If your baby falls asleep almost before you’re out of the driveway, consider yourself lucky. Many parents struggle with kids who won’t spend five happy minutes in their car seats, which turns “running a quick errand” into a dreaded daily task.
Usually, this crankiness stems from a lack of mobility. Outside of the car, your baby is used to more freedom of movement and more physical attention than you can provide when she’s belted into her seat.
Trying to drive while your little one screams bloody murder is challenging to say the least. Even though it’s difficult to deal with, you must remember that you and your baby’s safety come first. No matter how tempting it may be, never take a crying baby out of the car seat. It’s extremely dangerous and counterproductive, making it even more difficult for your child to get used to riding in her car seat. Making poor driving decisions when your baby is wailing puts everyone in the car at risk. Either pull the car over and calm your baby down, or focus on getting safely from point A to point B—don’t try to do both.
The good news is that a few new ideas, a little time and maturity will help your baby become a happy traveler. Any one (or more) of the following strategies may help solve your car seat dilemma. If the first one you try fails, choose another one, then another; eventually, you’ll hit upon the right solution for your baby.
- Health check. If car seat crying is something new, and your baby has been particularly fussy at home, she may have an ear infection or other illness. A visit to the pediatrician is in order to rule out any possible health risks.
- Establish familiarity. Bring the car seat in the house and let your baby sit and play in it. Once she gets used to it in the house, she may be happier to sit there in the car.
- Easy entertainment. Keep a special box of soft, safe car toys that you’ll use only in the car, such as furry friends or foam blocks. If these are interesting enough, they may hold her attention during your trip to the store. Avoid hard toys because they could cause injury in a quick stop.
- Environment upgrade. Tape or hang toys on the back of the seat that your baby’s facing for her to check out during the drive. Or, string an array of lightweight toys from the ceiling using heavy tape and yarn. Place them just at arm’s reach so that your baby can bat at them from her seat. Don’t use hard toys that could hurt your child if they come loose in a quick stop.
- Poster child. Hang a baby-friendly poster on the back of the seat that faces your baby. Opt for prints with black, white, red and bold primary colors; some even have pockets so you can change the pictures. Remember to switch it up every once in awhile to keep your baby engaged.
- Tune rotation. Experiment with different types of music in the car. Some babies enjoy lullabies or music made especially for young children; others surprise you by calming down as soon as you play one of your favorites. If professional tracks don’t do the trick, try belting out some of your own! Your child will love hearing your rendition of a favorite holiday song or dance hit.
- Soothing sounds. Play “white noise” in the car. Kids are comforted by sounds that mimic the noise in utero, so purchase CDs of calming nature sounds, or even make a recording of your dishwasher’s sloshing sounds.
- Baby steps. Take advantage of times when your baby has a sunny disposition by practicing with short, pleasant drives. Have someone can sit near her and keep her entertained. A few good experiences may help set a new pattern.
- Pacifier or teething toy. Sucking or chewing on a small, soft toy can help pacify your cranky tot. Stick to objects that are large enough not to present a choking hazard.
- Hang a mirror. Let your baby know you’re nearby by hanging a mirror that allows you to see each other. Baby stores offer mirrors made especially for this purpose. Seeing your face will help her overcome any separation anxiety she may be feeling.
- Stay shady. Put up a sunshade in the window if you suspect that sunshine in your little one’s face may be a problem. Use the window-stick-on types, and avoid any with hard pieces that could become dislodged and bop your baby during a quick stop.
- Plan ahead. Try to consolidate trips as much as possible to avoid lengthy car rides. If the grocery store and drugstore are in the same vicinity, wait until you’re picking up dinner ingredients to purchase more shampoo.
- Growth spurt. Make sure your baby hasn’t outgrown her car seat. If her belts are too tight, she may find her seat to be uncomfortable—and she’ll let you know it!
Your baby may despise her car seat now, but play around with switching up her environment, entertainment and stimulation during bouts of driving. Eventually, trial-and-error will help you create an optimal car environment to keep your little one safe—and your sanity intact!
Parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley is the president of Better Beginnings, Inc., a family resource and education company. She is also the author of twelve parenting books, including the popular "No-Cry" series.