Car Seat Safety

toddler girl sitting in carseat with a winter hat smiling at camera
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Here’s When You Can Safely Turn Your Toddler Forward-Facing In A Car Seat

Experts share guidelines on when to begin this important and fun milestone with your child.

Bless her heart, every time my mom would get in the car with my son and I, she’d ask when you can turn toddlers forward in a car seat. This started pretty much since he was a year and a half. To be fair, car seats have come a long way from the metal bar contraption I was put in as a child in the ‘80s, so it’s understandable for my mom to want to have her grandchild facing forward “so she can see him and talk to him.” I gently informed her that rules and guidance have definitely changed since I was a kid and waited until the appropriate time to turn my son around to face the front. If you’re getting nagged by the grandparents or if you’re just curious, there are some very specific safety guidelines to check out before turning your toddler forward in a car seat.

When Can You Turn Toddlers Forward In A Car Seat?

The American Academy of Pediatrics has always been a reliable source for all things parenting, and for the last 20 years, they’ve recommended keeping kids rear-facing until “they are too big for rear-facing in their convertible seat,” per thecarseatlady.com. However, things have been updated as of 2018, according to Holly Choi, an infant and toddler safety educator at Safe Beginnings First Aid. “In 2018 American Academy of Pediatrics updated their position statement on car seat safety to suggest that children remain rear-facing past the age of 2,” Choi says.

“Best practice recommendations are based on injury data, with the goal to reduce significant injury as much as possible,” Choi says. “Under best practice, a child should remain in a rear-facing car seat until they outgrow the rear-facing car seat by its height, weight or fit-limit; such as the child having less than 1" from the top of the head and the shell of the car seat. This is a common measure for infant car seats, but parents should check their car seat's user manual for specifics, as each seat will have its own limits.”⠀

The AAP statement reads, "Infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing car safety seat as long as possible, until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by their seat. Most convertible seats have limits that will allow children to ride rear-facing for 2 years or more.”

In addition to the guidance somewhat depending on the individual car seat, Choi says it also depends on the laws of your individual state, unfortunately.

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Car Seat Safety Laws By State

Each state will have its own laws regarding the age a child can legally forward-face, and unfortunately this can vary significantly from one state to the next,” Choi says, “For example, in California, a child must ride in a rear-facing car seat until at least age 2. In Arizona, they simply need *a* car seat.”

So knowing the legal minimums required by state laws may not be sufficient to ensure a child’s safety, Choi says.

“The vision of the child passenger safety community at large is to instead look to best practice: what we know will provide children with the best possible outcome in a crash,” she says.

“While the state laws take time and lobbying from advocates to see changes, other organizations such as the AAP, SafeKids Worldwide, National Safety Council, NHTSA, Child Passenger Safety Association of Canada (CPSAC) and others instead focus on public health messaging to encourage best practice,” Choi says.

Why You Should Wait To Turn Your Toddler Forward In Their Car Seat

Dr. Joel 'Gator' Warsh, Board Certified Pediatrician and Founder of Integrative Pediatrics in Studio City tells Romper, “ Rear-facing car seats are better at protecting the head, neck, and spine in the event of a crash … if you turn your child forward too soon, there are increased risks of injury to the head and neck in the event of a car accident.”

James Clarke, owner and operator of newbabytoys.com and parenting coach says, “A 2008 study from B Henary et. al. found that rear-facing child restraint systems were 93% effective at reducing the risk of serious or fatal injury in children under 2 years of age compared to 78% for forward-facing systems.”

He adds, “Both systems are obviously very effective, but the additional protection from rear-facing systems is statistically significant and has been confirmed by a number of subsequent studies.”

“Riding in a rear-facing car seat is, without a doubt, the safest way for young children to ride in a vehicle,” Choi says. “In a crash, a rear-facing car seat keeps a child's head, neck and spine in alignment, while the shell of the car seat absorbs the brunt of the crash forces.”

And when a child is turned forward-facing, they unfortunately lose the benefit of the car seat’s shell absorbing the majority of crash forces, says Choi.

“A forward-facing child in a crash will have the crash forces instead distributed across the strongest, boniest parts of their body: their collarbones and hips, provided the child is correctly harnessed. Turning a child forward-facing too soon increases the risk for serious head, neck and spine injury in a crash — as their skeletal system may not yet be strong enough to withstand crash forces,” Choi says.

Follow your car seat manufacturer’s recommendations and the AAP’s guidelines when trying to determine whether to turn your toddler forward-facing, no matter how many times the grandparents ask you to turn them forward. This is just the next step until trying to decide when a toddler can upgrade to a booster seat, which, according to Warsh, is when your child is mature enough to sit properly for the entire ride, without taking off the seat belt. “In addition to being able to follow these rules, it is recommended that kids be at least 5 years old and weigh at least 40 pounds before riding in a booster,” he says.

Experts:

Holly Choi, an infant and toddler safety educator at Safe Beginnings First Aid.

Dr. Joel 'Gator' Warsh, Board Certified Pediatrician and Founder of Integrative Pediatrics in Studio City, Los Angeles.

James Clarke, owner and operator of newbabytoys.com and parenting coach.

Studies:

Huang, Y. Y., Liu, C., & Pressley, J. C. (2019). Restraint use and injury in forward and rear-facing infants and toddlers involved in a fatal motor vehicle crash on a U. S. Roadway. Injury epidemiology, 6(Suppl 1), 28. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40621-019-0200-4