Saturday, November 30, 2013

WHY Car Seats for Infants are Rear-Facing

Even before your baby comes out into the world, you might have wondered what car seat to purchase. As a matter of fact, you need a car seat just to be able to bring your newborn back home. Or else, the hospital will not permit the discharging of your child. 

I spent a lot of time thinking with my wife whether to buy an infant car seat or a convertible car seat. In this day and age, both must have passed stringent tests and be compliant to various standards set by the government in terms of safety. So I wasn't too worried there. The only trade-off seemed to be that with infant car seats, you can carry the seat out of the car and not have to lift up the baby separately - quite helpful when he's asleep. Of course, the downside being the product will be useless in about 6 months as your child grows out of the seat requiring you to buy a larger car seat. My wife and I calculated that we were not going to be driving our child around frequently in the first 6 months, so we chose a convertible car seat from Safety 1st.

I followed the manual and installed the seat in our SUV in its rear-facing position. I shook it, as instructed, and was satisfied with how the seat belt held it down. The only problem was that due to the rear seat being slanted, even with full recline, the car seat did not tilt backwards enough for the baby to be lying down flat. Once again, as instructed, we rolled up a bunch of newspaper and magazine and stilted up the front of the car seat to help with the recline, but then the top quickly ran against the front passenger's seat. I just didn't know if I was being safe and protecting the baby as much as possible. 

To develop a sense for whether your infant is safe or not, it is critical to understand WHY car seats for infants are rear-facing. In short, this is because their heads are relatively heavy. Let me explain. 

As you can see, the largest mass of a newborn is located at the head. Combined with a weak neck vertebrae and underdeveloped muscles, you can easily see babies dropping their heads without support. So now, imagine if the baby was seated in a front-facing seat. When you slam on your breaks in the car, the baby's main mass - which is the head - will launch forward and damage the neck which can be fatal. If the seat is rear-facing, the head will instead be pushed into the seat. Given that we tend to slam on brakes more often than getting rear-ended or launching a vehicle as if in a drag race, it is thus generally safer to have the baby rear-facing. 

Knowing this, it is then possible to fathom how much tilt is needed for rear-facing seats. First, the baby should be able to rest part of its head mass on the seat cushion to not pressure the neck. Second, depending on your style of driving, the tilt must be large enough so that the baby's head does not flip forward (towards the back of the vehicle) upon accelerating. And that's about it. 

We found our son very comfortable in the  convertible car seat's rear-facing form with about a 60 degree tilt. As a matter of fact, I think he falls asleep better in the car - the reason for that would be a post for another day.  

Where is the WHY for Babies?

On November 22nd, 2013, I became a father. As many might agree, having a newborn join your life can be one of the most breathtaking (and sleepless) experiences. And surely, I can attest to that after a week of parenting. In the past 7 days, I've learned so much about newborn babies and everything relating to them. This is inevitable because as a parent, you must ensure the safety, well-being and survival of your baby. However, I cannot stop feeling that every parent (including myself) will go through similar trial-and-errors, sleepless nights and agony before getting it right. This is clearly inefficient. There has to be a better way.

During the 2 days at the maternity ward, we had many nurses and doctors visit telling us what to do and not do with the baby. The amount of information provided was simply overwhelming. Not only that, the guide to handling a baby was given as directives - i.e. the car-seat must be rear-facing, feed the baby at least once every 3 hours, hold the baby upright for a burp... and there was no end to it. No wonder learning how to become a caring parent is inefficient. 

As an engineer, I know that memorization and following rules is the worst form of digesting information to solve problems. A better way is to understand the inherent cause and engineer a solution around it. I believe handling babies are no different. There is a reason why the car-seat is better rear-facing. There is a reason why sometimes the baby simply can't sleep for 3 hours. But no book or baby guide focuses on the reason. This means I have to find it by trial-and-error or else I have to worry and search for an answer every time I face a situation that I don't have directives for. This is frustrating. 

I want to record my findings and realization from raising my son on this blog. I do not intend to write yet another rule of things you should do or not do with your baby. For that, there are myriad books out there you can read. Rather, I aspire to keep this blog short and simple, placing emphasis on the WHY and understanding the fundamental reason behind why certain baby things are done in certain ways. 

I want to write an engineer's way of understanding how babies function so that you may come up with your own solution, best fit for your baby.