5 Tips for Keeping Infants and Toddlers Happy in Car Seats

Although Gavin has improved tremendously when it comes to cooperating in the car seat, I thought I would consolidate everything I have learned from my earlier experiences of having to deal with a fussy child in the car seat.  I’m sure I can’t be the only parent who suffers from anxiety attacks whenever I think about taking my son out alone because I dread the car ride with him.

In case you’re wondering, Gavin used to fuss and cry non-stop in the car seat until he threw up all over himself.  It was extremely stressful and equally as distressing to me as it was to him, I am certain.  If this sounds at all like your infant or toddler, then maybe some of the following tips might be useful for future car rides with your child.

1. Timing it Right

For some toddlers, there is an optimum time after a waking up where their disposition and mood is most accommodating.  In my case it was a window of two hours after waking up in the morning when Gavin would be most willing to tolerate a ride in the car seat. Determine what this window is for your child by making note of all the times when your child has been most accommodating in the car seat.

2. Be Ready

Make sure you have everything you need for your outing packed and loaded into the car before strapping your child into the car seat. The last thing you wan to do is leave your toddler waiting in the car while you run back to the house for an extra diaper or snacks.

If your child is still breastfeeding, make sure you nurse him sufficiently before getting into the car. Sometimes a little nursing time is just the thing that your toddler needs to make it through the journey.  While an older toddler might tolerate the need to wait a bit before getting the breast, an infant or young toddler will never accept it.

3. Getting into the Car Seat

For toddlers who immediately adopt the “plank position” when they spy the car seat you need to keep them distracted with an activity while you carry them out to the car. It might be a favourite toy, book or a really special treat reserved only for very special occasions – you know your toddler best.

4. Distractions in the Car

After getting a toddler securely into the car seat, surviving the journey is the next task. The best thing you can do to prevent the crying is distract, distract, distract. Each child is a unique individual and will respond differently to various distraction objects. Additionally, different ages and stages of development will require different distraction tools. Here are some possible tools you can use to distract your child depending on his interest and stage of development:

  • Keep a bag of interesting objects for a young toddler to examine. For instance, toy keys, catalogues with lots of pictures, board books, cloth books, etc.
  • Generally objects that your toddler can manipulate will occupy his or her attention for longer. For instance, toys with lots of buttons, lights and sounds will be more interesting and engaging than a cuddly soft toy. A popular toy is one of those car seat steering wheels that attach to the car seat. The problem with loose toys is that they can be dropped, after which your child will have nothing else to do. A home-made alternative is to offer your toddler an old wallet with lots of old cards that you no longer need inside it. Your toddler will enjoy pulling cards out one by one. Another alternative is a CD case with old CDs that your toddler can pull out one by one. Encouraging your toddler to practice tearing up scrap paper is also a good activity, albeit a little messy to clean up after.
  • Listening to your toddler’s favourite music, playing a favourite audio book on CD, singing favourite songs, or telling stories can be an effective distraction for an older toddler.  Buying the Thomas and Friends audiobooks was one of the best investments I ever made – it kept Gavin distracted and very cooperative during many a car ride.
  • Talk to your toddler about the interesting scenery outside the car or about anything in particular that interests your toddler.
  • Small doodle pads that can be easily erased and drawn over again are also great for toddlers who love to scribble.
  • Keeping a stash of favourite books that your toddler can flip through. Talking books or those books with buttons, lights and sounds are also great.
  • Favourite snacks or special treats for toddlers who can self-feed are an excellent distraction.  Japanese snacks like Panda biscuits, Pocky and Yan Yan worked a treat with Gavin.

5. Cashing in on Nap Time

When all else fails, try to catch your toddler close to nap time when he is too tired to protest. This usually works best for the ride home. Alternatively, if fatigue merely serves to fuel the protests, stay out until your child has fallen asleep before strapping him into the car seat. Ideally, about ten minutes after falling asleep, you should be able to put your toddler down without waking him. After that, you’re home free.

Whenever I had trouble getting Gavin back into the car for the ride home, this was usually my fail safe.  Occasionally, he would get into his car seat and fall asleep fairly quickly after we started moving.  Unfortunately, that really depended on his mood and how tired he felt.  When he was very young, I found that if I ensured he had had an adequate nursing session and sufficient carrying time, he would be more accommodating.

Although I no longer have to follow such a rigid approach with Gavin in the car, there was a point in time when I would never dream of taking him out within following this routine to the letter.  Regardless of how it all goes, the good news is that there is light at the end of the tunnel.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

2 thoughts on “5 Tips for Keeping Infants and Toddlers Happy in Car Seats

  1. It sure got my attention when you said that it is a good idea to get a doodle pad during the travel since toddlers love scribbling things or giving them books that they can play with. That gave me an idea. I actually heard of this thing called a travel tray, and I am wondering if there are things like that in there. I will go check since I am planning to do a little traveling with my baby brother while our parents are not around. Thank you for the suggestions!


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