Toddler parents: Keep that car seat rear-facing!

New research suggests parents are switching to the forward-facing car seat position too soon.

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Photo: NHTSA Image Library

When it comes to newborns, most parents know that a rear-facing car seat position is safest. But a new study reveals that three quarters of parents in the US report switching to a forward-facing position before their child’s second birthday—which goes against expert recommendations south of the border and here in Canada, too.

As part of a 2013 national poll on children’s health, researchers at the University of Michigan asked parents of kids aged 1–4 when they switched to a forward-facing car seat. Their findings, published in the journal Academic Pediatrics, reveal that a quarter (24 percent) switched to a front-facing seat at or before age one, and only 23 percent of parents said they kept their child rear-facing until age two or older—the minimum recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), provided the child has not outgrown the seat’s height or weight limits.

While there’s no official national tracking of car seat habits in Canada, similar patterns are seen here, says Katherine Hutka, health promotion specialist for child passenger safety with Child Safety Link, a child and youth injury prevention program at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, and president of the Child Passenger Safety Association of Canada. “Without truly understanding how much safer their growing toddlers will be if they remain rear facing for longer, parents often see riding forward facing as just one of the exciting milestones their children achieve as they enter toddlerhood,” notes Hutka.

Safety recommendations here in Canada aren’t quite as definitive as those set out by the AAP. The Canadian Paediatric Society says infants should be in rear-facing seats until they are at least one year old and weigh 10 kilograms (22 pounds), but adds that parents shouldn’t rush to move to a forward-facing seat as young toddlers are safer in a rear-facing position.

Meanwhile, Transport Canada, which tests and certifies all car seats sold in Canada, notes on its website that rear-facing as long as possible is preferred: “Even if your child weighs 10 kg (22 lbs), is able to walk on her or her own and your provincial/territorial law says you can use a forward-facing seat, the rear-facing position is safer. As long as your child is still below the weight and height limits of your current child seat, you should use that seat for as long as possible.”

Just how long is “as long as possible”? Some rear-facing car seat models are suitable for kids up to 50 pounds (and can be converted to forward-facing once your kid hits that limit). While many parents worry about the comfort of their kids, it’s just fine for their feet and legs to touch—and even prop up on—the vehicle’s rear seat so long as they’re within the height and weight limits. (And let’s face it: kids are perfectly happy in all sorts of weird positions when they’re at home.) If you just want to be able to see them while you’re driving, remind yourself that they’re safer facing the rear.

There’s good reason to keep them rear-facing. “Delaying the switch can make a big difference,” the study’s lead author, Michelle L. Macy, noted in a press release. “In Sweden, it is culturally accepted that children up to age four are in rear-facing seats and child traffic fatalities there are among the lowest in the world.”

Here in Canada, Hutka notes that a shift in thinking has begun. “Through social media especially, parents are more connected to each other and to ways to access this information than they have ever been,” she says. “Many of the questions I get each day are from parents who are looking for ways to keep their children riding in rear-facing seats for as long as possible.”

Find out what you need to know to ensure a safe ride at every age and stage with our Car seat cheat sheet.

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