When you’re leafing through baby car seats buying guides, you’re constantly nagged about the importance of using rear-facing car seats until the child reaches at least two years of age. Is that really important? If convertible car seats that face forward have passed all the safety standards tests, why is it not so safe for one-year olds?
All explanations begin, naturally, with an anatomy lesson. We know that during the first three years of life, the body of a child is very fragile, as some parts are still under development: bones aren’t so tough, cartilages are not strong, and the body as a whole is less resistant than later in childhood. In these conditions, sudden movements or even small forces applied on the body can lead to injuries.
In frontal crashes, the objects and bodies in the car are going to keep moving forward at the same speed the car had in the moment it hit an obstacle. This movement is finally stopped with the help of seat belts, and for car seats, the harness that holds the body. However, the harness only holds the torso. There is nothing that holds the head from moving. While for adults the strength of the neck usually manages to do minimize this movement, young children end up with extremely serious neck and spinal cord injuries.
Rear-facing travel car seats place the baby with it’s face towards the seat of the car, and with the back of the head rested against the cushioning of the seat. The inertial force that in forward-facing practically throws the head forward will now push the baby’s head more into the head support.
In side crashes, although there isn’t really a theoretical argument to demonstrate why a rear facing car seat is safer, the number of deaths and injuries that occurred when the baby was facing forward exceeds by far the number of the same category of injuries occurs in rear-facing position.
Aside from the greater safety advantage, rear-facing car seats, also known as infant car seats are lighter, portable and easier to snap in and out of their base. A convertible usually has to be installed in the car, making it more difficult to put in and out. Also, because they have higher weight and height limits, they are heavier and occupy much more space.
In the end, whether you have an infant car seat or a convertible model, the important thing remains that you keep your baby rear-facing as long as you can.