Thank you for supporting small business! | Free 2-4 Day Shipping on Feature Products

Which Direction Should my Car Seat Face?

direction rear-facing vs forward-facing

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Car Seats Series #2 : Direction – Rear facing vs Forward Facing Car Seats

After we select the right car seat for our child’s stage, we need to determine which direction that car seat should face. How do we do that? A convertible or all-in-one type of car seat can either face the rear or the front of the car. When we apply the 5 safety principles of every restraint system, which is better?

Rear facing vs forward facing car seats

(Watch the video instead...)

According to NHTSA’s Child Passenger Safety Technicians certification program, there are 5 principles every restraint system applies whether that is a seat belt or a child restraint system, aka car seat. These are principles you need to be aware of when deciding between rear-facing or forward-facing car seats for your child.

direction rear-facing vs forward-facing

These principles are:

  1. Keep occupants inside the vehicle. When a person is thrown from a vehicle the potential for injury increases drastically.
  2. Contact the strongest points of the body.
  3. Spread the crash force out of as much of the body surface area as possible.
  4. Ride down the crash. This means to spread the crash energy out over more time for instance by the seat belts giving and stretching some during a crash
  5. Protect the head, neck and spinal column — the parts of the human body that are really hard to repair once they are damaged.

As you can imagine forward impacts are the most common type of impact. Another little factoid is that most crashes, about 97 percent, are 30mph or less.

Frontal crashes: rear facing versus forward facing car seats

When we’re talking about frontal crashes, we want the child to be rear facing for the at least their first two years. They are now making child restraints that go to much higher rear-facing weight limits. If you can keep your child rear facing longer, all the better.

Rear facing is better because, in that forward impact the child’s head, neck and back are all being supported by the child restraint.

4 + stages of car seats

When we flip that child forward facing, we’re using the harness to restrain the child’s body. Ideally we’re going to be using the tether anchor system and the child restraint will be properly installed according to car seat manufacturer’s instructions.

From a crash dynamics perspective, we’re looking at the harness contacting the shoulders and hips with the crotch buckle in the middle. That’s the “contacting the strongest points” and “spreading the crash force out over as much of the body as possible”.

In a forward-facing car seat the child’s body is being restrained by the harness but there’s nothing about the child restraint system that’s necessarily restraining their head or their neck in that forward impact. This is the down side of forward facing or the reason that it’s one step away from optimum protection, which is rear facing.

Download our report: Common Car Seat Mistakes and How to Fix Them

That’s why the rear-facing recommendation is to keep your child rear-facing as long as possible. We want to give the bones in the neck as much time as possible to get as strong as possible. Then the neck has the best chances of being able to restrain the head and protect the spinal column in that forward impact when that child is forward facing.

Once a child is turned forward facing, the harness is restraining the child in a crash and the head flies forward. At this age the vertebrae are not calcified (strong) enough to hold the ligaments between them. And the ligaments can pull out of the vertebrae. The force of the head stretching the spinal cord as little as 1/4 of an inch causes injury up to and including full separation from the brain stem, also known as internal decapitation.

Frontal impacts: Seat belt positioning device

RideSafer best travel car seat

Now if we think about the next stage after the 5-point harness is the seat belt positioning stage. That is the stage where most commonly people are familiar with the booster seat. But that’s also where the RideSafer Travel Vest comes into play as a seat belt positioning device. At that point what we’re doing is positioning the adult seat belt on a child.

A booster works by lifting the child up so the adult seat belt will accommodate them better. The RideSafer vest does essentially the same thing but by bringing the seat belt down to the child and locking it in place on the shoulder and hips with the clips that are part of the vest.

The other component of the vest that we really like is that the front panels of the vest are designed to absorb and dissipate the crash energy of the vehicle seat belt doing the work of restraining the child. That again is applying that principle of spreading the crash out over as much of the body is possible.

With the clip on the shoulder of the RideSafer vest, we’re able to keep that shoulder belt properly positioned on the child. Even if they move around some, that seat belt is going to track with them.

Which direction should your car seat face for Optimum protection

Rear facing is optimum protection. All newborns should start rear facing. Children should remain rear facing until the upper limits of their car seat. If an infant starts in an infant carrier car seat, they may move into a convertible car seat facing the back of the vehicle seat first. Then the child can stay rear facing until the upper limits of that seat. Parents should keep their children rear facing at least until age 2 but preferably longer.

When forward facing — whether with a harness, a booster seat or the RideSafer vest — the mechanics of the head neck and spinal column are virtually the same in that forward impact because it’s the head and the neck that are unrestrained and moving forward.

Once we move beyond the RideSafer vest or booster, a child goes into just the vehicle seat belt system. Part of that process is determining when your child can move to that step with 5-step seat belt fit test, which is covered in one of our videos.

Side note: Pregnancy protection

I also want to mention at Safe Ride 4 kids, we recommend the Tummy Shield. This introduces seat belt safety for the pregnant mother. This is important because the vehicle’s seat belt system was never intended for pregnant moms. Seat belts were designed for the average adult male.

The Tummy Shield does a great job of applying these same principles of keeping the occupant in the car, contacting the strongest points of the body, spreading the crash forces out and doing everything that we can to help the mother ride down the crash without impacting the unborn child.

Next up: Car Seats Series #3: Location – Where to Put Your Car Seat

We want to know, how long are you keeping your child rear facing? Share your comments below.

By Greg Durocher, CEO at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Technician Instructor since 2002

Copyright 2022 Safe Ride 4 Kids. All rights reserved. You may not publish, broadcast, rewrite or redistribute this material without permission. You are welcome to link to Safe Ride 4 Kids or share on social media.

We originally published this post in July 2016. We updated the article for accuracy and comprehensiveness.


  1. Our son is 2.5 years old. He is still facing backwards and he will be until his car seat height limits allow that no matter the age. The height limit is 105cm (42inches). My wife is always sitting with him in the back seats whenever I drive and he is really happy looking around while traveling. 90% of children in Cyprus are not restrained correctly in Cyprus (badly installed car seats, no car seat/booster seat or seat belt at all, riding in the front seat, standing in the car etc). We are doing the right thing even though the law says nothing about rear facing and we are sharing our experience to change how things are done here.

  2. I’m a little confused. I understand that frontal crashes, and conversely being rear-ended, are the most common accidents. I also understand that a rear-facing car seat is the safest when one has a frontal accident as the head is being pushed into the seat at impact. But it seems that rear accidents are even more likely and wouldn’t a forward facing seat be then the safest for the same reason? Thank you!!

    1. Hey there Julia, You are correct that when a vehicle is rear-ended the “rear facing” child would experience the initial crash forces as a “forward” impact and the resulting injury pattern may present itself if the speeds involved rose to the injury threshold but there are other factors involved as well. One of those is the way that rear facing seats typically perform or move in a “rear end” crash or the “rebound” phase of a forward impact. It is very different than the way a forward facing seat performs in a forward impact… and typically, by default there is a limit to how far the head can be thrust because, again, depending on the seat being used, the vehicle seat back might create a “cocooning” action with the shell of the rear-facing seat vs allowing unrestricted stretching of the neck/spine in a forward facing position in the more common frontal crash..

      Then from a statistical probability perspective, it is not an accurate leap to assume that all forward impacts involve a converse rear impact. People run into a lot of things that are not the backs of other cars and that is why the forward impact is the most common type of crash.

      I hope this helps clear up the confusion. Please let us know if you need more help clearing it up…

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Stay Updated!

Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

news, updates, promotions

Thank you and welcome!
You have been subscribed.

us map car seat law updates

Subscribe for Updates

Get news and updates including updates on changes in state car seat laws by subscribing to our monthly newsletter.

Thank you for Subscribing! We'll see you at our next newsletter! 

4+ Stages of car seats

Get a basic understanding of the 4(+) Stages of Child Restraints your child will go through over the years with this cheat sheet.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

10 mistakes report

Do you know for sure if your kids are riding in the car safe?

After all 3 out of 4 of all car seats are being used incorrectly and 93% of newborns are in their car seats with critical errors. Learn how to fix the most common car seat mistakes with this report.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

make every arrival a safe arrival

Enter your name and email then click the button below to pledge and receive our news, tips and updates.

Thank you for Subscribing! We'll see you at our next newsletter! 

safer driving during pregnancy

Find out everything you need to know about the risks involved with driving during pregnancy and how to keep you and your baby as safe as possible in the car.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Get car seat and child safety updates, tips and reminders with our monthly newsletter. You'll also get new product and promotion announcements first.

Thank you for Subscribing! We'll see you at our next newsletter!