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.
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.