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.