You will find me preaching everywhere across this site that you should not use a forward facing seat for your child too soon. This idea is based on solid scientific principles and my knowledge, experience and expertise as someone who has been involved in the testing and design of child restraints for over ten years. Here I discuss why it is not a good idea to put your child in a forward-facing car seat too early…

It drives me nuts when I see parents using forward facing child seats for children who are clearly too young and I often think “if only these people knew the dangers and the reasons behind it, they would definitely think again!”. I really don’t accept that a child over 9Kg or one year old should go forward facing just because current laws allow it, or just because they can sit up and control their head. You should keep your child rearward facing AS LONG AS POSSIBLE. My advice as a professional would be that at an absolute minimum, your child should be 15 months old before leaving a rearward facing infant seat. Two years old is better (which is when I admit my children went forwards facing) and you can buy seats that will take children up to four years old or 105cm in height if you really want safety above all else.

When challenged about going forward facing too early I have heard some parents respond, , “Well, I was within my legal right to go forward facing”. That is not going to help console them when their child is dead or severely injured.  I am sorry for the strong wording – but I do feel strongly about this! So, here is my attempt to reason why you should think twice about going forward facing too early.

Anatomy of a child’s neck

Firstly, we need to look at the anatomy of a child to understand why we should stay rearwards facing for as long as possible. A child’s anatomy is not just a scaled down version of an adult human being. Their bodies are still developing and therefore are nowhere near as strong as an adult. A small child has a relatively weak neck and it can easily be damaged or severed because of the force of their comparatively big heads pulling on it when they are violently flung forwards in a head on crash. Here is why:-

The neck is divided up into vertebrae as shown in the diagram below

Children vertabrae

The first vertebrae in the neck is C1, just below the joint to the head and the neck continues down to C7.

Now, below is a photo showing the C1 cervical vertebrae from the top, with a vertebrae  from a child age one year on the left and one from a child age six years on the right. As you can see in the one year old on the left the bone is not fused together yet. In fact the pieces of ossified (solid) bone are held together by soft cartilage which fills the gaps.

Child vertabrae 1 year old vs 2 year old

Cartilage is a very pliable and stretchy material. It can be stretched up to 50mm (2 inches). Yet, it only needs to stretch 6mm (1/4 inch) before the result is spinal column rupture, leading to paralysis or death. This life threatening amount of stretch would be easily exceeded when subjected to the huge forces in even a relatively low speed crash of, say, 30mph. In a head on collision where both cars are travelling at 30mph at the point of impact, if they are sat in a forward facing seat, a child will experience a force on their neck equivalent to three fully grown men pulling on their neck.

If we consider the top three vertebrae in the neck, medical studies show that the C3 does not begin to close up with ossified bone until about age two years (in fact there is only a 50% chance it will be closed at this age) and the bones are not fully formed in the C1, C2 or C3 vertebrae until at least age 7 years. This is why children have relatively weak necks, which can be easily damaged or even snapped.

Additionally, as if things weren’t bad enough, the child’s undeveloped spine has to support a much larger proportion of their body weight. In the average nine month old their head makes up 25% of their entire weight; in an adult it is more around 6% of their whole weight. So, not only do they have a weak neck they also have a comparatively massive head for it to support!

Crash scenarios and forces

The next factor to consider are the types of crashes and the forces involved in an impact.

Frontal, or head on crashes, are the most common type of crash that cause death or serious injury, with side impacts a close second. This is not to say that these are the most common types of collision, but the ones most likely to cause death or serious injury – for example – rear impacts are some of the most common types of collision, but these usually result in more minor injuries.

This means the most benefit can be gained from protection against frontal crashes and side impact, as this will save the most amount of lives. In a side impact there is very little difference between being forward or rearward facing. However, in frontal impacts, even at relatively low speeds, it makes a massive difference. Frontal impacts are usually the most violent impacts because the closing speeds between the two cars are high. If both cars are travelling at 30mph thats a 60mph closing speed! (30mph +30mph). This is exactly the sort of scenario that could occur if someone swerved into you on a residential street for example, or could even happen on a single carriageway or country road where you are doing 60mph and both cars have had a chance to brake before impact.

Now, there are actually three collisions that take place in any crash:

  1. The vehicle impacting into something,
  2. the body impacting the interior of the car or being stopped by the restraints, and
  3. the internal organs striking the inside of the skeleton.

See Anatomy of a car crash for more information on this. A rearward facing seat allows the forces involved in that second collision, when the restraint brings the body to a halt, to be managed much better. When your child (or any occupant) is in a rearward facing seat, a larger area of the body is used to stop the forward motion, so the forces are not concentrated into relatively small regions such as the case where a harness is performing the arresting duties. The force is spread over the whole the body and seat shell. Most importantly, the spine, neck and head are all held more or less in line drastically reducing the stress they are subjected to.

And the stresses that can be placed on your child in an impact are enormous! Let’s take a look at the 30mph frontal crash again. Even in more modern cars with good safety ratings your child will experience a deceleration of around 60g – 60 times the force of gravity – nearly 7 times that experienced by a fighter pilot before they black out. Here are the most important factors that a rearward-facing child seat helps to minimise:-

  • In a 30mph crash with a child in a forward-facing car seat their neck will experience a peak force of 2 Kilonewtons – equivalent to 3 grown men hanging off their neck. This would be at least halved in a good rearward-facing child seat!
  • In a 30mph crash with a child in a forward-facing car seat their chest would be compressed around 20mm and crushed with the force of a fully grown man treading on them. In a rearward facing seat this level of compression and force is reduced to minimal levels.
  • In a forward-facing child seat a child’s neck and spine are snapped forwards, bending and contorting under the enormous accelerations and force of the impact. In a rearward-facing car seat, the spine, neck and head are kept virtually in line. 

Rearward facing is safer – FACT!

Don’t just take my word for all this. The international, well respected British Medical Journal (BMJ) published a report entitled “Car safety seats for children: rear facing for the best protection, 2007” in which they studied the injury statistics for fifteen years worth of crash injury data for children aged two, or under. Researchers found that “the odds of severe injury for forward-facing infants under 12 months of age were 1.79 times higher than for rear-facing infants; for children 12 to 23 months old, the odds were 5.32 times higher.” In summary:

A child under 1 year old is almost 2 TIMES more likely to be severely injured in a forward facing seat compared to rearwards-facing.

And a child between 1 and 2 years old is over 5 TIMES more likely to be severely injured in a forward facing seat compared to rearwards-facing.

So, Please think twice about going forward-facing too early!

I hope this article and the evidence within it has gone some way to explaining exactly why rearward-facing child car seats are so much better for young children. My hope is that it will make you think twice when considering moving your precious little one to a forward-facing car seat. Please like and share this story if you found it useful and I hope it can go some way to saving young lives.

To find some extended rearward facing car seats to buy have a look here.