Car seat safety may have just taken a giant step … backwards. According to a new policy from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), parents are now being advised to keep their toddlers in rear-facing car seats until age 2, or until they reach the maximum height and weight for their seat. Released in the April 2011 issue of the journal Pediatrics, the new AAP guidelines also call for older children to ride in a belt-positioning booster seat until they have reached 4 feet 9 inches tall and are between 8 and 12 years of age.
The AAP previously advised that it is safest for infants and toddlers to ride rear-facing up to the limits of the car seat, but still cited age 12 months and 20 pounds as a minimum for turning a car seat to front-facing. As a result, most parents (and pediatricians) viewed a child's first birthday as a safe time to turn seats front-facing.
"Parents often look forward to transitioning from one stage to the next, but these transitions should generally be delayed until they're necessary, when the child fully outgrows the limits for his or her current stage," says Dr. Dennis Durbin, lead author of the policy statement and accompanying technical report.
Research has consistently found that children are safer in rear-facing car seats. A 2007 study in the journal Injury Prevention showed that children under age 2 are 75 percent less likely to die or be severely injured in a crash if they are riding rear-facing. According to car seat safety experts, rear-facing child safety seats do a better job of supporting the head, neck and spine of infants and toddlers in a crash, because it distributes the force of the collision over the entire body.
Does all this simply mean an extra year of Baby riding backwards in the car? Not necessarily. An important takeaway for parents from the report is that the "age 2" recommendation is not a deadline, "but rather a guideline to help parents decide when to make the transition," according to Dr. Durbin. "Smaller children will benefit from remaining rear-facing longer, while other children may reach the maximum height or weight before 2 years of age."
And what about older children who max out on a seat height and weight requirements? The AAP recommends transitioning to a booster in order to make sure the vehicle's lap and shoulder belt fit properly. When sitting in a booster seat, parents should make sure the shoulder belt lies across the middle of the child's chest and shoulder, not near the neck or face. The lap belt should fit low and snug on the hips and upper thighs, not across the belly. Most children will need a booster seat until they have reached 4 feet 9 inches tall and are between 8 and 12 years old.