There are two types of babies in the world: Those who love the car seat and those who cry at the mere sight of a car seat. My children fell into the latter category, so I spent years deciding whether or not it was even worth it to leave my house knowing a car ride full of wailing awaited me.
And I know I'm not the only one. Parents are constantly searching for the elusive trick that will make baby stop crying in the car. Car seat safety helps protect infants in car accidents, and the design protects babies' heads and spinal cords in case of a crash. Unfortunately, babies don't understand these benefits. They just know they can't see mama and no one is holding them.
Upset babies are hard to deal with all on their own, but the distracted driving that comes with a crying child in the car seriously augments the problem. It's no wonder. Research proves that all humans—not just parents—have a hard time ignoring the sounds of a crying infant. We are primed to help, according to scientists. A parent stuck in a car with a crying infant will likely feel panic, sadness and fear that can manifest in an increased heart rate and stress.
Dr. Teri Mitchell, APRN, CNM, IBCLC, explains why a baby's cries are so hard on parents and babies in these situations. She says the kind of cry a child emits when separated from a caregiver is specific in its demands. “There's a name for this particular type of cry: the separation distress cry," Dr. Mitchell says. “It's nature's built-in way of making sure that mothers go to their babies and ensure that they feel safe."
Children whose separation distress is not tended to because parents are stuck in rush-hour traffic will continue to do what is normal for them in this situation: Scream. Dr. Rakesh Radheshyam Gupta says that “[excessive] crying may lead to vomiting in infants and may cause hoarseness of voice."
8 tips from parents for what to do when your baby cries in their car seat
1. Make them comfortable from the start
When a baby cries in their car seat the moment they're buckled in, it's unlikely that they'll calm down for the remainder of the ride. That's why it's important to start off strong by making the seat as comfortable as possible right from the beginning.
Don't let a baby lean back on the seat straps while loading them. The sudden feel of those obtrusive items on a baby's back can startle them or cause discomfort—enough to remind them that they hate the car seat. Items like StrapsAway pin to the car seat straps to hold them out of the way while loading or unloading a child from the car seat. This makes the process fast and easy, and it can also help keep a sleeping baby from waking up during the transfer from mom's arms to the seat.
2. Create new routines
Sometimes it just takes some consistent prep work. "My son hated [the car seat] at first! What helped him was getting him used to riding around," says Mariah M. "We'd go on drives after dinner often just so he got used to being in the car and eventually it started to soothe him."
If your older baby still hates the car, incorporate frequent trial runs into your week while your baby is awake to create a positive association. With the car in park, sit in the backseat and play with baby while they're strapped in. You can move to the driver's seat for short stints after they get used to the setup.
3. Adjust the seat spacing
It's worth checking out whether the back of your infant's rear-facing car seat is resting directly against the back of the driver or passenger seat, notes Cassy S. "It makes the ride much more bumpy as the car seat absorbs the movement from both seats," she notes. "Moving up the passenger seat so my daughter's car seat didn't rest directly up against it made an enormous difference immediately!"
4. Consider what they're wearing
Temperature can be a problem for babies when in car seats, but not in the way most parents expect. As opposed to being too cold, many babies struggle in the car because they are too warm.
Babies should never be placed in a car seat wearing a coat or jacket. Not only will they overheat, but the bulk of a jacket keeps the car seat straps from working properly.
Take the weather into consideration, of course, but since the car is temperature-controlled, dress the baby in normal clothes and save the jackets or extra layers for when it's time to get out of the car.
5. Travel during naptime or bedtime
Traveling during your child's normal sleep periods can help them acclimate better to the car, too, as they're already tired and may just sleep for the majority of the ride. "My daughter got car sick a lot, so we always planned to drive during her nap time," says Jianmei N. "Once she fell asleep, we'd put her in her car seat then drive."
6. Sing a song
Parents swear by music as a soother for kids during car rides, and researchers support the idea of using music to calm babies. In one study, babies exposed to music stayed calm twice as long as babies exposed to baby talk or adult speech.
Cueing up a playlist of baby's favorite songs can work, but singing to the baby along with the music has benefits for all involved. Besides calming them, singing a tune can also calm parents. Mariah M. notes that turning on her son's favorite song, 'Apples and Bananas', seemed to help soothe him on longer rides.
7. Plan around gas
Sure, make sure you have enough gas in the car to get to where you want to go, but also plan around a baby's gas. A baby who experiences major gas after a meal is not going to like feeling constrained. Plan car rides long enough after mealtimes for a baby to get the gas out at home when moving around is possible.
Children with reflux also have unique challenges in car seats as they don't allow them to move freely so they can have problems getting comfortable if they can't find the right position due to stomach or reflux pain.
One mom found that her son's reflux took care of itself around the 6-month mark, and car rides suddenly weren't a problem anymore. Waiting for reflux to fix itself is difficult, however, so talking to a pediatrician or finding natural ways to deal with it are preferable. It's possible that controlled reflux will equal peaceful car rides for all.
8. Recognize that it may just take time
And if none of these tips work for your tiny wailer? Know that babies do grow out of the crying-in-the-car-seat phase. "My third baby cried in the car seat for at least the first year," notes Emily G. "Honestly it was SO rough because he'd scream the whole time I had to drop off/pick up my other kids. We tried just about everything, but it really just took time. Thankfully, it now feels like a distant memory."
If you're still in it, understand that this too will pass. Stay optimistic: Peaceful car rides may be around the next bend.
A version of this story was originally published on Aug. 11, 2020. It has been updated.