats.

To optimize safety, your child will be safer staying in a rear-facing car seat as children under the age of 2 are substantially less likely to die or suffer catastrophic injury in an automobile accident when they are secure in a rear-facing car seat due to the superior support to the head, neck and spine. When the child is forward-facing the trunk of the child’s body and their shoulders are restrained by the harness straps, but their head and neck do not share the same support and can be forced forward in the unfortunate event of a car accident.

If your child does not reach the height or weight limit of the rear-facing car seat, keep the child rear-facing as long as possible. If your child reaches the height or weight limit before age 2, it is best to purchase a convertible car seat with a higher height or weight limit and keep the child rear-facing until they reach the limit of the new car seat. Parents will need to resist the urge to switch to forward-facing car seats even though it is easier to handle and more comfortable when watching your child from the rear-view mirror. The best child safety action plan places the safety of your child first and convenience and a parent’s preferences second. If you have specific questions as to what is best for your child consult the manufacturer’s recommendations of the car seat and your pediatrician.

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    More than comfort or convenience can be at stake in the choice to have your child face forward before the age of 2 (or 3, or 4). I’m a much more distracted driver when my daughter faces backward because she cries much more, despite efforts to provide her toys, food, or other distractions (and I admit that yes, sometimes I crane my arm over the top of her seat while driving to hand her these things). I’m less distracted now that I have her facing forward (16 months). This impacts her safety, mine, and the safety of all of you out there on the road with us! I’m trying to imagine a study that would measure the safety risk of a more distracted driver, assuming that other drivers, like me, are distracted when their child is rear-facing. If time spent in the car is controlled for, are drivers of forward-facing or rear-facing children more likely to be involved in accidents, especially serious ones? I’d like to know the answer because it would be another factor in the relative safety of forward versus rear facing. Still, I appreciate the article very much. Gonna walk to the grocery store later…still probably gonna face the 16-month-old forward for the next car ride…
    Frances