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You May Be Wrong About Extended Rear Facing

We are all different, which means that the way we look at varying risks and assess a multitude of possibilities in our decision making is also going to be different. I’m OK with that.

Until I find myself in the position of explaining a decision that automatically seems as though it might be discounting another parent's choices.

So it was with great discomfort recently when I stumbled to answer an acquaintance who asked why my little one, about 6 months shy of 2 years old at the time, was still rear facing.

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“We turned our little girl around at about 8 months,” she said.

And I struggled. Both because I didn’t know how to say, “That’s illegal,” without sounding judgmental, and because their little girl was now nearly 3 years old. So there wasn’t a lot that could be said to change the past.

Still, I did my best to explain the current recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics to keep children rear facing until at least 2 years old (because their little torsos, necks, heads and pelvises aren’t very strong yet, making the impact of a crash while rear facing safer than forward facing) and went on to try to explain why my little girl would probably remain rear facing until as close to 4 as possible (because their little spines aren’t strong enough to withstand a forward facing crash until around that point).

Unfortunately, that was when I knew I completely lost this acquaintance of mine. The idea of keeping a child rear facing until the age of 4 was absolutely foreign to her. She looked at me as though I had lost my mind. As if I was some extreme version of helicopter parent she didn’t even want to be associated with.

So many people seem to switch their kids around earlier, simply because they buy into some of the myths surrounding extended rear facing.

I couldn’t totally blame her. In my circle of friends, every single little has been turned around by the age of 2. Many were turned around much sooner than that. I am the lone oddity, hoping to keep my girl backwards as long as possible.

Part of that stems from the fact that I am not the greatest driver in the world. And living in Alaska, I spend six months out of the year battling snow and ice on the roads, never feeling particularly confident in my ability to keep us on those roads or away from other drivers, who I also don’t totally trust. Don’t get me wrong, there have been zero scary accidents in my past (knock on wood). But I have precious cargo these days, and keeping her safe (despite my discomfort behind the wheel) is important to me.

Beyond that, when I weigh the pros vs. the cons, I can’t see benefits to having her turned around that outweigh the benefits of keeping her safer by being backwards. The truth is, we would all be safer facing backwards in the event of a crash. But obviously that isn’t feasible for adults or drivers. For little ones, though? Why not?

Sure, it would be nice to be able to see her face in my rearview mirror while I’m driving. And I wouldn’t hate being able to tickle her toes directly behind me. But it’s not like that’s the safest driving practice, anyway. And it certainly isn’t such a dire need as to outweigh the added safety benefits of keeping her facing backward.

Look, I am no car seat Nazi. I truly believe in your ability as a parent to make the decisions that are right for you and your family when it comes to this stuff. But so many people seem to switch their kids around earlier, simply because they buy into some of the myths surrounding extended rear facing. So let’s explore some of those rear-facing myths—without judgment or condemnation—simply in the name of educating, so that other parents can make the choices that seem best for their families.

Myth #1: Their Legs Will Get Squished

Have no fear. Kids don’t get squished facing backwards. Not even really long kids with really long legs. As long as your child is within the rear facing height and weight limits for their car seat, he or she is just fine facing backwards. Remember, kids are way more flexible than we are. They can comfortably sit in positions most adults likely couldn’t even pull off if they tried. They are just fine in whatever position they manage to make work while facing backwards. And contrary to another myth you might hear, they aren’t at greater risk for broken legs while facing backwards. In fact, research has found the rate of lower extremity injuries for kids facing backward is very similar to those of kids facing forward in a crash.

Myth #2: My Pediatrician Said It Was Fine

Let’s be honest, pediatricians don’t really receive any training on car seats. Most are not certified CPST’s (Child Passenger Safety Technicians). Your pediatrician is probably wonderful, but it’s likely they are not up to date on the latest child safety restraint research. Particularly if they are going against AAP recommendations to keep your child rear facing until at least age 2. Who can you ask? Well, there are often CPST’s at local firehouses and hospitals. So make some calls, and then go visit with one in your area. I totally used this excuse to hang out with some firefighters when my daughter came into my world!

Myth #3: But My Parents Didn’t Even Have Me in a Seat, and I’m Fine

The laws and recommendations are always changing because our understanding of safety is forever evolving.

This is true of so many things from our own childhoods. I was a latchkey kid from kindergarten on, left alone to watch my little brother in the summers starting at the age of 7. And yes, we are both fine. But if you think I would put my child in the same position, you’re nuts. We know more now. Babies used to go home from the hospital in a laundry basket on the floor. Now, we know babies die when that happens. The laws and recommendations are always changing because our understanding of safety is forever evolving. Our parents weren’t bad parents for holding us in the front seat while the car was moving, but we know better today than they did back then, partially because of the fact that many children didn’t survive those scenarios. We were the lucky ones, but that doesn’t mean we should eschew the current safety knowledge in exchange for a “we turned out just fine” philosophy.

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So, yeah, my kid is 2 and still rear facing, where she will likely remain until she reaches the rear facing limits on her car seat, which I am guessing will be somewhere between the ages of 3 and 4, given that she is one tall kiddo. Now, if we had other factors to consider—for instance, if she was prone to excessive bouts of carsickness—I might feel a little differently. But right now, the cons to keeping her rear facing in no way outweigh the benefits to keeping her as safe as possible in the car.

We all have our own cost-benefit analysis to make. But if you’re on the fence, I would highly recommend looking into the science of extended rear facing. And just know, you can always turn them back around, even if you have had them forward facing for months now.

Image via Leah Campbell

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