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Face to the Rear: Infant Car Seats

If your baby is younger than one year, he should ride in the back seat in a rear-facing infant seat. Once he is older than 1 year and weighs more than 20 pounds, he can ride facing forward, but should still ride in the back seat—that’s the safest place for all passengers, since most crashes are head on. (And never put your baby in the front passenger seat of any vehicle that has an air bag on the passenger side.)

Why is it so important to have your baby facing backwards? When a vehicle stops suddenly anyone inside will continue to move forward. The purpose of a seat belt is, of course, to keep this from happening. However, the head is not restrained and does move forward while the shoulders are held back. An infant’s spinal column is not ready to withstand high forces; the vertebrae are not completely turned to bone and the connecting ligaments are lax. If your baby is facing forward in a severe crash and his head snaps forward, the pressure on his neck can pull the flexible vertebrae and ligaments apart. This can cause spinal cord damage, paralysis and even death.

However, if your baby is facing to the rear, both her body and her head are pushed backwards (toward the front of the car) and the crash forces are evenly distributed across her entire body.

A doctor’s physical exam of your child cannot show if she is ready to face forward, especially since most doctors will look at muscle strength and head control, which are not the issue. Known cases of serious neck-tension injuries among forward-facing children are rare, but there are no such cases among rear-facing children.

Choosing an Infant Seat

There are two kinds of infant seats. Small infant-only seats are meant to be used only in a rear-facing position and should be used only as long as your baby’s head is below the top rim of the seat. The label will give you the upper weight limit, usually 17 to 22 pounds.

Convertible seats will fit your child from birth to about 40 pounds. They are meant to be used rear-facing until your child is ready to face forward.

The best way to decide which seat to get is to try them out. Make sure the seat fits into your vehicle properly, that it can be buckled in tightly, and that it fits your child’s size and weight. Check it in both rear and forward positions if it is a convertible model, and be sure to try it with your child inside. Read the labels and any other directions to be sure it meets your needs. And do choose a seat that you find easy to use. If it’s a nuisance, you may be tempted not to use it.

Remember to send in your registration card, so you can be notified of any problems or recalls.

Using the Infant Seat

Be sure to read the manufacturer’s directions and your vehicle owner’s manual to make sure you’re installing the seat correctly. Keep in mind that pictures you see of seats in stores or ads may not show them being used safely.

Both the harness straps on the seat and your car’s seat belts need to be attached snugly; the seat belts hold the seat to the car, and the harness keeps your baby in the seat. Every time you drive somewhere, check the car seat by pushing on it where the seat belt passes through. It should not move easily from side to side or to the front of your car. Also make sure the seat belt buckle isn’t at the point where the belt bends around the car seat; if it is, you won’t be able to get the belt tight enough. Check your car owner’s manual to see if the seat belts can be locked into position. If not, you’ll need to use a locking clip to keep the belt tight.

When you put your baby in her car seat, make sure the seat is at a 45 degree angle. This angle is necessary to support her head and keep her airways open. If your baby’s head flops forward, the seat may be too high for her. You can put a firmly rolled towel or sheet under the base of the seat to help it tilt back a little more. But be careful and don’t tip it too far back.

The harness straps must fit your baby snugly and should not be twisted. They should fit properly over his shoulders and between his legs, so dress him in clothes that keep his legs free. Use the lowest harness slots for your newborn, and keep the straps in the slots at or below his shoulders as long as he is facing to the rear.

Don’t dress your baby in bulky clothes when the weather is cold. Instead, use light-weight clothes that allow you to adjust the harness snugly, then cover her with blankets.

Facing Forward

When your baby is 1 year old and weighs more than 20 pounds, she’s ready to face forward in a toddler or convertible seat with a full harness. A booster seat should not be used yet; the full harness is needed to give protection to her upper body and to hold her in her seat.

The seat should now be in the upright position, and the harness straps must be at or above your child’s shoulders— this usually means using the top harness slots. Check your manuals to make sure you’re installing the seat correctly.

She should use this toddler seat until she is weighs 40 pounds and her shoulders are above the top harness slots. Then it’s time to move her to a booster seat. Read Boost Your Child's Safety with a Booster Seat to learn why preschool and early grade-school children should use a booster seat and not the adult seat belts.


How to protect your new baby in the car

What safety seat to use for a big baby or toddler?

Family Shopping Guide to Car Seats Safety and Product Information from the American Academy of Pediatrics

Air Bag Safety Q&A

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Last updated Sun, Jun 4, 2006

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