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How long should my baby be in a rear-facing car seat? Add to ...

I know it’s the law to keep kids in rear-facing car seats until one year of age but I’ve also heard some parents wait as long as age two or three. Wouldn’t a child’s size at that stage prohibit this in terms of leg room, etc.? When is the best time to switch my son’s car seat from rear- to forward-facing? – Vicky in Oakville, Ont.

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When it comes to rear-facing car seats, the law is one thing, while the best practice recommended by safety researchers and experts is another.

Car seat legislation varies slightly in each province, but typically, after children reach 10 kilograms or 22 pounds, there is no requirement to keep them rear-facing. Ontario law says a rear-facing seat must be used until a child weighs at least 9 kilograms (20 pounds).

However, Transport Canada recommends keeping children in rear-facing seats as long as possible, while observing the seat manufacturer’s height and weight limits. Other organizations take these recommendations a step further.

“What we really want to tell Canadian parents is to look for car seats that will keep your child rear-facing up to the maximum height and weight limit. In Canada, there are rear-facing seats available for children up to 45 pounds or 20 kilograms, so that’s around four years of age, if not longer,” says Kristen Gane, program manager with the injury prevention organization Parachute Canada. “It sounds radical, because it’s not what we’re used to. But in countries where they do this, believe it or not, they have years where no children die on the roads.”

In Sweden, which has the world’s lowest highway fatality rate for children under six, keeping children in rear-facing seats until age four or five is common practice. Swedish crash data reveal that, from 1999-2006, only four children under age four were killed on its roads.

“They were in rear-facing seats, but the deaths were all due to other circumstances – for example, the vehicle was submerged in water or caught fire, and the type of seats were deemed to be irrelevant. Between July, 2006, and November, 2007, not a single child in Sweden under six was killed while in a rear-facing seat,” Gane says.

The relatively large head size and small, fragile bodies of children mean they’re susceptible to a unique set of injuries.

“Children are so vulnerable, for example, to excessive stretching of the spinal cord in the forward-facing position. In the impact of a collision, all the pressure sits on the spinal cord. So you can imagine the severe injuries where children never walk again, and the deaths that occur,” Gane says.

“Rear-facing seats are significantly more effective at keeping the head, neck and spine aligned and distributing the force of a crash more evenly across these areas. Evidence shows that kids are up to 75 per cent safer rear-facing.”

A typical concern parents have with keeping their kids rear-facing as they grow is a lack of leg room.

“It’s true that European designs have a slightly raised seat so there is a little more leg room than those currently available in Canada. Children seem quite happy though, as their legs grow, to put them outward to the side. There’s no medical issue around that and, in fact, leg injuries are extremely rare for children in the rear-facing position – about one in a thousand,” says Gane. “Conversely, in forward-facing car seats, the leg is among the most frequently injured body region.”

In Canada, more children lose their lives in vehicles than any other preventable cause. If parents were aware of the evidence showing children are far more protected in rear-facing seats, they would surely keep their children in this position for as long as possible.

Send your automotive questions to Ask Joanne at globedrive@globeandmail.com

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