Hearing a baby screaming and crying is hard for any parent to hear, but if it happens when you’re behind the wheel of your car, it’s even worse. You often feel helpless as you need to get to your destination but you have the added distraction of an unhappy baby in the back seat. So why do some babies hate car seats?
It’s usually because the car seat isn’t comfortable, or they feel hot, cold or alone, or they could even just be bored. In this article, let’s explore some of the reasons why you baby may dislike their car seat and what you can do about it.
Why do some babies hate car seats?
Discomfort, isolation or just plain, old boredom are frequent reasons why your baby might hate their car seat. But it can be complex to find the actual reason because your baby won’t be able to tell you.
Are the straps too tight?
Try small adjustments to see if that makes your little one happier – but stay within the seat manufacturer’s recommendations. Be sure too that your baby’s clothing is not being pulled by the straps and causing discomfort like tightening a collar.
However, for some babies the opposite is true and they enjoy the security of being tightly held or swaddled. They may feel insecure if the car seat is not ‘holding’ them enough, especially when they are really tiny. This doesn’t mean you should tighten the straps any more than your seat’s user manual advises. But you could try rolling up two small pram blankets and slipping these in on either side of your little one to create a more snug, secure environment.
Do you have the right car seat?
Is the car seat allowing your baby to recline at a comfortable angle? Neck position is especially important for comfort (and, more seriously, for easy breathing). Is the seat you have chosen completely appropriate for your child? If you suspect that this may be an issue then seek expert advice. The Ultimate Car Seat Guide (safekids.org) is an excellent place to start.
Also, is the car seat good enough? You often get what you pay for. If you’re on a tight budget, it’s sometimes best to get a really good second hand seat than a lower quality new one that is not as safe or as comfortable.
Top brands like Maxi-Cosi sell on Ebay and Gumtree for a fraction of their new price, possibly because many parents are worried about hygiene and don’t want to expose their precious new born to second-hand goods. These hygiene fears are mostly unfounded because good quality seats are designed for easy cleaning. So don’t see ‘used’ as an obstacle when you could find a better quality seat that solves baby car tantrums. Just make sure whatever you buy meets all the necessary safety standards and is iSize, LATCH or ISOFIX compatible.
Is there light shining in your baby’s eyes?
Light in cars can often be a problem – especially sunlight. Even at night, the sudden light-intensity variations caused by streetlights and the headlights of other vehicles can disorientate your child and cause distress. Because of the restrictive nature of car seats, babies can struggle to turn away from uncomfortably bright light, so make sure you have carefully placed sunscreens to prevent this.
Is your baby too hot or too cold?
Temperature is another issue to bear in mind. As you would in a bedroom, be sure the in-car temperature is comfortable for your child.
Of course it might not be the car seat at all which is causing your baby distress, maybe they are unwell or they need you to calm them down. Here are some more possible reasons.
Could it be reflux or wind?
Try burping your baby before the car trip and, if possible, avoid travelling too soon after meal times. In this case though, it isn’t being in the car that is the problem. So was your baby at least fussing a bit before the trip?
Do they have car sickness?
Car-sickness is a possible cause, but it is unusual for a baby not to show this by vomiting. And the crying would usually only start once the car is moving. If you suspect that nausea might be an issue, try turning on the aircon or opening a window. The air blowing on your baby’s face can help in this regard.
Are they in pain?
Some chiropractors claim that car-seat crying can be caused by pain. The theory is that tightness in the hips or mid-back makes it difficult for the baby to be in the slightly bent position required by some car seats. If you have any concerns, you can always contact your paediatrician and take it from there.
Do they feel alone and isolated?
Perhaps your baby associates the car with being isolated from you? This could be exacerbated by the child being backward-facing and unable to see you if you are driving and not sitting in the back. Is the crying anything like it is during other times you leave your child alone? Is your baby happier if someone else is also in the back? If so, try setting up a mirror so you are visible to your little one. Do not be tempted to switch the seat from backward to forward-facing before the child is ready. For most children, this is when they are at least 15 months old.
What can help undo this sense of isolation is to also use the car seat in the house as one of the regular places you ‘park’ your baby. Make these times happy with music or other sounds your child enjoys as well as calming or playful interaction from you and others. If isolation is the problem then, before you have too many journeys with your baby alone in the back, enlist the help of another person to join you for short journeys so that baby gets to have fun being distracted and having the full attention of an adult while in the car-seat.
Are they bored in their car seat?
Have a selection of toys that are used exclusively for car journeys. This will keep them novel and more likely to provide stimulating distraction as well as help building positive associations with being in the car seat. This is more likely to be a useful strategy for babies 9 months or older. (Remember though to choose soft toys that won’t become dangerous missiles during sudden braking or a collision. A general rule of thumb is any toy that wouldn’t hurt you if another adult threw it in your face should be fine!)
Sound can be your friend in facing this problem too. There is your reassuring voice, of course. But most children will have other sounds that either calm them or engage them. YouTube is a great source of inspiration.
I found the sound of trains in the rain would stop my daughter from crying and eventually soothe her to sleep. Yours may enjoy ocean sounds or favourite songs.
It’s trial and error, but with perseverance, you could well find that magical sound that turns your screaming changeling into the perfect passenger. It may be Beethoven, it may be Bowie, it’s probably neither – but I’ll bet it’s out there.
How can you stop car seat tantrums?
Any one of the above causes could cause your baby to cry and have a tantrum. If you’re driving the car, try soothing them with your voice first. If that doesn’t work, you can wait it out for a few minutes and see if your baby calms down by themselves. If not, you may have to pull over when it’s safe to do so and try to calm them down. Try to remain calm yourself as it can be very frustrating, especially if you’re in a rush to work, or taking them to their nursery. For occasional tantrums in the car seat, you may just have to accept it, but for more consistent issues, it may be one of the reasons listed above.
Is it ok to let your baby cry in the car seat?
When you hear your baby cry in their car seat it is very distracting. However, it’s essential you focus on the safety of all passengers who are in the car. Try to speak in a calm voice to them at first, providing you’re still concentrating on your driving. If this fails, you can pull over and calm them down, but try your best not to take them out of their car seat and pick them up as it makes it harder for them to get used to sitting in one.
Should you let them cry it out?
If you can bear it, let them cry it out (at least for a few minutes). You know your baby best, so if they only cry occasionally in their car seat, you can let them cry it out for a bit. If they don’t stop, you can stop the car and try to calm them down. However, if it’s happening very often, try to think what could be causing their discomfort.
What do you do if your baby hates the car seat?
Some people try to ride it out and let their child cry themselves to exhaustion for very long periods. However, this could exacerbate the problem, as they might be overtired and need you to calm them down. Never be tempted to take the child out of the seat while the car is moving – no matter how distressing the crying becomes. If you have to, pull over to calm your child. And then take a deep breath and start what may be a long process of elimination to find the answer.
If you baby only occasionally expresses discomfort in their car seat, you probably don’t have anything to worry about. However if it becomes a regular pattern, you may have to look at other causes, or possibly replace the car seat altogether.
How do you keep your baby happy in their car seat?
Here are a few strategies to help your baby happy in their car seat (courtesy of Child Development Info)
- Try white noise in the car.
- Hang a mirror (so your baby can see you when you’re driving).
- Try using a pacifier.
- Put up a sunshade in the window.
- Start with some shorter trips in the car so your baby can get used to their seat.
- Try opening a window.
- Make sure you know if your baby is healthy. If they have a cold, temperature or upset tummy, nothing is going to really help unfortunately.
- Keep some soft toys in the car (make sure you use ones which your baby doesn’t use in the house)
Graham is a father of two who founded Dadometer to share his parenting journey with other moms and dads.