Neither of my babies liked driving in the car. Maybe a better (read: more accurate) way to state that would be: Both of my babies hated driving in the car. We were lucky to get about ten minutes of contentedness before the full-bore screaming began. When we had only one baby, we were living up in rural Maine. The closest mall was a 45 minute drive. O_o
Let’s just say we didn’t go out much in those days.
If you have a baby who hates the car… well… you know how a 10 minute car ride with a screaming baby can feel like an hour. It's the car seat screamer blues. As a parent you feel helpless to do anything because you can’t move baby from her seat – which is, essentially, all she’s trying to say to you (GET. ME. OUT. NOW!) over and over increasingly louder and more urgently. Throughout a normal day of caring for baby, you are so connected with her, then suddenly she’s placed in a situation where she’s out of your reach, and you’re out of her sight. You understand she’s communicating discomfort, and in all other instances, you’d go right to her and help her figure out how to feel better. But when she’s in a car, screaming, and you have to be somewhere, and there’s no good place to pull over, or you just pulled over ten minutes ago, and she’s screaming again, you just can’t safely help her while you’re driving. I remember it felt at times like I was leaving my baby to “cry it out”. I felt so tortured in those early months with my carseat screamers. I hated every second of so many car rides because I felt like I was DOING IT WRONG.
I have realized over the years, that I really wasn’t doing it wrong. A crying baby in a carseat is not the same as deliberately ignoring your baby’s signals in an effort to be more “hands off” in your responsiveness as a parent or training her to self soothe. It’s simply a matter of living the kids of busy high-tech lives we are in. You have to get places in your car, and the safest way to do that is with baby strapped into a car seat in reverse. Sometimes you have to drive. And baby has to scream. It's her job to let you know she's unhappy with the situation. But when you're driving, it's your job to do so as safely as possible. You are doing the best you can do at the time.
Now, while that reassurance may or may not help you feel better, I know that what did help me was feeling like I was doing something to help communicate with my screaming baby while still safely driving. Here are some of the ideas that worked for us (and baby.)…
Tips for Soothing A Fussy Baby in the Car
(and I’m using the word fussy lightly. Feel free to change that title to read: How to Help Soothe a Screaming-Like-Mad-There-HAS-To-Be-Something-Sharp-Currently-Stabbing-My-Baby- In-The-Car-Seat-For-That-Level-Of-Screaming-To-Come-From-Such-A-Tiny-Being Baby in the Car):
Check the Basics. I often found myself in a situation where I had to put baby in the car seat and get out the door quickly. Sometimes I’d realize after we got on the road, and baby started ramping up the volume, that I’d forgotten to check the basics: diaper, belly, clothing. Is baby’s diaper clean & dry? Is baby’s belly recently full of milk and empty of gas? Is baby’s clothing both weather-appropriate, and not too tight once strapped in the carseat? In the middle of winter in Maine, it was a challenge to go from a warm house to negative outdoor temps, to a cold car which becomes warm, to freezing outside, to warm again. Once I got in the habit of warming up the car ahead of time and removing baby’s outer layers after getting in the car, but before getting in the car seat, things improved a bit.
Talk. Talk to your baby. I often felt like my babies were screaming in the carseat because they felt disconnected. They were used to being worn in a sling or carried around or nursed, and being put down, anchored to a non-human seat, and unable to see me, was an unnatural and unfamiliar situation. Crying was just their way of letting me know: HEY, this isn’t what I’m USED TO and I DON’T LIKE IT. So, in order to help my baby know I heard what he was saying, I’d simply talk to him & let him know. Even if you think he can’t understand what you’re saying, or maybe doesn’t even hear you through the screaming, just talk. By keeping an even, calm, soothing, and understanding tone of voice, at the very least, you will help yourself feel better and connected to your baby. At the best, baby will hear your voice, and feel comforted, even when he can’t see or reach you.
Music. Music was the most consistently successful soothing mechanism we discovered. Music soothes the savage beast, right? It was NOT, however, the type of music you’d expect, which best soothed my children: not lullabies or soft crooning. No way. My kids liked a beat. They liked to rock out. They liked repetition. And they liked it LOUD. I encourage you to keep experimenting with different types of music until you hit on something that works. Try making mixes on your computer of different genres – you never know what will attract baby’s attention the best. But when you find that one song that works? Make an extra copy of that CD because you will wear out that one track, trust me.
Air. I’m not sure if it was that my kids were HOT or if they liked the feel of the wind on their faces/bodies, or if it was the change of pressure, or just the sound of white noise, but changing up the air in the car was a relatively sure bet, at least temporarily, to change the mood in the car. It wasn’t always good for the long haul, but rolling down the windows or turning the fan on high, often paused the screaming long enough to intervene with another type of distraction (like a pacifier or silly faces from the backseat).
Back Seat Company. Having a person in the backseat stationed next to the baby was often helpful – while baby was in a wakeful, alert state, even if the wakeful alertness was also accompanied by fussiness. It should be noted that it the helpfulness of a person in the backseat was magnified if that person was NOT me. As we found when it WAS me, all baby wanted was OUT, in my arms, and nursing, not to be strapped into a car seat with me nearby, but not holding. The person next to the baby can make faces, sing, pick up dropped toys and pacifiers, even offer a bottle (note: my babies did not accept a bottle on a trip, and in retrospect I am glad, as any eating by babies in a carseat, where I can’t be immediately responsive, makes me nervous – in the event of choking or vomiting. Follow your instinct here.).
Pacifier. Although neither of my children would happily or reliably take a pacifier in the car, I still kept a variety of shapes & sizes on hand in the car, in the event that something would change, and suddenly a soothie would be soothing. At the very least, it’s something “new” for baby to manipulate for a few minutes.
Black & White. We all know babies interest’s are held by black & white. But it’s hard to find soft car-safe toys in those colors. We solved that problem by strapping a vinyl card holder to the back seat (like the kind you’d use to keep collectable cards organized in a binder). We’d swap out pictures periodically – like at every car ride – to hopefully keep baby interested. I will say that while it seemed to work wonders for short periods of time, once baby’s hand and/or feet could reach the back of the seat, it lost its functionality because the paper pictures weren’t baby-proof. The best choices we found were black and white graphic patterns (like a bullseye), and pictures of faces. Which brings me to number 7:
Mom’s Face. Tape an enlarged black & white picture of Mom on to the back seat where baby can see. While I never personally tried this, I understand the appeal! Mom is unavailable in the car while driving, and being the embodiment of comfort to baby, it would seem to make sense that a photo of Mom for baby to look at when he can’t see ACTUAL Mom might help baby stay calm. I do wonder, however, if it might have the opposite effect – continually reminding baby that Mom is nearby but out of reach. It may be worth a try.
New Toys. Once baby can hold & manipulate toys, I did find that things got a bit better in the screaming department. I could quickly pass back a new toy and have a few minutes of non-screaming drive time. Unfortunately, toys can get thrown, and the most interesting toys are often too big/bulky for an infant to manipulate safely in the car seat. Keep in mind any toy you choose should be soft and light. In the event of an accident you don’t want anything heavy or hard or with sharp edges flying through the car.
Take Breaks. On long trips, it helped to understand right off the bat that we’ll have to stop a lot more often than when we didn’t have a fussy baby with us. When we acknowledged the increased travel time ahead of the trip, it made the trip more enjoyable and relaxed. It’s okay to stop (safely, well off the road) regularly and check diaper, fix a pacifier, nurse for a few minutes. Be patient, and be prepared to make your trip longer than usual. It may not help baby to stop for frequent cuddles and quick nursing sessions, but on long trips, I know it helped ME feel better about subjecting my babies to long car rides! Plus, if you’re not the only one in the car, the other passengers will appreciate the break from the screaming!
If all else fails, remember my numero uno parenting mantra: THIS TOO SHALL PASS. (It may suck royally in the meantime, but eventually, this stage will pass, I promise. For us, it was right around 18 months with each of my children.)