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When Can Baby Face Forward In Their Car Seat?

Medically Reviewed by Kristen Gardiner, CPST
Wondering when is the best time to transition from rear facing to front facing with your baby’s car seat?

Aren’t baby car seats awesome? How much safer do you feel when your child is protected from a potential accident?

Car seats are one of the reasons that injuries and death in children during car accidents have gone down. But car seats aren’t always easy — they come with a lot of questions, recommendations, and potential struggles.

Let’s talk about the popular topic of rear vs. front-facing and when to transition.

When Is the Right Time to Transition?

Parents know that having a baby car seat is a requirement. However, the laws surrounding them and their placement can be quite daunting and sometimes unclear. One of the most confusing things that parents never seem to know is when exactly to switch from rear-facing to front-facing.

You have possibly heard that children can ride facing forward after one year or after weighing 20 pounds. This had been the standard for a long time, but recommendations have changed. As of now, it’s recommended that children remain rear-facing at least until the age of 2 (1).

In an updated report, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that children remain rear-facing for as long as possible.

Your child should remain in that seating position until they reach the highest height or weight allowed for that seat. This new recommendation doesn’t place a specific age for a child and it can go well beyond 2 years, possibly up until 4, depending upon the size of your child.

Why Is Rear-Facing Better?

Most manufacturers design car seats that allow children to stay rear-facing until they weigh as much as 40 pounds. Some convertible options reach 50 pounds.

But why design rear-facing seats at all?

In a rear-facing car seat, your child’s head, neck, and spine will be supported by the hard shell. In case of an accident, these vulnerable body parts will be well-protected. On the other hand, when facing forward, your child is only restrained by the harness straps.

Their head, which is disproportionately large and heavy, could be jerked forward. It’s hard to believe but the head makes up approximately 25 percent of a child’s body weight. We all know babies all vulnerable, but toddlers and young children are still at great risk even though they look larger. A child’s vertebrae are not fused together until between the ages of three and six. This means the spinal cord is not fully protected when subjected to crash forces. These combined factors could result in a spinal or head injury and possibly death (2).

Even though as a parent you’re looking forward to transitioning to the next stage, delay this as much as possible. Always check your car seat manual for the manufacturer’s recommended weight and height limit. Once they reach that stage, you can transition them and feel confident in your decision.

Won’t Their Legs Be Uncomfortable?

The thing is, you may imagine your child’s legs are squished in a rear-facing position. However, children are flexible, and this is the safest position for their legs. If your car crashes, forward-facing kids are at a much greater risk all around.

If they complain about the leg room, take a break and let them stretch. They may also enjoy crossing their legs or hanging them over the sides.

What If They Reach the Car Seat Limit Before 2 Years?

Once your child exceeds the weight and height limit of the infant car seat, it’s time to go out and buy a convertible car seat. These come with higher limits that can go up to 50 pounds rear-facing.

When it comes to height, most car seats recommend at least one inch of room between the top of the child’s head and the top of the seat. This space ensures your child’s head is safe in case of a crash.

If you have already switched your child to forward-facing before the recommended age, switch them back. This is exactly what I did when I found out about the recommendations while my toddler was already 2 years old. It gave me peace of mind to know that my child was safer.

Aren’t Rear Car Accidents Just as Bad?

Statistically, rear impacts account for around 25 percent of all accidents. When they do happen, they usually have less serious injuries compared to frontal or side crashes (3).

Rear car accidents don’t usually carry as much force given that both cars are usually moving in the same direction. This means that the impact won’t be as strong as other types of accidents. Besides, rear-facing car seats are designed to absorb the impact.

What If Your Child Doesn’t Like Rear-Facing?

This is a major concern to most parents and for good reason. When a child is crying and wailing, it becomes a distraction for them while driving. The chances of an accident are higher when parents are distracted, thereby risking the safety of the whole family.

Sometimes these tantrums have less to do with the car seat and more to do with the fact that your child is a toddler, and throwing fits is par for the course. However, rear-facing does not necessarily need to be boring. You can use a car mirror so you and your infant can see each other (just be sure you can firmly secure the mirror so it does not become a projectile in a crash. Things like velcro won’t hold up when you need it the most). Older kids can keep themselves busy with toys or look outside the rear window.

After some time, your child gets used to the idea that you’re up front even though they don’t see you. Besides, the safety of your child should always come first. Rear-facing car seats are usually comfortable so you have nothing to worry about.

Do Rear-Facing Seats Cause Motion Sickness?

This is a misconception. Most people get motion sickness when they look out the side windows. Everything seems to move too fast, which sends mixed signals to the brain.

This can cause uneasiness and motion sickness. If your child struggles with this, you can hang a sunshade over the window or something else to block out a clear view. You can also try changing the recline in their car seat (if it’s age-appropriate and your seat allows it) to see if a different view affects their motion sickness.

If you have a vehicle with three rows, keep children who are prone to motion sickness in the second row. This usually gives a smoother ride with fewer bumps.
Headshot of Kristen Gardiner, CPST

Editor's Note:

Kristen Gardiner, CPST
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Child Car Seat Quick Tips

Here are some things you might need to keep in mind about transitioning your child from rear-facing to forward-facing:

  • When it’s time for your child to face forward, use a forward-facing seat that features a harness. Remember to use that forward-facing seat for as long as possible or until they reach the limits for it.
  • Once your child reaches that limit, you should start using a booster seat until they are old enough to use the car seat belt. Most children will need a booster seat until they are approximately 4’9”, typically until 10-12 years of age. Once they stop using a booster seat, ensure they use both the lap and shoulder seat belts for protection (4).

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Medically Reviewed by

Kristen Gardiner, CPST

Kristen Gardiner, CPST is a writer, wife, and mother to three boys. Kristen became certified as a Child Passenger Safety Technician by Safe Kids Worldwide in 2015 and loves to volunteer and help educate parents about car seat safety. She has a passion for all things related to child safety.