Pop quiz: How long should your baby remain facing backwards in her car seat? While the American Academy of Pediatrics has set a minimum standard of until a baby is at least 20 pounds and 1 year old, there's no agreed-upon ideal standard beyond that. Most experts advise parents to continue placing their babies in a rear-facing seat for "as long as possible."
"There's no magic number," concedes Flaura Koplin Winston, M.D., Ph.D., head of Partners for Child Passenger Safety, a joint study conducted by The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm Insurance. But Dr. Winston knows what she tells parents: "Go by the maximum weight limits set by the car-seat manufacturers." That means when your baby outgrows her infant seat (which may happen before her first birthday), you should switch to a larger, convertible seat and keep it rear-facing until she outgrows that as well. And since most models hold up to 30 pounds in the rear-facing position, your baby could remain in that direction until she is 2 1/2 to 3 years old.
Why so long? "In a head-on collision, a rear-facing seat allows the force of the crash to spread evenly over the spine," explains Dr. Winston. Facing forward, on the other hand, the body is restrained, but the head is vulnerable. For a baby or toddler whose vertebrae and ligaments are still loose, a rear-facing seat can mean the difference between a minor injury and severe spinal cord damage.
Some parents -- depending on the fit of their car seat as well as their baby's size -- may decide to turn their baby around before she's 3 years old. The most important point to remember is that the 20 pounds/1 year guideline is the bare minimum -- not a green light to face forward. And, of course, all car seats need to be properly installed to be effective. To receive a free car-seat inspection, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/childps, which lists certified technicians by state. For more information, check out the National Safe Kids Campaign at www.safekids.org.