mum driving with baby in back seat

How do I keep my baby happy in a car seat?

There are two types of babies in the world: Those who love the car seat and those who cry at the mere sight of a car seat. My children fell into the latter category, so I spent years deciding whether or not it was even worth it to leave my house knowing a car ride full of wailing awaited me.

And I know I’m not the only one. Parents are constantly searching for the elusive trick that will make the baby stop crying in the car. Proper use of car seats helps infants in car accidents, and the design protects babies’ heads and spinal cords in case of a crash. Unfortunately, babies don’t understand these benefits. They just know they can’t see mama and no one is holding them.

Upset babies are hard to deal with all on their own, but the distracted driving that comes with a crying child in the car seriously augments the problem. It’s no wonder. Research proves that all humans—not just parents—have a hard time ignoring the sounds of a crying infant. We are primed to help, according to scientists. A parent stuck in a car with a crying infant will likely feel panic, sadness and fear that can manifest in an increased heart rate and stress.

Children whose separation distress is not tended to because parents are stuck in rush-hour traffic will continue to do what is normal for them in this situation: scream. Dr. Rakesh Radheshyam Gupta says that “crying may lead to vomiting in infants and may cause hoarseness of voice.”

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 traveller. Anyone (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.

Looking for a car seat for your baby? Look no further. My Baby Nursery have a wide range for you to choose from.

Decrease the recline of your rear-facing car seat. 

Though infant car seats often show levels to help install at the recommended 45-degree angle needed for a newborn and young infant, older babies who have good control of their neck muscles no longer need to ride in such a reclined position if you watch you may see your child straining her neck muscles to lift her head from the position and get a better look around the car, and possibly out the window. Hours of that can get exhausting. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, you can decrease the recline of your rear-facing car seats for toddlers and babies with stronger necks to 30 degrees.

Get a (sippi)grip. 

During summer road trips especially, everyone needs to stay hydrated—especially babies, who become dehydrated much more quickly than older children and adults. But sippy cups and bottles seldom stay at their passenger’s seat. I like the SippiGrip strap to help keep bottles and cups with the kids, and as you can see in the photo above it also helps provide entertainment in some cases. Filled with cold water, it wasn’t a problem when Theo discovered he could douse himself as we drove through some very hot areas. Attached to a SnackCatcher, he was also able to feed himself puffs as we drove. As you can imagine, the SippiGrip also works well with toys.

Pick the Right Time to Travel

If you have the option, try to schedule short trips during times when your baby is usually happy and awake. For long distances, try scheduling your trips during nap time, so your child can sleep when you drive. Driving short distances during nap time isn’t a good idea because your child may become grumpy when woken up.

Make them comfortable from the start.

Babies who become upset the minute they are placed in the car seat are unlikely to calm down for the remainder of the ride. That’s why it’s important to start off strong by making the seat as comfortable as possible right from the beginning.

Don’t let a baby lean back on the seat straps while loading them. The sudden feel of those obtrusive items on a baby’s back can startle them or cause discomfort—enough to remind them that they hate the car seat. Items like LulaClips pin to the car seat straps to hold them out of the way while loading or unloading a child from the car seat. This makes the process fast and easy, and it can also help keep a sleeping baby from waking up during the transfer from mom’s arms to the seat.

If your older baby still hates the car, incorporate frequent trial runs into your week while your baby is awake to create a positive association. With the car in park, sit in the backseat and play with the baby while they’re strapped in. Move to the front seat for short stints after they get used to the setup.

Talk to Your Child While Driving

Your child quickly learns to love the voices of his parents and caregivers. So spend some time talking to your child while you’re on the road. Any soothing noise or conversation will help keep your baby happy. You can also amuse your child by making new and different sounds for him.

Use Music to Soothe Your Child

Most children like music, so play the radio, listen to a favourite album or sing to your child while travelling. Keep in mind, infants, just like adults, all have different music preferences. So if your child doesn’t seem interested in one type of music, don’t think that this means she won’t appreciate a different genre.

Keep Calm and Drive On

When faced with a car-seat meltdown, strive to keep your voice calm and neutral. (If you respond with stress or other heightened emotions, it can increase your child’s own feelings of anxiety.) Give your baby heaps of praise when they’re settling down or when they successfully manage a trip to the store without a tantrum. And keep the praise up once you get back home or arrive at your destination.

mum driving with baby in back seat

Check out our range of the best baby car seats for your baby.

Check to See if Something Is Causing Them Discomfort

Is the sun shining in their face? Use a stick-on sunshade. Do they hate not being able to see you? Check out a safe plastic mirror for rear-facing car seats. Does the car seat actually fit? Double-check the car seat’s size and weight recommendations and see if it’s time to upgrade.

Keep company. If you don’t have other children to keep the baby happy in the back seat, take turns with your partner between driving and riding in the back seat with him. Your rear-facing baby will appreciate the company as you read, play, sing, or simply are within his view, and the driver will no doubt appreciate having you back there to attend to his needs. At the same time, he focuses on the road—and possibly an audiobook.

For more help planning your road trip with baby, from pacing your journey to surviving car sickness, and from dealing with diapers to renting campervans

Consider what they’re wearing.

Temperature can be a problem for babies when in car seats, but not in the way most parents expect. As opposed to being too cold, many babies struggle in the car because they are too warm.

Babies should never be placed in a car seat wearing a jacket. Not only will they overheat, but the bulk of a jacket keeps the car seat straps from working properly.

Take the weather into consideration, of course, but since the car is temperature-controlled, dress the baby in normal clothes and save the jackets or extra layers for when it’s time to get out of the car.

Plan around gas.

Sure, make sure you have enough gas in the car to get to where you want to go, but also plan around a baby’s gas. A baby who experiences major gas after a meal is not going to like feeling constrained. Plan car rides long enough after mealtimes for a baby to get the gas out at home when moving around is possible.

Children with reflux also have unique challenges in car seats as they don’t allow them to move freely so they can have problems getting comfortable if they can’t find the right position due to stomach or reflux pain.

One mom found that her son’s reflux took care of itself around the 6-month mark, and car rides suddenly weren’t a problem anymore. Waiting for reflux to fix itself is difficult; however, so talking to a pediatrician or finding natural ways to deal with it are preferable. It’s possible that controlled reflux will equal peaceful car rides for all.

Children do grow out of the screaming-in-the-car phase, but these tactics can help move them towards happier car rides sooner. With a little advanced planning, peaceful car rides may be around the next bend.

Use a Calming Essential Oil in a Car Diffuser

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, using essential oils like lavender, clary sage, neroli, and chamomile can reduce agitation and stress, and promote calm. Harness the power of aromatherapy with a car diffuser to help turn car-seat anxieties into quieter, more relaxing moments. (Be sure to use natural essential oils rather than chemical-based fragrances, as some people may have negative reactions to these products.) If the aromas don’t help your child, they may help you relax a little more. 

car essential oil diffuser

Keep Teething Toys Within Reach

Teething can make even mellow children unhappy, so be sure to bring some teething toys for your child during car trips. Even young infants without any teeth will appreciate having something to put in their mouths. To avoid the risk of choking, try to wait for breaks to give your child a bottle or other snack. The risk of choking is particularly dangerous because it’s difficult to see if your child has a problem when she’s in the back seat.

Check Your Thoughts

Thoughts become feelings, so check your thoughts. If you’re thinking about how awful the situation is or how bad of a decision you made to drive – you’ll just feel even more rotten. Some good mantras can be helpful. The favourite, ‘this too shall pass’ is a good one. It is important to remember that it’s just a phase and will get better, and eventually be a thing of the past.

“Both my kids went through a stage where they would just scream in the car, and there was absolutely nothing that would calm them. The good news is that they both grew out of it in about a month or two (longest month or two ever!). Now they are both happy and content in the car.”

Siblings To The Rescue

Siblings can be a great source of comfort if they are old enough not to hurt the baby unintentionally. Silly faces, songs or gentle talking can help distract the baby. Sitting your children close to each other may help to avoid tears in the car. Give the older sibling a selection of toys and books to use in case your baby does become upset.

“One thing that helped was moving his car seat into the middle so that he was (rear-facing) next to his sister, who is 3. Now, they face each other, and she does a fantastic job of keeping him happy, waving toys at him, playing peekaboo etc. So I would recommend trying to put the baby next to a toddler or older sibling, as long as they aren’t going to hurt them!”

My Baby Nursery has a wide range of baby car seats to help you choose.

Minimise Trips Where You Can

Some trips are necessary, but it’s okay to surrender and minimise trips where you can. Forget the pressure to be everywhere and do everything – be a homebody for a little while, or just cut back where you can. If you’re meeting friends or family, ask them to come to you instead. If you have older children, ask if others can help with school runs for a little while too. People will understand that it’s not always that easy to get out with a baby.

Public transport is another great alternative while your baby gets through this fussy stage. My daughter loves travelling on the train or bus. She’s right there with me, and when she was little, she’d often sleep through the trips because she’d be cosy in her baby carrier.

If you’re only travelling a short distance, consider walking instead. Keep your baby close in a sling or wrap, and you’ll be able to chat away whilst you walk. Not that he’ll be listening though, chances are he’ll be cuddled up asleep on your chest.

Driving with your baby is often stressful, but planning and putting some of these tips into practice should help your child adjust. Setting a travel routine can help you plan to avoid baby meltdowns, but don’t forget the novelty factor of a new toy, music album or other items when taking longer trips. Just remember to take it slowly and have plenty of patience for your child who is learning to adjust to a new and exciting world.

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