When to Turn Your Child's Car Seat From Rear-Facing to Forward-Facing

Find out when to safely switch from a rear-facing car seat to a front-facing car seat, according to the experts.

While young kids in car seats will eventually turn around to face forward in the car, rear-facing car seats are the safest way for infants and toddlers to ride. In fact, rear-facing car seats are the gold standard for safety, and parents should keep their children in them as long as possible, says Ben Hoffman, M.D., FAAP, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention and certified child passenger safety technician instructor.

"It all comes down to physics," Dr. Hoffman says. "Car crashes involve a tremendous amount of energy and force and [with] rear-facing, the head and neck are cradled by a car seat and not thrown forward. It specifically protects the most vulnerable parts."

Picking the right car seat can be confusing, and knowing when to turn it around can feel downright baffling. But thankfully, some tried-and-true guidelines can help parents keep their child safe in the car. When you turn a car seat around depends on several factors, including your child's weight and height, as well as the type of car seat you choose. Here's everything parents need to know.

When to Turn Your Baby's Car Seat Around

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children should ride in a rear-facing seat as long as possible—specifically until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by their car seat model, which varies by manufacturer. There is no age limit for when to turn a car seat around; it's based on height and weight.

"Most convertible seats have limits that will allow children to ride rear-facing for 2 years or more," says the organization. "When infants outgrow their rear-facing-only seat, a convertible seat installed rear facing is needed."

Dr. Hoffman agrees with this recommendation. "Our advice is you stay rear-facing as long as possible because of physics…until the seat says you need to turn around," he says. "There's no reason given the seats we have on the market now a child should ever have to be forward-facing before their second birthday." He adds: "The basic principle for everything is you delay transitions as long as possible."

The good news is that because of the updated recommendations to keep children rear-facing for as long as possible, many car seat manufacturers offer options for extended rear-facing that will keep your child comfortable and safe.

baby in car seat
Marlon Lopez MMG1 Design/Shutterstock

Why Your Child Should Ride Rear-Facing as Long as Possible

To understand why you shouldn't turn your child's rear-facing car seat around too soon, you first need to know what happens in an accident. If a car crashes at about 30 mph—a relatively low speed—it can throw a 10-pound child with the force of about 450 pounds of momentum, says Dr. Hoffman. For comparison, that's about 40% more momentum than if you were to drop a 10-pound bowling ball out of a third-story window.

"All of that force has to go someplace, and we have to make sure that force is dealt with in a way that will protect the person," Dr. Hoffman says. "One of the most important ways that car seats help protect kids is that they spread that force over the widest amount of area possible…If you think about what happens in a rear-facing seat in a crash, the child is pushed into the seat, and the entire force of the crash is spread head to toe."

In a front-facing car seat, the amount of protective surface area—a five-point harness, in that case—is much smaller. And it doesn't protect a baby's "enormous wiggly-woggly head" as well as a rear-facing seat would.

"An adult who's thrown forward in a crash may risk injury to their head and neck because their head and neck are thrown forward. The same crash for a child…the head is going to be thrown forward with relatively more force than an adult," Dr. Hoffman says. "The likelihood of them suffering a catastrophic head or neck or spinal injury is significantly greater than it would be for an older [person]."

A rear-facing car seat's design is a protective shield that can help prevent your baby's head, neck, spine, and body from injuries during impact. So, keeping your child in a rear-facing seat for as long as is appropriate is the safest thing to do.

Types of Rear-Facing Car Seats

Wondering about the best time to turn your child's car seat around to a forward-facing position? That depends on which car seat you get. Each manufacturer is responsible for determining weight and length limits for their seats, which indicate whether your child should be rear-facing or forward-facing. (The guidelines aren't based on age.)

These weight and length limits also vary by the type of rear-facing seat parents buy. Dr. Hoffman says there are two types of car seats that can face backward: rear-facing-only seats and convertible seats. When it comes to safety, both types of car seats are equally protective, Dr. Hoffman says, but each comes with different conveniences.

Rear-facing-only seats

Rear-facing-only car seats, also sometimes known as infant car seats, tend to have a maximum weight of about 30 pounds and a maximum length of about 30 inches, says Dr. Hoffman. They tend to be popular with parents due to the fact they can be detached from the car seat base and quickly re-attached to a stroller base, making transporting your baby in and out of the car a lot easier.

The downside? Your baby will quickly outgrow their infant car seat, and you'll need to purchase another once they've hit the weight or height limits. Thankfully, there are programs in all 50 states for qualifying parents to receive a new, safe, and free car seat. You can contact your local hospital or WIC program to find out more details.

Convertible seats

Convertible car seats, on the other hand, start out as rear-facing and can be turned around to forward-facing when your toddler is big enough. Nearly all rear-facing convertible car seats have a maximum weight of 40 pounds and a length limit of more than 40 inches to remain facing backward, says Dr. Hoffman. That means they can typically be used rear-facing for longer.

As a downside, however, these car seats are commonly heavy and bulky and do not detach from the base in the car. They also tend to be more expensive than a single-use seat, but your investment will last much longer than a rear-facing-only infant car seat.

Buying and Installing a Car Seat

If you're wondering which car seat to buy, Dr. Hoffman advises: "The best seat for you is the one that fits your child." It's also important to remember that not every car seat fits every car. And while there isn't necessarily a simple fix for that, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) rates car seats based on ease of use.

Parents should follow all manufacturer instructions for installing a car seat safely. If you're confused, Dr. Hoffman says the best thing is to speak to a certified car seat technician. Parents can search for a certified car seat technician on the Safe Kids Worldwide website, on the NHTSA's website, or by calling a local children's hospital.

The Bottom Line

If you have questions or aren't 100% sure about whether it's time to turn your child's car seat around, ask for help! It's so much better to be safe than sorry when it comes to car seat safety. "It's a lot easier now than it was 20 years ago, but it is still really hard, and we need to acknowledge this," Dr. Hoffman says. "There's no shame in this. This is about protecting your kid from something that could kill them."

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