Why should children travel in rear-facing child car seats for as long as possible?

The R-129 (i-Size) approval standard makes it compulsory for all child restraint systems to face backwards until the child is 15 months old.

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Road Safety

We know that small children should be traveling in a rear-facing position. This is set out, for example, in the  R-129 (i-Size) approval standard, which makes it compulsory for all child restraint systems approved by R-129 to face this way until the child is 15 months old. However, up until what age should they travel this way? Is four years old the maximum age at which they should travel facing backwards, or should they do so for as long as possible?

In Sweden it is widely known that children should travel in a rear-facing position. “If you ask a parent in Sweden to describe what a child car seat is like, 95 percent will tell you that they are rear-facing seats”, pointed out Tommy Peterson, Director of the Crash Test Laboratory of VTI (Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute) and Manager of the Plus Test during the ‘First Rear-facing Day’ recently held in Spain

In Sweden, child restraint systems are approved under European legislation (R44/04 and R-129) but this does not go far enough for them, since it does fully address the forces that are exerted on the child’s neck. Therefore, the country also provides the Plus Test mark, which is optional for child seat manufacturers but means that the CRS in question is especially safe. In this test, rear-facing seats are the standout winners (take a look at the Plus Test and the seats that have received this mark here).

In terms of what different international bodies have to say on this topic, Fundación MAPFRE’s document entitled ‘Estudios de sillas para los niños en coches’ (Studies on seats for children in cars) (397 KB) has compiled detailed information on opinions and assessments of rear-facing child car seats and all of them agree that children should be traveling in a rear-facing position for as long as possible, providing that the child’s condition and physical characteristics allow for it.

While forward-facing child car seats prevent up to 75 percent of injuries, rear-facing child seats can prevent up to 95 percent of them. Why is this the case? In a rear-facing seat, the child’s weight falls against the child seat’s backrest but this does not occur in forward-facing child seats. A seat which is in a rear-facing position absorbs the energy of the impact within its own structure.

This video clearly explains the big difference this makes in a rear impact.

Facing backwards, but for how long? 

Fundación MAPFRE recommends that the child travels in this position until they are at least four years old, and, if the child’s physical condition permits, for as long as possible. Bear in mind that a baby’s head is proportionally much larger and heavier than the rest of its body. While an adult’s head accounts for approximately 6-8 percent of their total body weight, a child’s head can make up as much as 25 percent of their total body weight. Furthermore, the bones and muscles in their neck have still not developed enough to be able to support the relatively heavy weight of their head. Added to this is the fact that their head circumference (childhood growth patterns) is still developing together with other aspects such as their weight or height as the child grows. 

The neck is also the area which suffers most in any kind of impact. This is why adults usually suffer from whiplash. In the case of children, the consequences can be much worse, precisely because of their heavier head and the fact that the spinal column is not yet fully developed. We should also point out that the harnesses firmly secure the child in place and only allow the head to move in traffic accidents. 

The Swedish car manufacturer Volvo is clear that “children should travel facing backwards as long as possible. It is a good idea for children to use rear-facing child seats until they are three years old, although they should use them for even longer if possible”. In fact, this car manufacturer stresses that even if a child cannot sit in these seats with their legs fully extended, their safety is not compromised in any way.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recently changed its recommendations in this regard. It previously advised that children should travel in a rear-facing position for their first year of life, and now it recommends they do so until they are at least four years old. In fact, they point out that it not only protects the child’s neck and head, but also their arms and legs, given that the seat prevents the child from flying forwards. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has compiled information on the difference between traveling in a forward-facing position and in a rear-facing position in a CRS, as well as the likelihood of injury if the child is only using a seat belt or if they are in a child restraint system. It shows how a child up to four years of age has a 50 percent lower risk of injury with a forward-facing CRS and 80 percent less if the car seat is rear-facing.

We should remember that children must travel in a child restraint system when they are less than 135 cm tall, as established in Spanish legislation. However, Fundación MAPFRE recommends that they continue to use them until they are 150 cm tall, as established in European Directive 2003/20/EC.

Knowing how important it is for children to be traveling in rear-facing seats, the market currently offers child restraint systems of this kind for children up to 25 kg and 120 cm tall, enabling the child to travel in this position until they reach this weight and/or height.

Lastly, this video also demonstrates the difference between traveling in a rear-facing position and not doing so: