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Keep Kids Rear-Facing, Grandma of Severely Injured Toddler Pleads

Photograph by Tanya Bender

Thinking about transitioning your child to a forward-facing car seat? Tanya Bender urges parents to wait as long as possible before making the switch. The Oregon grandmother and caregiver regrets not listening to extended rear-facing advice two years ago when her granddaughter, Aniyah, was in a life-threatening car accident that left the toddler internally decapitated.

"I want to share what happens if you go by just minimum requirements. In most states, the minimum requirement to forward face is 2 years old. Aniyah was 2 years old when she was in a car accident forward-facing," Bender shared in the Facebook group Keeping Littles Safe in Carseats. "If she had been rear-facing she would have not suffered any injury at all."

Photograph by Facebook
Photograph by Facebook

In May 2016, Aniyah was picked up by her mom and her mom's friend, who was driving. The family strapped the 2-year-old into the forward-facing car seat, which Bender said was correctly installed. Only five miles away from the house, the car struck a concrete wall and sign and the car flipped upside down.

The mom's friend, Lindsey Codd, was arrested for DUI, criminal mischief, assault, reckless driving and reckless endangerment.

First responders thought Aniyah only suffered minor injuries; it wasn't until eight hours later, during precautionary medical exams, that doctors realized the toddler's injuries were life-threatening.

"Just below her head, it was completely severed, so her head was basically not even attached to her spine," Bender told NBC at the time.

Along with the decapitation at her C1, there were several breaks between her C1 and C7 (the first seven vertebrae of the spine) and a complete tear at the C5 of her nerve root, which controls the arms. After spending 12 hours at the local hospital, Aniyah was life-flighted to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon, where she underwent eight hours of surgery to fuse her broken neck. Only 30 percent of people who suffer this injury survive.

After spending 12 hours at the local hospital, Aniyah was life-flighted to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon, where she underwent eight hours of surgery to fuse her broken neck.

After spending two weeks at the hospital, wearing "halo gear" to stabilize her spine for months and having constant occupational therapy, the 4-year-old is now finally able to use the lower part of one arm. Aniyah is still partially paralyzed and will never be able to do anything that could re-injure her neck, including jumping on trampolines, playing sports or riding horses.

"I think about the countless hours I had to roll her on her side just to give her a sponge bath, while her skin was rolling off her back and trying to keep the bed sores from forming. I think about it all the time. Or the times I had to sit in the doctor’s office while they tightened down her screws in her head. The guilt is tremendous. I can’t explain it," Bender wrote on Her View From Home. "She tells me every night at bedtime she doesn’t want to close her eyes to sleep because she dreams about the accident. I could have taken all that away in a simple way of just rear-facing her."

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping infants and toddlers in rear-facing car seats until the age of 2, or until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by the car seat manufacturer. Bender hopes parents keep their children rear-facing until they've hit the maximum requirements. (With today's new car seat options, weight limits could max out at 45 or even 50 pounds.)

"Younger children tend to have relatively bigger heads, weaker necks and muscles in general, and looser tendon and ligaments. Facing forward, the head and neck are thrown forward violently in a crash, and the same forces that can lead to whiplash in an adult can actually cause the spine of a young child to separate and injure the spinal cord," Benjamin Hoffman, a professor of pediatrics at Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine in Portland, told Forbes. "If the child is rear-facing, all of the force is spread over the entire back of the child, allowing it to be absorbed by the seat, and cradling the head and neck to prevent injuries to that most vulnerable part of our body."

Top image via GoFundMe/Tanya Bender