Family Life

Extended Rear Facing: When Are You Going to Turn That Car Seat Around, Or “She’s How Old!?”

Why you should keep your child in a rear facing car seat as long as possible.

I’ve heard it for years. “When are you going to turn that car seat around?” Well, at five years and ten days old, I finally turned Tee’s car seat forward facing.

“But that’s crazy!” I hear some of you say. “You’re supposed to turn car seats forward facing at a year.” NOT TRUE! There are a lot of misconceptions about that one year “rule”, and this is a good time to talk about them.

To start with, the law is a tad more complicated than just saying one year. Like a lot of jurisdictions, here in BC, the law requires a rear facing car seat until your child is one year old and at least 20 pounds (9 kilograms). According to infant growth charts though, close to half of baby girls and a quarter of baby boys won’t have reached 20 pounds by 12 months of age. Even if your child is over a year old, you are legally required to keep them in a rear facing car seat until they hit 20 pounds.

WHO Growth Chart - Weight-for-age Girls

From WHO Growth Chart – Girls. Click to enlarge.

WHO Growth Chart - Weight-for-age Boys

From WHO Growth Chart – Boys. Click to enlarge.

But all this is only a small part of the story. The one year minimum is just that – a minimum. In fact, it’s the bare minimum, literally the least you can do. This is not a milestone to look forward to. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping children rear facing until age two or until they exceed the height or weight limit of their car seat. That’s a good start, but here’s something more to think about. In Sweden, it’s common practice to keep children rear facing until age four or five. Did you know that Sweden has the lowest highway fatality rate in the world for children under six?

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death and hospitalizations for Canadian and American children. Their large head to small body ratios and still developing spines make babies and young children uniquely vulnerable to the stresses of being in a car accident. Rear facing car seats disperse the force of the crash through the car seat itself, and stop your child’s head from being flung forward at a tremendous speed and force. A rear facing car seat protects your child’s head and spinal cord; a forward facing seat cannot. This video shows the difference between forward and rear facing in a car crash.

(I’ve since updated this to a newer video that even more clearly shows this difference.)

Research shows that children under two years of age are five times less likely to die or to be injured in a rear facing car seat. This particular study didn’t look at older children, but there’s no reason to think that rear facing car seats all of a sudden lose their value the day your child turns two. The anatomical differences that make forward facing risky are still present in two-year-olds, three-year-olds, four-year-olds, and even older. And in case you were wondering, it is perfectly safe for a child’s feet to be touching or resting on the back of the seat. Their legs, not to mention their necks and spinal cords, are still safer in a rear facing seat.

The problem is that the one year minimum has been misunderstood to mean that you’re supposed to turn your child around at a year, but it’s just not true. In reality, leaving that car seat rear facing for as long as your child fits the height and weight limits is much, much safer for your child. We use this style Diono Radian convertible seat that accommodates rear facing up to 45 pounds or 44″ tall, whichever comes first. Nowadays there are plenty of car seats on the market that allow for extended rear facing with higher height and weight limits (up to 45 pounds) to suit every parent’s vehicle and price range, so there’s no reason not to get one.

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  • Some very important information to pass around! I know a few people who think otherwise simply due to ‘old rules’.

  • Do you have any information about when to let your child stop using a booster seat all together? The law says age 8 and my youngest will hit that in August. He’s not small for his age and I followed that guideline for his older brother and sister, but now I’m a bit worried. I never even considered keeping them in the rear-facing car seat for that long. Where does she put her legs? Does she cross them? I would think it would be rather uncomfortable for her. At what age do you plan on turning her around? Just curious. Not judging.

    • I turned my oldest around just after she turned 5, but it wasn’t because she’d hit a particular age. It was because she was pushing the weight limit of her car seat while rear facing. All experts agree that the best practice is to keep kids rear facing as long as they fit within the height/weight limits. About her legs, she would hang them over the sides or cross them or rest them up the back of the seat. She never once complained about it being uncomfortable. The thing with little kids is that they’re much more flexible than adults, and what would be uncomfortable for you and me probably isn’t for them.

      Booster seats are a little different – their purpose is to ensure the seat belt fits your child properly. Honestly, going by age is a very poor measure of readiness. 8-year-olds come in all shapes and sizes so a better measure is whether your child fits the following criteria:
      – at least 4’9″
      – without a booster seat, able to sit all the way back and have his knees bend at the edge of the seat
      – without a booster seat, the lap belt rests naturally under his belly/across the top of his thighs
      – without a booster seat, the shoulder belt is centred across his shoulder and chest
      – mature enough to stay properly seated throughout the car ride

      If he can’t do even one of those things, he’s safer in a booster seat. If you google “when is my child ready for a seat belt”, you’ll find lots of information and diagrams that can help too. Hope that helps!

      • Thanks for your quick reply. I’m not sure about some of those criteria. I think he is tall enough and I know he is mature enough to stay properly seated, but I’m not sure his legs would bend at the edge of the seat. I will have to check it out next time. Thanks for the checklist. He doesn’t mind the booster seat at all so I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if he had to keep using it a bit longer.

        • My son was in a booster seat until he was about 10 when he hit a huge growth spurt and was tall enough to be able to safely use a seat belt with the shoulder belt centered across his shoulder and chest. Great for you for taking the initiative to find out the guidelines. Many people I know don’t even think about it and just go by the age requirement.

    • SUPER late to the game, but for anyone doing future research like me, the Diono Radian has a TON of leg roomrear facing. My daughter is 36 inches and barely has to bend her knees so far. We’ve used other seats for travel, and none are as spacious.

  • Although I agree with your ideas, my boys were tall and couldn’t squish their legs into comfortable position with rear facing car seats after age 2 and 3. I wonder why more car manufacturers don’t offer rear facing seats for at least some passengers of any age. Especially in family vehicles.

    • I agree! It’s safer for everyone – children and adults – to ride rear facing and I’d love to see more options like that. I do want to add that of course fit does depend somewhat on the car seat and on the vehicle, but for what it’s worth, my daughter was 41.5″ tall when we turned her around which I suspect was still taller than your boys were at 2 and 3. Little kids are really flexible, and rarely have any issue with bending their legs into a comfy position unless there’s a medical issue. Crossing legs works for many.

  • I keep my kids in the booster longer than most.. My son is about to turn 9 and I still make him ride in one because his weight is low and his legs don’t bend at the edge. He doesn’t think anything of it. My 6 year old JUST came out of her backwards facing seat and is in a high back booster and my 4 year old does face forward in a Britax car seat but it’s because her legs are so extremely long it was better for her. I just feel safer this way.

  • This is really great information to share. I was just having this conversation recently with someone who was saying that technically we would all (even adults) be better off rear facing. While that’s obviously not possible, it does put in to perspective that we should try to keep the little ones rear facing as long as possible! Found you on the This is How We Roll link up! Thanks for sharing such important information!

    • Thanks for stopping by! I’ve heard that too, that having everyone rear facing would be safer. It’s 100% true, but yeah that would make for some interesting car designs!

  • I’ll turn my son around, at the earliest, 4 years. He’ll get turned around at 4 in our sedan simply because we have very limited space in there and he rarely rides in that car. But our SUV, with our Diono, he’ll be RFing until at least 4, if not longer. He’s 3 years 3 months now.

  • I wish more people were aware that it is simply a minimum. This goes for all the weight reccomendations for car seats and booster seats. My children were rear facing as long as I could, for my son this was until about four years old. From there he was in a forward facing car seat until he was at 7 because of his weight. My daughter was rear facing until only 18 months but due to some other medical issues which caused her difficulties with handling car travel due to inner ear pain, we found she did better (no screaming entire way on three hour plus road trips) if she was forward facing. She is now 6.5 and weighing only 38 pounds she is in a forward facing car seat still. Even then the weight required to sit in a booster seat does not mean that they HAVE to go to one. We kept our son in his until he outgrew the weight limit for the car seat.

    • Agreed! There’s a huge difference between a minimum and a recommendation. Unfortunately it seems like that nuance gets lost a lot of the time. Like you, I plan to keep my kids in their car seats and 5-point harnesses as long as possible, again because it’s just so much safer.

  • My first I was concerned with her height rear facing, and probably my convenience. So I turned her just after she hit 1 yr (she was over 20lb). I really wish I hadn’t, but thankfully we’ve never been in an accident. With my second, I’m much more proactive about car seat safety. I tell everyone who will listen, too. The “our parents did x and we turned out ok” excuse. Anyway, before I go on a tangent. My little will be 2 in about a week. She’s still happily rear facing. Although, I have been getting those urges to turn her when she’s pushing her feet against the seat and refusing to put her butt down lol. I plan to keep her that way until the seats we have expire (one in Jan and the other in the following summer).

    • Yup, the kids who didn’t turn out okay aren’t here to say anything!
      My oldest went through that “I don’t wanna sit!” phase too – hang in there, they do get over it eventually. 🙂

  • Thank you for doing the research and sharing it to clear up a very common misperception. I’m so glad you shared this at This Is How We Roll Thursdays. I hope many more people see it so that they can make informed decisions about child safety seats.

  • Remind parents to look for the expiration date if their car seat also… when we were bringing our grand daughter home we found out that we had one about to expire!

  • It’s amazing how the rules change so very much for parenting over the years. I was a teen mom, so I’ve been around the whole mommy scene for quite some time. I remember when people perched their baby car seats on top of grocery carts, heck, I remember my little cousins not being in car seats at all! I also recall my in-laws trying to get my nephew to eat more and put on weight (despite the fact that he was on ritalin and then Adderall and they didn’t bother to find out that he was constantly nauseous) so he could get out of his booster seat. There was always that push to do everything early like turn car seats around, force solid foods on babies ect. I’m so glad there’s a trend to just let children develop normally and safely these days. I gladly keep my almost-three-year old rear facing and I’ll keep her that way as long as I can. I really appreciate the knowledge that people are sharing these days, but I do have to say that some people can get pretty nasty about it. That part I wish would change. I think the way you presented it here is perfect.

    • Thank you, for the perspective and for your kind words, Julie! I do my best to present information in a factual and supportive way, and I hope that’s how it’s taken too. 🙂

    • The technicians who do these tests are well trained so I have no reason to think it wasn’t. This is very similar to every other crash test video I’ve ever seen comparing forward to rear facing, and the statistics are well understood.

  • We have the same carseat as you!

    My first was rear-facing until almost three-and-a-half. It was tricky (though not impossible) to fit two rear-facing carseats, so we turned her around when her sister was born.