New AAP Car Seat Rules: Read the Report Before You Buy

New policy statements from the leading pediatricians' association asks parents to keep their children in rear-facing seats when traveling in the car until age 2, or until they reach the height and weight restrictions of these seats, and recommends that children travel only in the back seat of the family vehicle until age 13. And given that many states follow the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations with legislation, car seat manufacturers and consumers should take note.

At the center of this new policy recommendation is the observation by pediatricians and safety experts that "many parents turned the seat to face the front of the car when their child celebrated his or her first birthday" -- when, according to growth charts, about half of little girls and little boys would have reached 29-30 inches, or the maximum length for most infant-only rear-facing seats. Maximum weights for the seats are more variable; many children, according to growth charts, would outgrow the Evenflo Embrace, the Cosco Comfy Carry, or the Eddie Baeur Deluxe Infant Car Seat -- just to name a few -- by 8 or 9 months of age.What are consumers to do with these new recommendations, especially those consumers who have yet to buy a car seat for their babies-to-be?

Unless you come from extremely small peoples, it seems the best approach would be to purchase a convertible seat instead of starting with an infant-only rear-facing seat and planning to move to a front-facing seat when the child outgrew the seat at eight or nine or 14 months.

As the lead author of the AAP report, Dennis Durbin, says, "A rear-facing child safety seat does a better job of supporting the head, neck and spine of infants and toddlers in a crash, because it distributes the force of the collision over the entire body."

Another quote in the New York Times refers to the rear-facing seats as "orphan seats" -- the only ones to successfully protect their occupants in serious crashes (so -- could we all sit in rear-facing seats?). Whatever your thoughts about the benefits of having your toddler facing forward and the negatives of rear-facing seats, it's hard to argue with such data as that which informs the recommendation.

Seats such as the Britax Marathon Classic, the Combi Coccoro, the Evenflo Titan Elite, and the Safety 1st onSide Air will all hold a baby safely in the rear-facing position far beyond age 2 (in fact, many 4-year-olds could stay rear-facing, were you to desire the added protection as long as possible) for under $200, as long as you don't have an extremely tall child.

If you've already secured your baby in an infant seat meant to be turned around at age one, what now? The recommendations are pretty clear that you shouldn't keep a child in his seat beyond the height and weight ratings; if you haven't already purchased a seat, the best choice is to buy a larger convertible or three-in-one that can keep your child rear-facing for as long as you feel necessary.

The recommendations aren't clear as to what should be done if you have more than one child under the age of two (or the height/weight restrictions on your rear-facing seats); typically, a rear-facing infant gets the middle spot. It's something faced regularly by parents with twins; but guidelines are mute on the subject.

And like me, the AAP may have buried the lead. The guideline's last sentences include a recommendation for babies -- and, if you read between the lines, older children -- to use their car seats in airplanes, too. Of course, the guidelines don't suggest how this would work; it's probably not feasible, and not much use given the different dynamics of airplane crashes, to install a rear-facing seat in an airplane. "Although the Federal Aviation Administration permits children under age 2 to ride on an adult's lap on an airplane, they are best protected by riding in an age- and size-appropriate restraint," reads the AAP release, going on to quote Durbin again, "Children should ride properly restrained on every trip in every type of transportation, on the road or in the air."

With no lap belts on airplanes, it's hard to know if Durbin expects 7-year-olds to sit in booster seats or 4-year-olds to have five-point harnesses. It's also not likely the FAA will change its rules given the substantial logistics of getting every kid on an airplane into an extra seat designed for a full different sort of vehicle.

But if you fly a lot with your children and the AAP recommendations carry a lot of weight with your family, you may want to evaluate the car seats you buy not just for roominess, convertibility and style, but also for weight; if you've got two or three little kids headed across the country, you're going to have a lot of schlepping to do.
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