What to do when your baby hates the car seat

No matter how many children fall asleep the moment the car they’re in starts to move, there are always a few who decide they’re firmly anti-car, or, more specifically, firmly anti-car seat. More than that, this decision can hit unexpectedly at any time – a happy car-rider one day can start screaming miserably as soon as the car turns on, or even comes into view, out of nowhere, and can disappear just as unexpectedly.

There are a few different reasons why your formerly happy traveler might start staging a protest every time you need to make a trip to the store, from separation anxiety to motion sickness to strong opinions about their car seat specifically. However, there’s also a good chance that it’s a phase you’ll never quite understand, and that there’s not much you can do about besides limiting car rides and waiting it out, because even if it feels endless, it is a phase, and it will pass. In the meantime, though, there are a few different things you can do to make try to make your car trips a little bit happier.

  • If Baby is uncomfortable: check to make sure the car seat straps aren’t too tight, that there’s nothing in the seat that could be poking them, and that their diaper isn’t getting too tight during the ride. Especially in the rear-facing infant seats that have them reclining, babies can feel constricted between the diaper and the position they’re held in for the car seat, so loosening the waistband of their diaper can help.
  • If Baby hates the seat specifically: you can try to help them build positive associations with the car seat, or even with the car, by letting them spend some time in it when you’re not about to make a journey, either by having the car seat inside the house and sitting Baby in it to play a game, or play with a toy for a while, or by having a little picnic in a non-moving car with doors open and their favorite songs playing.
  • If they miss you: while they’re infinitely safer for smaller children, and are recommended until Baby is at least two for a reason, there are a few drawbacks to rear-facing infant car seats. One of them is that, even though you’re less than five feet away from them, Baby can feel like they're too far away from you. You can remind them you’re still there by talking to them, singing them a song, and even setting up a mirror in the back of the car, so Baby can look into it and see you. If you can, riding in the back with Baby, or having your partner ride in back with them can help, too, although some parents find this unhelpful, since if babies see their parents not strapped into car seats, they may wonder why they can’t do the same.
  • If Baby hates facing backwards: many babies actually have a problem with this, but the rear-facing seat is still the safest option when they’re this young. Rear-facing seats can cause motion sickness, and can be uncomfortable in the infant-specific reclining position. If seeing the world rush by backwards is upsetting Baby’s stomach or sense of existential dread, putting up a sun-shade over the back window, or draping a very light blanket over the sunshades that reach over certain car seats can help shield them from seeing that movement.
  • If it’s the car that’s the problem: distraction is probably your best bet, including toys, games, songs and pacifiers if you use them. You can also help Baby to build positive music associations by choosing a CD or album you know they like (and make sure it’s one you like, too, since you’ll be hearing a lot of it) and playing it during a generally happy part of Baby’s day, singing along to it, dancing with Baby to it, and just generally linking these songs with Baby’s favorite things. Once you’ve made the association, there’s a good chance playing it in the car will help to put Baby in a better mood.

If all else fails, and sometimes it does, it may be all you can do to wait it out – look into public transportation options where you can bring a stroller or wear Baby, plan necessary car trips around nap times and hope for the best, and remember that this is a phase that will end.

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