The short version:
The American Academy of Pediatrics has updated its guidelines to recommend children ride in rear-facing seats until they reach the height/weight limit of their rear-facing seat, then in a forward facing car seat until they reach those limits, and thereafter ride in a booster seat (preferably at least a high-backed one) until they are at least 4'9", and also reiterates the advice to not have them in the front seat until age 12 (this is due to the ubiquity of passenger-side airbags).
The folks at the Consumerist aren't happy about this.
I want to look at a few of the arguments, in descending order of intelligence:
"My kid isn't two-years-old yet, and he's already outgrown his rear-facing seat!" Well, duh, that's why the actual guidelines say until the height/weight limits are reached. The age is mentioned only because that's the general age most kids reach those limits. My second-youngest daughter isn't yet 40lbs at five-years-old.
"Some relative of mine is a grown-up and they're only 4'8"! Should they be in a booster seat?" Y'know, if that's what I had to do to get my seat-belt to fit me properly, I'd totally do it. Back when I was a kid and too dumb to use a seatbelt without being told to, I hit the windshield in a low speed crash. It hurt. I'd really rather not recapitulate that experience as an adult, thankyouverymuch. Still, if there are so many really short adults out there, maybe we should start lobbying the car companies to make seatbelts fit from a lower height.
"But their legs would be all scrunched up. That's more dangerous!" First: no, it's not more dangerous. And even if it did put your kid at risk for leg injuries in case of a wreck, better that than a cervical spine injury.
"There's not enough room with the seat turned around backward!" Non-negotiable rule: buy a carseat which fits your vehicle. This includes rear-facing.
"It's more nanny-state bullshit." For starters, these are safety guidelines issued by a nongovernmental agency. So it's not the State at all. This isn't a law. You are free to risk your child over and above the bare minimum the state requires (and believe me, people do it all the time). Read over the guidelines, do your research--DO IT, by the way, don't just go with a gut "not this shit again" feeling--and then do what you feel is best. Look, my nine-year-old rides in a booster seat whenever possible. (She frequently has to ride in a lap-belt-only position, which I don't like but it's the only option right now. Booster seats aren't safe for use with lap belts.) I didn't take her out when she turned eight. That law here in Texas actually just changed last year; before that I think you only had to have kids in boosters up until age five or something. I don't know exactly, because I based my family's practices on safety rather than legality. Even before these guidelines were issued, we'd planned to keep Marie rear-facing as long as possible, and actually narrowed down car seat choices based upon what had the highest rear-facing weight limits. No one made us do this.
"It's another car seat to buy!" No, it's not. Not unless you think you need an infant seat/carrier. You probably don't. A good convertible car seat will see your baby from birth to about age 5, when you'll probably need to put the kid in a booster seat anyway. There are exceptions--when Linda was born prematurely, we had to go out and buy an infant bucket seat to take her home from the hospital because she wasn't quite big enough for her convertible seat yet. And you know what? Neither my ex nor I had any problems with doing this, because our daughter's safety was worth the extra expense, which frankly was negligible--something like $40.
"My kid doesn't like facing backward!" Whoop-de-shit, as I'd tell my own kids. Listen, as parents we do shit our kids don't like all the time. Or, I should say, we make them to things they don't like all the time. Not eat ice cream for every meal? Check. Not stay awake on a school night until they pass out on their own? Check. C'mon, this is a shitty argument. My oldest daughter hated her car seat for the first several months. I made sure she fit in it properly and limited unnecessary trips, but you'd better believe that the trips I had to make, I made, and that included a 1400 mile (one way) trip from Virginia to Texas with her hollering whenever she was awake in the car. Marie doesn't like the car seat too much either, so sometimes I've spent an entire drive sitting beside her petting her and talking to her and trying to nurse her (which can be done but is not easy)...but I still put her in the car seat. And I am not one of those parents who typically lets her kids cry, either.
And now, my personal favorite argument:
"I never rode in a car seat at all and I'm just fine!" First of all: No, no you're not. Or you'd realize what a fucking idiotic argument that is. Secondly: just because you made it through unscathed save for your critical thinking skills doesn't mean everyone did. A woman on the Mothering message boards made this argument eloquently. She said "I used to be one of nine kids who rode around unrestrained in the back of a station wagon. Now I'm one of eight kids who has to live with the memory of my sister's brains on the road because we rode around unrestrained."
Look, I'm not going to say there can't be principled disagreement on some facets of carseat safety. Eventually, you will hit the point of diminishing returns. Whether that point is reached with a rear-facing three-year-old I can't say. I'm totally okay with keeping my kid rear-facing that long. Maybe you think that's overkill, and as long as you've done some research on the subject, fine.
These are the rules I will propose as inarguable in regards to safety:
- Use a damned car seat. Every trip. Just like you buckle yourself, buckle your kid.
- Make sure your car seat fits your car, and your child. Not all car seats fit all cars. We're using an infant seat right now in the truck because the car seat I want won't fit. Safety depends largely upon fit.
- Keep your child rear-facing at least until age one. Before that (and, hell quite possibly past that age), your child's skeleton isn't strong enough to prevent serious head injuries in a wreck.
- Ensure your car seat is properly installed. Read the damned manual. It really isn't that hard. (Albatross has pointed out to me that I'm not making sense here. I don't mean that it will be easy to install your carseat properly if you read the manual, just that you must read the manual if you want to install it properly. Stupid phrasing on my part.) You can have a car seat tech help you, if necessary.
- Ensure you're using the car seat properly. The chest buckle needs to be aligned with the armpits, and you should be able to only insert a couple of fingers in between the buckle and your child's chest. Straps need to be up on the shoulders, not on the upper arms. When rear-facing, straps should come from the bottom; when forward-facing straps should come from the top (reference point here is your child's shoulders). Untwist the straps. Don't put straps over a bulky winter coat. IIRC, as long as your child's ears are below the top of the seat, she's okay in it height-wise, but I could be wrong on that one.
- Don't buy a used car seat. I'm actually okay with using a used one as long as it comes from someone you know very well, and you can believe them when they say it was never in a crash. The crash thing is why you should never buy a car seat from craigslist. Weakening of the plastic isn't always visible to the naked eye. By that same token, never use an expired car seat. They have a natural lifespan of around five years; beyond that things start to weaken or become brittle. Expiration date is stamped on the seat.