Rear-facing car seat recommendations

Current recommendations and Michigan law regarding rear-facing child restraints.

Rear-facing child restraints include infant only car seats and convertible car seats. Photo by Becca Peterson.
Rear-facing child restraints include infant only car seats and convertible car seats. Photo by Becca Peterson.

Although parents everywhere know they must have car seats for their child, the requirements, recommendations and laws can be very confusing. There are three sets of information parents must filter: state laws, car seat directions and best practice recommendations. One of the more confusing decisions is when to turn your child forward facing. What is legal? What is recommended? Why?

Michigan’s child passenger safety law requires all children younger than age 4 to ride in a car seat in the rear seat if the vehicle has a rear seat. Currently, Michigan’s law specifies that child restraints must be used in accordance with the car seat manufacturer’s directions. This is what is known as a “proper use” directive in car seat legislation. In effect, that makes Michigan’s laws indicate that children must ride rear-facing until they are 1 year old and 20 pounds. Although the law does not actually say that, the minimum requirements to use most car seats forward facing is 1 year and 20 pounds. To forward face a child who does not meet the requirements of the car seat would be illegal in Michigan. Drivers can be stopped for transporting a child illegally and can be ticketed and fined.

Additionally, Michigan’s law indicates the following:

  • If all back seats are occupied by children under 4, then a child under 4 may ride in a car seat in the front seat. A child in a rear-facing car seat may only ride in the front seat if the air bag is turned off.
  • Children must be properly buckled in a car seat or booster seat until they are 8 years old or 4-foot 9-inches tall.
  • All passengers under 16 years old must use a seat belt in any seating position.
  • All front seat occupants must use a seat belt regardless of age.

Safety experts including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend children remain rear-facing until the maximum limits of their car seat or at least 2 years old. This recommendation was changed April 2011, as research showed toddlers are over five times less likely to be injured or killed in crashes when they are rear-facing. Many states have begun changing to laws that require rear facing until age 2. While several bills have been proposed in Michigan that would update child passenger safety laws, none have been made into law.

Why are children safer rear-facing? Infants and toddlers have a very large head in proportion to their bodies. Additionally, their bones are comparatively soft and do not start to ossify, or harden, until they are closer to preschool age.

When adults are in car crashes, their heads whip forward and back and the common injury is whiplash. However, when infants or toddlers are restrained forward facing, when their heads whip forward the weight of their big heads perched on soft bones is commonly too much strain for their spinal cords to handle. The injury often sustained is called internal decapitation and can be life threatening or fatal. This can be avoided by remaining rear-facing as long as possible. A rear-facing seat cradles the head, neck and spine. A child travels down and back up in the crash with the seat, and they are protected from the force of whipping forward.

Parents are commonly concerned about what happens to toddler’s legs in collisions. In fact, the medical data does not indicate any increase in leg injuries when children are rear-facing. Children rarely choose to sit straight up with their knees bent at the edge of a seat and dangling down. When you see a child sit at home, their feet are curled up under them, they’re crisscrossed, etc. They will find a place for their legs that is comfortable. Think of it like a recliner versus a kitchen chair. Most people find recliners more comfortable!

While awareness of state laws regarding child passenger safety is important, Michigan State University Extension encourages parents to refer to safety expert recommendations regarding best practices when making decisions, and to view the laws as a bare minimum, not a recommendation. Keep your children rear-facing as long as their child restraint allows.

Visit MSU Extension’s Early Childhood Development page for resources and information for families and children and to find upcoming events in your area.

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