Experts concur that facing the back for as long as possible is the way to go. When a child is in a rear-facing seat, the car seat absorbs the impact, offering him or her better protection.
Children should stay in rear-facing car seats for as long as possible, up to the height and weight limits of their car safety seat. The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) recommends this based on research showing small children are much safer riding backward.
Too often, children are turned to face the front before their necks are strong enough to withstand the force of an impact. When it comes to fatal collisions, only about 7% happen at the back of the car, and 60–80% of accidents happen at the front or side of the vehicle. In a front-end collision, the driver snaps forward toward the point of impact while a rear-facing child falls backward right into the car seat. This allows the seat to absorb the brunt of the impact.
Front-end collisions often result in whiplash. While adults may be able to withstand the impact, a young toddler will not be able to do so. This is because, unlike an adult, whose head is 6% of their body weight, a newborn’s spine supports a heavy head — 25% of their total body weight. So, in a frontal collision, the child’s head would be pulled forward with a lot more force.
Once a child is turned to face forward, although the harness is restraining the child in a collision, the head is thrown forward. At this age, the child’s vertebrae are not strong enough to hold the ligaments between them. The ligaments can also pull out of the vertebrae. The force of the head stretching the spinal cord even as little as a quarter of an inch can cause injury up to and including full separation from the brain stem, also known as internal decapitation. This can result in paralysis or even death. As such, it’s safest for children to travel in a car by sitting on a rear-facing seat until their muscles and bones have properly developed.
That is also why the AAP recommends that children sit this way until they are at least two years of age or older, if possible. This will give the bones in the neck time to get as strong as possible. The neck will then have the best chances of being able to restrain the head and protect the spinal column in a frontal collision when the child is forward facing.
Keep your child rear-facing for as long as their car seat allows, check the label on your car seat to make sure your child fits the weight and height guidelines, and that you are using the seat correctly.