Have you ever heard the advice to take your baby for a drive when they just won't nap or fall asleep at night? It seems to be a common plot on TV shows, and is advice I've received several times from family and friends. Although it can be a great tool for some parents, it can be the opposite of helpful for those with babies that HATE the car. This has been the reality with both my babies, leaving me wondering what I could possibly do to get the car ride screaming to stop.
I remember all too well traveling with my daughter when she was four months old, as she screamed for nearly three hours as we traveled to go see family. And when my son reached the same age, he entered the same dreaded phase, crying nonstop until we got him out of the car.
So why do some babies hate the car so much? And what can we do as parents to make it better for them?
Why Doesn't My Baby Like Being in the Car?
Although the motion in the car can be calming for some babies, getting in the car can be a cause of great distress for others. It can be difficult to pinpoint why this is the case because every baby is so different, and as they grow, their preferences can change as well.
Both of my kids went through phases where they were perfectly content in the car, and other times when they'd scream bloody murder the second we went anywhere. Not only is this a major distraction when driving, but it can be so heartbreaking hearing your baby cry when you don't know how to help them.
If this is currently where you're at, first see if you can pinpoint what may be causing your child distress.
Here are some common reasons why some babies may be upset when getting in the car:
An uncomfortable car seat
Straps are digging into baby's neck
Bulky, stiff clothing
Overstimulation from movement, sights and sounds
Inability to move/wiggle/play
Once you have an idea for what could be causing their distress, make some adjustments to your car rides so that you AND your baby can have a more peaceful outing by trying some of the things below! These were things that worked for me when my babies struggled in the car.
What Can I Do About It?
1. Bring Unique & Fun Toys/Books
Something I quickly discovered with my first daughter was that she got bored of her toys quickly. And if I brought the same toys with us in the car that she was used to playing with in the house, she had no interest whatsoever. The solution? Keeping toys in the car that were ONLY for the car.
So if your child is the same way, keep a little basket in the backseat with new toys, books, or games and switch them out frequently. Utilizing the dollar store is a great way to do this without breaking the bank!
I also found that items like old water bottles or crumpled up pieces of paper worked just as effectively! As long as it's something interesting and new to them, they're likely to stay preoccupied in the car. (Just make sure it's not something they will choke on!)
My kids love music! But I've noticed that both my 5-year-old and 2-year-old get extra grumpy if I have music playing that they don't like. As soon as I turn on the Disney playlist, they're happy as clams!
Whatever your child's favorite music is, put together a playlist on your phone and play it in the car while you're running errands. This will often make a huge difference.
For little babies, try playing white noise or calming lullabies in the car. It may calm them down to the point they fall right to sleep!
3. Add a Mirror
My babies didn't love being away from me when they were little, which may have been a cause for their car hatred! One of the first ways to combat this is to add a mirror.
When installing a mirror, make sure you don't put it on the headrest of the seat their car seat is installed in, as this isn't safe. Instead, install it on the seat next to them, and angle it towards them. They will still be able to see you, but it will be much safer for them!
Adding a mirror will allow you to check on your baby more easily, but it will also allow your child to be able to see you as well (even if it's just the back of your head). This can provide a lot of comfort and ease their anxieties.
4. Don't Forget Comfort Items
If your baby or toddler has a favorite toy, stuffed animal, or blanket, be sure you never forget it when heading out of the house! Having these items in the car can help your child relax and calm down, but the lack of them can cause pure chaos! So always double check before going anywhere!
If your baby is a big fan of pacifiers, make sure to keep extras in your car at all times. I like to keep several in the front seat. That way, if my baby spits it out and I don't know where it ended up (which always seems to be the case), then I can easily slip a new one in while stopped at a traffic light. You can also use a pacifier clip, which can be handy and enable toddlers to find their own pacifiers when they need it.
5. Add a Window Shade
Nobody likes the sun in their eyes--especially little babies and toddlers! If your child is being especially grumpy, take a look at the time of day you are often going out. If it's in the morning when the sun's coming up or in the evening after work, it may be because they're being blinded by the sun!
Some cars have tinted windows already, but if you have a super old car like me, there's no shielding your baby from the sunlight. To help, try installing a window shade. Although you can't cover all your windows, as this would obviously be a hazard, adding shades to the side backseat windows can significantly help.
If your child is a bit older, go out and buy some snazzy new sunglasses for him. When we did this for my daughter, she was not only excited about her new accessory, but it helped her out a lot when we'd drive during sunny hours.
Another solution if your baby is still in an infant car seat is to get the Nuna PIPA! Many of the infant car seats in this collection feature a Sky Drape, a cover that can be pulled down and provide complete shade for your baby. Unlike 3rd party car seat covers that aren't safe to use while driving, the Sky Drape can be used in while driving. (To see which Nuna PIPA models come with the Sky Drape, check out our car seat comparison here!)
6. Double Check Car Seat Straps
Discomfort in the car can be a HUGE cause of grumpy passengers! And uncomfortable car seat straps can be one of the biggest culprits. In order for our kids to be safe, they need to be secured well, which means tight car seat straps. Loosening the straps to a "comfortable" level is not an option. Luckily, there are some things that can be done to make the ride a bit better for them!
The first thing to do is make sure you are using the car seat shoulder pads that come with your car seat. There were times when I'd remove them to throw them in the wash, and forget to put them back in the car. To avoid this, only wash them when you know you won't be going out soon. That way you can ensure you have plenty of time to get them back onto your baby's car seat before the next outing. Without the shoulder pads, babies necks can get really red and sore.
On the occasion that I forget to install the shoulder pads, I would gently pull up a small piece of my baby or toddler's tshirt to provide a small barrier between their neck and the strap. This seemed to help a lot!
The next thing to check is that the straps are not twisted at all. Not only are twists in the seat belt a major safety hazard, but they can cause additional discomfort for babies. So run your fingers along the entire strap when buckling them in to ensure it's straight, and the straps are tightened evenly.
7. Go Out When Baby is Well Fed and Rested
A hungry baby is the opposite of a happy baby! So make sure your baby is fed before going out. Likewise, an overtired baby is not going to be happy going out. So plan your errands around feeding and nap time.
8. Don't Leave Immediately After a Feed
Although your baby will be happiest when they’re well fed, getting in the car immediately after you feed them can be just as big of a mistake. Not only are they more likely to spit up, but trapped gas can make them especially uncomfortable, which is more likely to happen when your baby is constrained and can't wiggle. Instead, let your baby crawl around and play for a few minutes to work that gas out before hopping in the car!
9. Check Their Temperature
Comfort is key. And sometimes the temperature of the interior of your car can be what's causing the fussiness while out and about. Although you may feel fine, in many cars, the front seat often cools off or heats up before the back seat. So on cold days, make sure you have a lap blanket to keep them warm, and on hot, summer days, try cooling off the car before leaving, using a car seat cooler to keep their seat cool before putting them into the car seat, or install a little fan in the back seat.
10. Comfortable Clothing
I've always been a big fan of sweats and t-shirts, especially on long car rides. So it makes sense that babies would be the same way! Remember, babies are a lot more constrained in the car than we are as adults, so any added stiffness can make their discomfort skyrocket.
So if you're planning to go out, dress your baby in soft, stretchy clothing that allows them to move, and that won't cause them to overheat or freeze.
11. Limit Your Errands
Sometimes I procrastinate errands until my to-do list is a mile long, resulting in extra stops and longer times in the car. Although you may be fine with this, your baby or toddler probably won't be. Most kids will get tapped out after one or two stores.
So try spreading out those errands throughout the week. Not only will this keep them from hitting their breaking point by being in the car too long, but shorter trips frequently may even get them accustomed or used to the car more quickly.
12. Talk to Baby Often
A big reason some babies hate the car is feeling separated from mom! As talked about previously, adding a mirror can help. But using your voice can be extra effective.
When my son hated the car, he just needed a little reassurance that I was still there. So I'd say his name often and remind him I loved him and that we'd be out of the car soon.
As your baby gets older and they start to talk, try asking questions or playing a game like "I spy", which keeps them engaged and distracted while reminding them they're not alone.
And if you have older kiddos, encourage them to talk with your baby as well. My son always loved when my daughter would reach out to him, hold his hand and chat with him on our car rides.
13. Sit in the Back Seat
Along those same lines, sometimes babies just get extreme separation anxiety. If my husband was driving, I'd often reach back and hold my baby's hand to calm him down. But if that failed to work, climbing into the back seat was a lifesaver. On long car rides or trips, I'd always do this to ensure a peaceful drive.
14. Prevent Overstimulation
Although music, toys, and talking to your baby can distract some babies and keep them happy in the car, some babies just get overstimulated easily. If your baby is this way, turn off the music in the car, install window shades to diminish lights and sights, and try to go out when there's less traffic and noise.
15. Help Them Get Accustomed
Some babies just need time to get accustomed to their car seat. One way to help them get used to their seat is to take them on walks in their stroller while in their infant car seat (if you have a travel system). This will allow them to get comfortable with their seat while still being able to see you.
Babies also love consistency, so while trying to get them accustomed, try to put them in their seat the same time every day. Start with walks, then once they seem okay with it, try the car. By putting them in the car the same time each day and planning your errands around this, they will start to expect it and get used to it. With time, your baby will be ok with their seat, and you should be able to loosen the schedule a bit.
16. Take Them Out of the Car Seat When Going into Stores
When you have a chance, take your baby out of the car seat. Although the convenient thing about infant car seats is that you can leave your baby in and take the whole car seat into the store with you, sometimes it's good to give babies a break. Let them stretch, as being confined to the car seat for long periods of time can be uncomfortable.
Using a baby carrier is a great way to ensure you can still shop with both hands, while giving your baby that much needed break!
17. Upgrade Your Car Seat
Unfortunately, not all car seats are created equally (even though all car seats on the market have been tested for safety). I definitely learned this the hard way when I bought a very inexpensive convertible car seat from Walmart. Not only was it impossible to install, leaving my husband and I frustrated as we just could not get it tight enough, but my daughter was extremely uncomfortable in the seat. At first I didn't think it was a big deal, but after days of fussiness, I felt the seat and realized how little padding the seat had. After buying a nicer car seat, my daughter was much happier!
Look for something with adequate padding and head support, and for toddlers in convertible car seats, look for something that has greater customizability with adjustable headrests and greater leg room.
18. Give it Time
Sometimes, after all you do, your baby still will not enjoy being in the car seat. But know that it is likely a phase, and that it should get better with time! Both of my kids had several months as babies when they hated the car. Sometimes doing the things listed above worked to keep them content, and sometimes they didn't. But it DID come to an end! So if you've tried everything, take heart and know that it will get better soon.
And of course, if all else fails, reach out to your pediatrician! There may be an underlying problem that flairs up when moving in the car or positioned in the car seat that you are unaware of.
What NOT To Do
Don't turn your child forward facing too early
If your child is grumpy in the car, don’t assume it’s because they’re uncomfortable and need to be turned forward facing. Although some babies/toddlers will be happier forward facing, it’s never worth the increased risk of severe injury by turning them around before they’re ready. So keep them rear facing as long as possible, and try the tips listed above instead of defaulting to forward facing.
Don't give snacks in the car
Another tip many parents offer is to give kids snacks in the car. Although this can be very tempting, it can be extremely dangerous. When in car seats, especially rear facing, children are in a reclined position, which puts your child at a greater risk for choking. (Have you ever almost choked while eating something while reclined in a chair? I have!)
And if you’re driving, you likely won't even notice or realize your child is choking, as choking is often silent.
If you're going on a long car trip, schedule time to pull over for snacks or meals. You need to pull over anyways to stretch your legs and visit the restroom, so make it a time for snacks as well!
Don't use products that would diminish your car seat's ability to do its job properly
There are dozens of products advertised to make your baby more comfortable in the car seat. One of the most popular and most common I see are 3rd party car seat paddings that go between the baby and car seat. I also received a hand-me-down homemade car seat blanket when I had my first baby that was made to go under and wrap around the baby while in the car seat. However, these are often not safe. If you want to use an insert with your car seat, make sure to only use the one that came with your car seat, as it has been tested and proven to be safe with your specific car seat.
It's also best to avoid using other products while you're driving that may influence your car seats ability to perform properly in the event of a crash. For example, some infant car seats require the handlebar to be positioned down when the car is moving. Some may disregard this and keep it upright in order to strap car seat toys to the handlebar or to use a car seat cover to keep the light out of their eyes. But not following what your car seat manual says can be extremely dangerous.
Whatever you do to make your child more comfortable, just make sure that it's not putting them at risk in any way. Although we all want the crying to stop, it's always better to have a baby that's safe. And if you've tried everything and you're still struggling, know you're not alone. We are rooting you on, and hope that it will get better for you soon!