Deborah Pencharz assesses the current UK standards

My husband is from New Zealand. While visiting friends and family there I noticed that children in New Zealand stay rear-facing in car seats much longer than they do in the UK, notstarting to face forwardsuntil between the ages of 2 and 3. Afriend out there told me this was because there is evidence that continuing to face the rear of the vehicle is safer for the child, even past infancy. I therefore decided to look into this before buying my son his next car seat. A few Google searches later and I found out the following:
Evidence for prolonged rear-facing originally came from Sweden, wheremedical traffic researchers discovered the advantages of having small children sitting rear-facing in a collision. The reasons are that a child is more vulnerable in an accident because their proportions are different from those of an adult. A child’s head weighs 25% of their total body weight compared to an adult, which is 6% – see the image.

As well as having a disproportionately large head to body size, children have fragile, flexible and poorly developed neck muscles. When a child is forward-facing and a frontal collision occurs, the child’s head is flung forward in the seat. This causes an enormous amount of stress in the neck. A child’s neck and spine are particularly vulnerable because their spine is still soft and not yet solidified like an adult’s.
The internal organs are also vulnerable. A soft rib cage under the harness will bend, limiting the protection of internal organs such as the heart and the spleen.
In a rear-facing car seat, in the event of a frontal collision the child is flung into the back of itsseat and the force of impact is distributed along the whole back of the seat, offering greater protection for the neck, spine and internal organs.In a rear-facing seat, the force on the neck is equivalent to 50kg while in a forward-facing seat the neck is subjected to a force equivalent to 300-320kg .

In the light of all this, Scandinavian children sit rear-facing until they are 4–5 years old (25kg or 55lbs). This has resulted in a much lower number of children injured or dead in car accidents, compared with other countries such as the UK. New US recommendations are that children should remain rear-facing until they are 2 years old.

The disadvantages of rear facing car seats include they take up more room in the car andthey are generally more expensive. Some people also think the child gets more bored facing backwards, but I don’t think my son does – he has a good view out of the back window as well as the side, and it’s easier for someone sitting in the back to see and talk to him. Indeed, I can’t think of any reason why facing the front of a back seat is more boring than facing the back of a front seat. And having done my research and weighed up the pros and cons, I decided I wanted my son’s next car seat to be rear facing.

It is actually not that easy to find rear facing seats beyond the infant stagein the UK. It is not clear to me why this is but, presumably because British parents have traditionally positioned their children forward-facing from about 9 months, there is little demand for rear facing seats for older children, so car seat manufacturers and retailers in the UK do not provide them. However, there are some retailers selling them – the website www.rearfacing.co.uk has a useful list of retailers as well as more information on rear facing.
Having read what I discoveredabout rear-facing car seats, I can’t help but think that the advice about car seats that we are given from most retailers in this country might not be the best for our children.

The Spring 2013 issue of the National Childbirth Trust magazine carries an ad from BeSafe – Scandinavian Safety, which says ‘Both the British Medical Journal and American Academy of Paediatricians recommend keeping children rear-facing for longer’ and reports that this is five times safer. The Company Sells a BeSafeiZiGo from 0-1 year, and BeSafeiZiCombi for around 1-4 years. For more details see www.besafe.com and select UK/Ireland.