Why is it that some little ones just seem to hate riding in the car? For babies, it can be an overwhelming experience for sensory systems that aren’t fully developed yet; for busy, active toddlers, being “strapped in” can feel like torture. If you have one of those kids who just conks out the minute the car starts rolling, count your blessings and make an offering to the sleep gods! For the rest of you, read on.
Is it worth battling your child to get them buckled up? Most definitely. It’s the law, and it’s also the most important way to protect your child during car rides. In fact, telling your verbal child that getting buckled into his carseat will help him stay safe is your best answer to any protesting. (And if he’s into police officers or firemen, you can tell him that they want kids to buckle up, too!)
Before we share our tips, let’s just pause for a moment and think about the word “tantrum.” This word tends to get overused – it’s come to mean almost any strong expression of protest or upset feelings. What you should know is that even if you follow all of our tips, your child might just plain not like getting into her carseat, and that’s OK. She’s allowed to not like it. The goal isn’t necessarily to get her to feel differently about riding in the car (though by following some of our suggestions, that may happen!), but rather having everyone – including you – enjoy a much calmer ride.
And so … our favorite tips.
Tips for All Children:
- Whenever possible, avoid car rides when your child is hungry. If you’ll be on a longer road trip, bring plenty of snacks and foods your child likes.
- The way you communicate with your child before getting into the car helps set the tone for what kind of experience you’re going to have. Before getting into the car, calmly and clearly explain to your child what will happen: “In a few minutes, we’re going to get your coat on, and then we’re going to get in the car and go to music class. I have a snack for you to eat on the way, and we’ll bringing Blankie, too. We’ll listen to that silly song about goldfish while we drive.” Even if you believe your child is too young to understand what you’re saying, it’s respectful to give her a heads-up about what’s happening.
- If car rides are usually stressful, you’re probably feeling tense yourself – so take a few deep breaths and try to calm yourself before you get into the car, and again during the car ride when your child starts to escalate. When you are more relaxed, your child has a better chance of calming, too.
Tips for Babies:
- Whenever possible, plan car trips around baby’s naptime so he’ll be more likely to fall asleep.
- Some babies stay more calm with a white noise CD playing while you drive – turn it up as loud as the baby’s cries. Others may enjoy soothing music, such as classical.
- Clip a toy bar to the sides of the seat so baby has something to look at while she’s riding.
- Bring a favorite lovey for him to hold for comfort. Rub your scent on it before you hand it to him.
- Place a mirror on the backseat so you and your baby can see each other while you’re driving. Smile and wave to him when you’re stopped at a light.
- Talk to the baby while you’re driving, even if she’s very upset. Offer some reassurance: “I know you really, really don’t like riding in the car. I’m so sorry this is hard for you. We’ll be there soon!”
- If there are two adults, one can ride in the back with the baby and help keep her amused. Be sure to keep baby in her carseat, though.
- Some babies will stay more settled if you install window shades on the back windows and pull them down while you’re driving. These babies seem to get overwhelmed by the world whooshing by in their peripheral vision.
Tips for Toddlers:
- 15 minutes before it’s time to get into the car, give your toddler some runaround time to get some energy out of his body. By the time he gets into the car, he should be more amenable to sitting and resting for a while.
- Give two transitional warnings before getting into the car – one 10 minutes in advance, and another at 5 minutes. This will help him shift gears from whatever he’s doing.
- When it’s time to go, suggest a fun way to get there: “Would you like to walk to the car or hop?” “Let’s see how many steps it takes to get there – 1, 2, 3…” “Let’s walk the same way together – left foot first, then right foot…” Or, blow a trail of bubbles and let your child catch them – count together how many clouds are in the sky – be creative and have fun!
- Little ones like to do things for themselves. Get a stepstool for her to climb onto so she can get herself into the car. Ask her to help hand you the seatbelt, and help you buckle it too.
- Toddlers can feel a loss of control when getting strapped into their seats. Give her an important job, such as putting her in charge of making sure that everyone’s seatbelt is buckled. Or, ask her to make sure there are no cars coming as you’re backing out of the driveway.
- Let your child pick the music she’d like to hear.
- Get a special backpack for the car and fill it with small fun things she gets to play with only when she’s riding. Contents can include a book, a stuffed animal, a magnetic doodle pad, other small toys. Older kids in booster seats can play with window stickers or window markers. Remember to switch up the items every couple of weeks so they’re still engaging.
- Tell your child that he can have his sippy cup or backpack, or listen to his favorite music, only after he’s buckled in with his seatbelt.
- If your child is expressing his dislike of the car in no uncertain terms, default to the feelings. “I know you hate being in your carseat. You wish we were already at the park, playing on the swings. It’s no fun to sit back there by yourself.” Just feeling heard will help him calm.
- Ask your child to look out the window and find all the things that are red, all the things that are blue, etc. Or, ask him if he can see the garbage truck you’ve spotted, or the girl walking her dog, or the coffee shop you go to on weekends.
- If your child becomes extremely upset and you happen to be on the way to somewhere he really wants to go, pull over and tell him that you will begin driving again when he calms down.
- Give her milestones so she can gauge your progress: “Two more streets, then we’ll be turning left. After that, there’s only one light, and then we’ll be there!”
- On road trips, make frequent stops to allow your child to get out of the car and move his body. Toddlers hate to be sitting for long periods.
Last but not least, when you get to your destination, give yourself a huge pat on the back for hanging in there! Difficult car rides are not easy. The good news is that as kids get older, they will outgrow their strong dislike of the car. Your next battle, though, will be who gets to sit in the front seat!