A new study, published in the British Medical Journal, claims that infants are safer in rear-facing car seats and, where possible, should remain in rear-facing seats until they are four years old.
The doctors who have reached these conclusions have based their findings on the outcomes of babies and children involved in car accidents in Sweden and the US, where it is believed that there would have been less injury or fatality in cases where children were travelling in front-facing seats but could have been positioned rear-facing.
The report also flags up the fact that in children aged 0-23 months, in all kinds of car accident, rear-facing seats were a safer option, and there are now calls on shops to stock more rear-facing seats.
Infant carriers and car seats for older infants
According to UK car seat law, babies and children must be placed in a special infant carrier, child car seat or booster seat until they are aged 12 or taller than 1.35m.
All babies must travel in an infant carrier when travelling in a vehicle and when you are leaving hospital for the first time, the midwife team will not let you leave by car if you do not have a carrier.
Carriers can be placed (usually) in the front or back seat of your car and are positioned rear-facing. The exception may be if the front seat has an activated airbag, in which case the carrier must be placed in a back seat.
However, seats beyond infant carriers – ones referred to as Group 1 car seats – are used for babies once they grow out of infant carriers. Often this range of car seat (sometimes combined as a Group 1, 2, 3 seat which can be adjusted as your child grows) can be used as a forward- or rear-facing seat, and many parents opt to place their child forward-facing because it is more interesting for their toddler to see where they are going.
As we have advised on ThinkBaby before, and as this report suggests, where possible this is a preferable option for as long as possible.
What should you do to keep your child safe?
A representative from RoSPA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) has pointed out that all standard car seats sold in the UK which meet EU safety standards are safe for use, so parents should not be overly alarmed. However, this might be a good to time to look at any infant car seats you have, and to check they are in good condition and that you are fitting them properly each time you travel. It's also worth looking at the website www.childcarseats.org.uk for useful tips and advice.
If you are buying a car seat now, think about options like the Recaro Polaric which are designed with rear-facing safety in mind. Ideally buy a car seat in a store rather than online, so that a shop assistant can check for you that the car seat you want fits your kind of car. Shops like Mothercare will do this for you.
Although the report claims that children up to 4 years would benefit from travelling rear-facing, this is not always an easy option. Once your child's legs hang over the edge of the seat, there will not be enough room for them to sit easily in a rear-facing position. Indeed, if we all travelled backwards on aeroplanes it would be safer too, but we do not do this because it does not feel like an enjoyable experience.
However, where possible, do keep your baby in a rear-facing seat as long as possible if your seat is designed to be fitted that way. Older babies and toddlers might find travelling backwards boring. In this case it's good to have an adult in the back with your baby to keep him amused. Or buy a stimulating baby travel toy which he can play with safely as you drive along.