Car crashes remain a leading cause of death for children. That’s why it’s so important for kids to be strapped into an appropriate car seat for their height and weight, and that the seat is properly installed in your vehicle.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that young children remain in a rear-facing car safety seat for as long as possible—even past their second birthday—until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by their seat. Rear-facing is the safest position for your young child to be in the event of a crash.

The AAP’S recommendation is based on two things: on motor vehicle crashes in which children died or were injured and from what we know about the anatomy of young children.

“A young child’s head is very heavy, and their neck is not well-developed,” Dr. Pilar Bradshaw says. “The most deadly car accidents are the head-on collisions, and in a rear-facing position, your child’s head and neck is cradled and solidly supported. If you turn your child around before they’re old enough, the first thing that happens in a crash is their head and neck snaps forward. Even in a relatively minor accident, this can be a potentially deadly type of injury.”

In a sudden, violent stop, a rear-facing seat will protect a child’s entire back and spread out the force of the crash, reducing the risk of serious injuries. Unfortunately, parents sometimes choose to move their child to a forward-facing seat prematurely, because they think their growing child may be uncomfortable riding rear-facing.

Dr. Bradshaw says, “There are joints at the ankle, knee and hip that act like a spring and allow your child to be able to tolerate an impact if they are rear-facing. We would much rather treat a child for a foot or leg injury than an injury to the head or neck.”

Is your child in the right car safety seat?

Over the years, car seat manufacturers have increased the weight and height limits on their rear-facing seats. This means that more children can ride rear facing as they grow well into the toddler and preschool years.

Parents should check the instruction manual and the labels on a car safety seat to find the manufacturer’s weight and height limits. When a child is approaching one of those limits, it is time to think about transitioning to the next stage.

The AAP recommends:

  • Infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing car safety seat as long as possible, until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by their seat. Most convertible seats have limits that will allow children to ride rear facing for 2 years or more.
  • Once they are facing forward, children should use a forward-facing car safety seat with a harness for as long as possible, until they reach the height and weight limits for their seats. Many seats can accommodate children up to 65 pounds or more.
  • When children exceed these limits, they should use a belt-positioning booster seat until the vehicle’s lap and shoulder seat belt fits properly. This is often when they have reached at least 4 feet 9 inches in height and are 8 to 12 years old.
  • When children are old enough and large enough to use the vehicle seat belt alone, they should always use lap and shoulder seat belts for optimal protection.
  • All children younger than 13 years should be restrained in the rear seats of vehicles for optimal protection.

If you’re not sure if your child is in a correctly fitted car seat or if you want to check to make sure your car seat is installed in your vehicle correctly, get a free car seat safety check from a certified Child Safety Seat Technician in your community.