One of the most common questions our Good Egg Safety experts receive from parents is in relation to extended rear-facing versus forward-facing and it can stimulate quite a lot of debate.
It's understandable some parents believe it's safe to forward-face their baby from nine kg onwards because seats which are made to the older regulation ECE R44/04 allow this by law.
Newer regulation seats ECE R129 (which includes i-size) makes it illegal to forward face until a child is at least fifteen months old. This crucial difference between regulations can create confusion.
As a leading child safety specialist, we are primarily focused on 'best practice' which is not the same as the legal minimum. We prefer to look at the evidence and then enable parents to make an informed choice.
The evidence shows us the safest option of travel is to rear-face your child, ideally until they are at least four years old.
The reason is simple and it relates to the physiology of your precious and irreplaceable child.
Babies and toddlers are especially vulnerable in a collision because their heads are disproportionately heavy in relation to the rest of their body and their neck muscles are not fully developed. Frontal impact tests show that the strain on the neck is many times greater when the child is sitting forward-facing compared to when sitting rear facing.
The reason for this is in a collision everything continues to travel towards the point of impact at the speed the vehicle was moving. In a forward-facing car seat, the ISOFIX anchorage or the seatbelt stops the continued movement of the child seat, while the restraints (harness or impact shield), stop the child.
The continued momentum of the child's head is stopped by their neck, and finally the movement of their brain is stopped by their skull.
In a rear-facing seat, the shell of the seat stops the body and maintains the alignment of the head, neck and body, so the forces imposed on the components of the neck and spine are much lower.
In a forward-facing seat, your childs neck would be subjected to a force equivalent to 300kg-320kg (47-50 stone) at speeds of only 35mph, while in a rear-facing seat, the force on their neck would be equivalent to only 50kg.
This is why the gold standard Swedish Plus Test (Sweden are world leaders in child car safety) generally only tests rear-facing seats because forward-facing seats wouldn't come close to passing it.
No matter how well made a forward-facing seat is, in a frontal (head on) collision - which is the most common and the most dangerous - a childs head and neck gets thrown forward with great velocity and the risk of serious head and neck injuries are higher.
The seven vertebrae of the neck provide the main structure around the nerves of the spinal cord, which connect to the brain in the highest part of the neck. The vertebrae in the spine, the spinal cord and the nerves all have a degree of flexibility, but when the immense forces of a sudden impact are imposed on a child's delicate body, there is a significant risk of breakage and injury to the spinal cord.
In rare cases, what is medically referred to as atlanto-occipital dislocation (e.g internal decapitation), can occur.
These alarming news articles explain it more fully:
The use of a correct rear-facing child car seat will almost eliminate the risk of serious neurological damage and death in young children and the evidence for this can be found in the almost zero child occupant casualties recorded in Scandinavian countries where rear-facing is the cultural norm compared to countries where forward-facing from 9kg is more common.
Ultimately, providing your child seat meets the legal requirement, which as you can see differs between concurrent ECE regulations, it is your choice to make.