Child car seats: rearward vs forward facing – which is best?

Which offers more protection: a forward- or rearward-facing child car seat? And what is Isofix, and should you choose this type of seat?...

Child car seats: rearward vs forward facing, which is best?

Until the new i-Size standard is rolled out for seats for larger children, all i-Size seats are rearward-facing. Whether you go for an i-Size seat or not, though, there’s a strong argument for keeping children in rearward-facing seats for as long as possible.

“Children are not little adults,” explains Simon Bellamy, managing director of independent retailer In Car Safety Centre. “They have a developing bone structure and many of their organs are sited differently from ours. The weight of their heads as a proportion of their body is also a major factor. All of these points are reasons to support and restrain a child in a rear-facing position for as long as possible.”

Child car seats: rearward vs forward facing, which is best?

Some Group 1 seats for children weighing 9-18kg are rearward facing, but as children grow they will run out of leg room, and forward facing will be a more comfortable and practical option.

Should I use an Isofix seat?

The old-fashioned method of securing a child seat is with the car's seatbelt. According to research by the German Insurance Association (GDV), just 30% of seats secured with a seatbelt are fitted properly. For a Group 1 Isofix seat, that figure jumps to 96%. That’s because the child seat simply clicks into place using two arms that attach directly to anchor points in the car.

Some seats also have a top tether point or an adjustable support leg, both of which are designed to prevent the seat from moving forwards in a front-end crash.

“We recommend Isofix seats over belted seats, although we appreciate that not all cars are equipped with Isofix anchorage points,” says Mark Bennett, Britax’s European product expert. “It is a very safe, quick and easy-to-use system that simplifies the busy lives of parents and gives them the confidence to install child seats in an intuitive way.”

An Isofix seat may make seat fitting easy, but correctly adjusting the harness that holds your child in place is equally important. The harness should be set about 2cm below the top of the child’s shoulder on a rear-facing seat and 2cm above it on a forward-facing seat.

“The harness should be tightened sufficiently so that you can just squeeze two fingers behind the shoulder pads. Some seat makers suggest a one-finger space. Either way, a loose harness is dangerous,” adds Bellamy.

The best cars for three child car seats

best cars for three child car seats

A recent survey revealed that having three children was the most stressful number for parents to deal with. Having one or two children may be a life-changing experience, but adding a third to your family throws up a whole new set of challenges. Not only do most family tickets for days out and multi-packs of food come in multiples of four, but you’re also likely to find that your car is no longer big enough to transport the whole clan. 

Renault was one of the first car makers to acknowledge that not all families were the standard two parents and two children, when it launched the Espace MPV in 1984. However, the popularity of these boxy ‘multi-purpose vehicles’ – or people carriers – is waning, having been supplanted by SUVs in the affections of many families. 

Although most MPVs and many SUVs come with seven seats, not all are able to accommodate more than two child car seats in the second and third rows. While you might be able to use the front passenger seat in some cars, that’s not practical if a parent has to sit in the back, squashed between two child seats. It’s also dangerous for a child in a rearward-facing seat to use the front seat unless the airbag is deactivated, and that’s not always easy to do. The rear seats are generally considered the safest place for children to sit in cars. 

To help parents pick the most suitable cars for larger families, we got together the best contenders in three classes – large SUVs, luxury SUVs and MPVs – and tried fitting three child seats into their second and third rows (but not the front, for the reasons outlined above). We’ve also included a category for electric vehicles, even though there’s currently only one with more than five seats: the Tesla Model X

We chose an infant carrier, a seat suitable for a toddler and one for an older child. The two larger seats can be secured only by Isofix mounts, while the Group 0+ infant seat can be used with an Isofix base or a seatbelt. 

Our results are based on our own physical tests and on Euro NCAP safety tests, which state whether it is permissible to use a child seat in each seat position. This information can also be found in car owner manuals. 

The child seats used in our test

Maxi Cosi CabrioFix 

maxi cosi

Price £119.99 Group 0+

Child weight 0-13kg (approx birth to 12 months)

Seat width 44.5cm 

Maxi Cosi AxissFix Plus

maxi cosi

Price £395

Group i-Size

Child height 67-105cm (approx birth to four years)

Seat width 44.5cm 

Halfords 123 Isofix

Halfords 123

Price £120

Group 123

Child weight 9-36kg (approx nine months to 12 years)

Seat width 44cm 

Next: Best large SUVs for three child seats >

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