When to Turn Around Your Baby's Car Seat

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

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 baby safe.

Above all, rear-facing car seats are the gold standard for safety, and parents should keep their child 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.

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

When you turn a car seat around depends on a number of factors, including your child's weight and length, as well as the type of car seat you choose. Here's everything parents need to know.

Why Is a Rear-Facing Seat the Gold Standard?

To understand why children should stay in a rear-facing seat as long as possible, parents 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, who is also a certified child passenger safety technician instructor. For comparison, he notes that's about 40 percent 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," he 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 a lot 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]."

baby in car seat
Marlon Lopez MMG1 Design/Shutterstock

Types of Rear-Facing Car Seats

Wondering about the best time to switch 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 backwards: 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: These tend to have a maximum weight of about 30 pounds (with some surpassing that) and a maximum length of about 30 inches, says Dr. Hoffman. They tend to be popular with parents due to the fact they can often be detached from the car and quickly re-attached to a stroller base.

Convertible seats: These car seats start out as rear-facing and can be converted to forward-facing. Nearly all rear-facing convertible seats have a maximum weight of 40 pounds and a length limit of more than 40 inches to remain facing backwards, says Dr. Hoffman. That means they can typically be used rear-facing for longer. As a downside, however, they do not detach from the base in the car.

When to Turn a Car Seat Around for Baby

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, all 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. "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."

Buying and Installing a Car Seat

If you're wondering which car seat to buy, Dr. Hoffman has some advice: "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 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 car seat technician. Parents can search for a certified car seat technician on the Safe Kids Worldwide website, on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's website, or by calling a local children's hospital.

"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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