Q: My 11-month-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 standing and walking, don't like being strapped in. While we can be flexible about some parenting issues, using car seats is not one of them. What to do?
First, let your child know you hear him. Tell him in a calm voice that you understand how he hates to have to get into the car seat, but that it's a rule because it keeps him safe. While he may not fully understand your words right now, he will pick up on your calm and loving tone. Next, put together a bag of special toys and books just for car rides. Or save a small, healthy snack for your son to eat in the car. This helps children develop a positive association with the car seat.
Some children dislike the car seat because they feel a loss of control when they are strapped in. So look for other ways to give your child a sense of control. For example, ask your son if he'd like to hold his teddy bear or his stuffed hippo while you strap him in. Or whether he’d like to have his jacket on or off while he is in his seat.
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. It also may lead to his demanding a reward for everything—putting away toys, brushing teeth, etc.
If he still fights being buckled in (which is common), stay calm and firm. Avoid getting angry, as this will likely only get him more upset. 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 secure him in his seat as gently as you can. The more calmly you deal with this, the quicker your son will recover, and the less it becomes a power struggle between the two of you.
If your son acts up during the car ride, ignore his antics and divert him by talking about what you see as you drive. Giving yourself a pep talk—out loud—can also be calming to both of you: He’s going to be okay. He’s just really frustrated right now. But we’re almost there, only two more stoplights to go. He needs to be in his seat to be safe. It’s okay if he cries. I’ll be okay too. You can also try to put on some music your child 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. With some trial and error you'll find what works for you.