The XX Factor

Safe, Sound, and Screaming Her Head Off

I am the recovering parent of two backseat banshees. My oldest two children hated their baby car seats, so much that even now, years later, I can still remember the precise forearm-to-belly press necessary to get a screaming, back-arching toddler into position for long enough to lock the seat belt down. Which is why, when I read this morning that the AAP now recommends that children remain in their rear-facing car seats until they are 2 years old , my heart sank on behalf of young parents everywhere, because my kids did not like staring at the seat of the car.

Even though my youngest child is 5, I still resented the snide words of Debbi Baer, nurse and car safety advocate: “A lot of parents consider turning the car seat around as another developmental milestone that shows how brilliant and advanced their child is, and they don’t realize that it’s making their child less safe.” Ms. Baer, I’m sure your work has saved many lives-but with a little more understanding, you might save even more. Few parents are stupid enough to consider the turn of the car seat a mark of their child’s brilliance. The turning of the car seat is indeed a milestone many of us look forward to, but here is why: We hope it will make them stop screaming .

Understand that if I had a toddler, I would take this recommendation to heart. In fact, when I pick up my older kids from school today, my 9-year-old will be surprised to discover the return of his booster seat, based on more recommendations from the same report: Kids should stay in their booster seats until they’re 4’$2 9” tall and in the back seat until they’re 13 . Until he measures up, the booster stays.

But as much as I respect the work that goes into car seat safety, and as willing as I am to insist that my kids abide by it, when I read the expert quotes and admonishments that accompany these reports, I’m often appalled. There may be some parents out there who fail to follow the guidelines because they think their baby is too intelligent to face the rear, and (far more likely) a few who don’t have sufficient authority over their older children to keep the booster seat going.  But more often, parents and grandparents don’t understand the rules, or find them too difficult to follow. Have you ever tried to fit three booster or car seats across in the back seat of most cars? Can’t be done-and when it is possible, the middle seat belt becomes inaccessible to all but the most determined, most contorted adult leaning in to help. And then there are the screamers. Little-possibly no-research has been done on how much more difficult it is to drive a car safely with a child shrieking out the torments of the damned immediately behind the driver’s seat, but anecdotally I can say that it doesn’t actually help. Unless you’re really invested in car seat safety-which is to say, unless you understand the dangers and respect the recommendations and those who are making them-it’s tempting to let car seats slide (or turn them around) in the name of convenience and peace.

Advocacy that takes into account that both car seats and booster seats make life safer but more challenging would go further than advocacy that blames parents for foolishly failing to comply-and advocating that car manufacturers make safety compliance easier for parents would go even further. Why don’t more car manufacturers take a lead from Volvo and Chrysler and build in fold-down booster seats? Or design optional fitted car seats, rear- and front-facing, that install easily into existing adult seats? The LATCH system was progress, but it didn’t go far enough. Car and seat manufacturers could do far more to get more kids riding safely, although maybe not quietly. The soundproof barrier between the front and rear of the vehicle will probably still have to be custom-installed. I swear, it would be worth it.