For safety’s sake, it’s best to keep your child rear-facing until he reaches the seat’s maximum height and weight limits.

Many parents used to turn the seat to face front as soon as their child celebrated his first birthday. But in 2011 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) revised its policy, citing a study that found children younger than 2 are 75 percent less likely to be killed or injured in a car crash if they’re in a rear-facing car seat.

Now both the AAP and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommend children face backward until they outgrow their seat. That means most children should remain in a rear-facing car seat until they’re at least 2 or 3 years old.

Why rear facing car seat is better

Very young children are especially at risk for head and spinal cord injuries because their bones and ligaments are still developing. Their heads are also proportionately larger than their necks, so the structural support system is still a little wobbly. Rear-facing seats give the best support to your child’s head, neck, and spine, and prevent your child’s head from being thrown away from his body in the event of a car crash.

Although the rate of death from motor vehicle crashes in children younger than 12 has gone down significantly – dropping 45 percent between 2000 and 2010 – they’re still the leading cause of death in children older than 1.

When your child outgrows the height and weight limits of a rear-facing infant seat, you still have the option of moving him into a convertible seat with a higher height and weight limit. That way, you can keep him rear-facing a little longer, and when he’s ready to ride facing forward, the convertible seat will still fit him.

Is it safe to keep my child rear-facing if his legs seem too long?

When sitting in a rear-facing car seat, most toddlers have limited legroom. Their legs usually touch the car seat behind them and may even have to be bent or crossed to fit.

This can be troubling to some parents who worry that the child is uncomfortable. Or worse, that his legs could be hurt in the event of a crash. But experts say that’s not the case.

Rear-facing car seats are not only far more effective at preventing fatal injuries (as well as those that could permanently disable a child), but they’re also much better at protecting your child’s arms and legs.

“In a forward-facing car seat during an accident, your child’s arms and legs fly forward and are more likely to be injured,” says Ben Hoffman, a nationally recognized injury prevention specialist and pediatrician at the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, Oregon Health & Science University. “In a rear-facing car seat, the chance of injuries to the arms and legs in a crash is less than 1 in 10,000.”

So it’s still the safest position, even for kids who look constricted in a rear-facing seat. As long as kids are within the height and weight limits of the seat, they’re most likely quite comfortable, too.

Many rear-facing car seats now accommodate kids who weigh 40, 45, or even 50 pounds, and are up to 49 inches tall. (Many kids exceed the height limit long before the weight limit.) Hoffman recommends keeping your child in the safest seat option for as long as possible and moving to the next step only when you absolutely have to.

Before you put your child in a front-facing car seat or booster – or let your child ride with just a seatbelt – find out the laws in your state. Check with your state public safety office or the Governors Highway Safety Association.

More information on extended rear-facing seats

Each year, the AAP updates its car seat guide, including advice on how to install a car seat properly. It also compares seats by weight and height limits as well as price and lists the results.

BabyCenter’s Community has a large and active group for parents interested in keeping their kids in rear-facing car seats for as long as possible. You can ask questions and get advice by visiting theExtended Rear-Facing group.

It may also be helpful to look at pictures of older kids in rear-facing car seats. Visit the Extended Rear-Facing Photo Club to see some.

Get more information on car seat mistakes parents make and how to avoid them and buying a car seat for your toddler.

Take our poll: Will you keep your child in a rear-facing car seat?