Q. My 1-year-old absolutely hates being in his car seat. He screams and cries as I'm buckling him in and fusses most of the time we're driving together. Any suggestions for getting him to relax?
A. Car seat protests are totally normal and expected; kids who are beginning to develop exciting new physical skills such as walking don't like being restrained.
While we can be flexible about some parenting issues, safety -- and car seats -- aren't among them. What to do? The first step is to prepare your child as much as possible. Let him know in a calm voice that you understand how he hates getting into the car seat but that he has to -- it's a rule because it keeps him safe. While he may not fully understand your words, he will pick up on your empathetic tone. Over time, he will grasp the full meaning.
Give him a choice about something he can bring in the car -- a healthy snack, book, or small toy. Better yet, put together a bag of special toys just for car rides. Many children dislike the car seat because they don't like having it forced on them, so find other ways to give them a sense of control. For example, ask him if he'd like to get into the car seat himself or have you place him in it. Avoid negotiating or bribing him. ("If you sit down, you can have ice cream when we get home.") Doing this rewards him for his protest and teaches him he can negotiate limits with you.
When he objects to being buckled in, stay calm and firm, but avoid being angry, which will likely make him more agitated. Ignore his screaming and flailing as much as possible, and calmly explain to him, "I am going to hold you firmly now so I can get your car seat buckled and keep you safe." Then gently secure him in his seat. The more calmly you deal with this, the quicker he is likely to cooperate.
If he acts up during the car ride, ignore his antics and divert him by talking about what you see as you drive. Put on some music he enjoys, sing, or tell him stories. One mom I know pre-fills a bubble pipe before getting in the car and blows bubbles at stoplights. Another parent saves her daughter's weekly TV time for car rides. With some trial and error, you'll find what works.
Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a nationwide nonprofit that promotes the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).
Originally published in American Baby magazine, June 2007.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.