Why Rear Facing Is Safer

Sadly most babies in the UK will only use their rear facing infant car seat for a year or even less. All nursery stores sell forward facing car seats that can be used for babies who weigh over 9kg, which is roughly nine months. Most parents think that this is the only option once their baby no longer fits in the infant carrier, some even think that moving their baby into a big forward facing seat is a milestone to look forward to. But in the event of a car accident a young child is five times more likely to be seriously injured or killed in a forward facing car seat than in a rear facing one.

Babies And Small Children Are Not Little Adults

A baby's head accounts for 25% of its body weight, while an adult's head is only 6% of the total body weight. And children's bones are still very soft, it takes about 15 years for the human skeleton to fully mature. The development of the skeleton happens at roughly the same rate in all children, no matter how big they are, so a bigger baby is no safer in a forward facing seat than a small one of the same age.

The human spine is made up of 24 vertebrae, seven cervical (neck), 12 thoracic (upper back) and five lumbar (lower back) ones.
The photo on the right shows the vertebrae of a one year-old on the left, and those of a six year-old on the right. In a one year-old each vertebra consists of three pieces of bone which are connected by cartilage. The vertebrae start to fuse together at the age of three, when the small bits at the bottom fuse together. It takes until they're six years old for the three pieces of bone to form a sold 'ring' around the spinal cord. The picture on the left shows where in the body these bones are located.


spine vertebrae | rear facing car seats

What Happens In A Crash

The bones in the neck of a small child are not developed enough to protect the spinal cord. When they are involved in a car crash in a forward facing car seat, the weight of the head combined with the immature skeleton, can cause the spinal cord to stretch up to two inches. If it stretches just half an inch it will snap. This is known as internal decapitation and causes paralysis or death.
A toddler's ribs are also very soft. In a forward facing car seat the force of the crash throws the child forward while the five-point harness holds the torso back in the seat. This can bend the ribs and damage the child's internal organs.

When you choose a car seat in a store or online, the only guidelines given are the weights and heights that the seats are suitable for. Say you have a 10kg one year-old or a 90cm two year-old. There will be a range of car seats available that your child fits into, some will be rear facing and some will face forward. Most of the time the very important benefits of rear facing are completely overlooked and the options are presented as if they are a matter of personal preference. But they are not.

In a forward facing seat the torso is held in place by the harness, but the head, arms and legs are thrown forward with great force. This can cause fatal or life-changing injuries to the neck and spine.

In a rear facing seat the head, neck and spine are cradled by the back of the car seat which reduces the risk of serious injury or death from 40% to just 8% compared with a forward facing seat.

Extended Rear Facing Car Seats Are Nothing New

The idea of transporting young children rear facing in the car was conceived by Professor Bertil Aldman of Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden in the early 1960s. He was inspired by the moulded seats astronauts used for take-off and landing, which protected their head, neck and spine. He designed the first rear facing child car seat in 1963.

Swedish rear facing children

Since 1965 all Swedish children have been travelling rear facing in the car until they are at least four years old, and the results speak for themselves. Here in the UK about 200 children are seriously injured in car accidents every year and a further 21 are killed. On Sweden's roads deaths and serious injuries in children under five have been virtually eliminated.

Between 1992 and June 1997, only nine properly restrained rear facing children died in car crashes in Sweden, and all of these were involved in catastrophic crashes with few or no other survivors. Between July 2006 and November 2007 not one child under the age of six died in Sweden due to a car accident. And their car seats continue to achieve the same fantastic results, year after year.

We recommend that all children rear face until they are at least four, but preferably six years old, and then move straight into a high back booster and never face forward in a harness at all.