Rear-Facing Infant Seat vs. Convertible Seat for Children Over Age 1

February 16, 2016

Last week, a CPS Technician submitted a question through CHOP’s Car Seat Safety for Kids website that other Techs -- as well as parents and caregivers -- may also be grappling with. The question involved Consumer Reports’ convertible car seat ratings based on its new testing protocol. The ratings, released in December of 2015, include a recommendation that children restrained using a rear-facing infant seat should be transitioned to a rear-facing convertible seat at age 1. It’s important to not misinterpret this recommendation: Regardless of seat type, children should remain rear-facing until at least age 2 or until they outgrow the height and weight limits for their rear-facing seat, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

It is critical to note that Consumer Reports’ convertible car seat ratings support the AAP’s best practice recommendation. The ratings do, however, mark the first time that a recommendation has been made on the specific type of rear-facing seat that may be safest for children at various age thresholds.  

The reason for Consumer Reports’ recommendation to transition to a convertible seat at age 1? In its testing of infant seats and rear-facing convertible models (both using the 12-month-old CRABI dummy and attached via LATCH), in a simulated frontal crash test with a structure that simulates the front seatback (blocker plate), the dummy’s head contacted the front seatback 53 percent of the time in infant seats and 4 percent of the time in convertible models. A typical convertible seat provides more space for a child's head and reduces the likelihood the head might contact the front seatback in a crash, thus potentially reducing the probability of a head injury.  

As a biomechanical engineer, I commend Consumer Reports (a current member company of the Center for Child Injury Prevention Studies) for conducting these tests, which are intended to more accurately simulate the current fleet of vehicles. However, as a CPS Technician and a father, I understand the confusion that this new recommendation may cause. My own daughters present two opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to infant seats vs. convertible seats. My older daughter is 2 ½ and is still within the height and weight limits for her infant seat. However, my 8-month-old daughter is on pace to outgrow her infant seat at (or even before!) her first birthday. Although a child’s 1st or 2nd birthday is a great time for parents to re-assess the type of child restraint they’re using, height and weight remain the most important factors in determining if a child has outgrown their rear-facing seat.  

Infant seats vs. convertible seats are one of the decisions that new parents face when it comes to child passenger safety. While some parents enjoy the convenience that an infant carrier provides, other parents choose to invest in a convertible seat from their child’s birth. No matter the choice, the most critical take-away messages for parents and caregivers are:

  1. Children under age 2 are safest when restrained rear-facing. This remains true whether parents select an infant or convertible seat.
  2. A change in seat does not necessarily mean a change in orientation. CPS Technicians may encounter parents who assume that switching from an infant seat to a convertible seat also means switching to forward-facing, which is not the case for a 1-year-old child. Parents should be assured that their child is protected in an infant seat if they are over age 1, as long as they are within the height and weight limits mandated by the manufacturer of that seat.

Click here to read more about Consumer Reports’ convertible car seat ratings