Carrying a baby in your car, especially one that is crying, is something that the majority of drivers will experience at some time in their lives.
Some babies are very comfortable with travelling and will fall asleep within a few minutes of putting them in the car seat (read our guide to child restraint laws here), while others will fidget and become frustrated.
Babies become used to freedom of movement and close physical attention by a parent. When they are put in a car seat they are in a location where they are not necessarily able to see you, in a restrictive situation with much less available movement, and with no physical touch. If your baby is very tired, it might still sleep, but if not, you could be in for a lot of crying.
The noise of a baby crying has been honed by evolution to be attention-grabbing to humans. It is distracting and you will feel the need to turn around to try to make contact with your baby. Safety is paramount, so you have two options: the first is that you can stop and try to comfort the baby, and the second is that you drive on ignoring it. There are no other options. You should never take your baby out of the car seat while you are driving, and you should not speed up or drive unsafely just to get to your location quicker, thus shortening your exposure to the crying noise.
Solutions to crying babies in cars
Acclimatise your baby to the car seat
Bring the car seat into the house, sit the baby in it occasionally, give your baby toys to play with while in the car seat, and be interactive with your baby. This way, the baby comes to associate being in the car seat with experiences that make it feel good. Remember that your baby will outgrow car seats as he or she grows, so check periodically that it’s still the correct size.
Acclimatise your baby to your car
Once your baby is acclimatised to the seat, try short trips while your baby is in a good mood. If you have someone that can travel alongside your baby to keep it entertained, this will help set the expectation that car trips are fine.
Using a worn t-shirt as a comfort blanket (i.e. something that smells of mum) can help calm a baby if it can’t be close physically.
Keep your baby occupied
Giving your baby plenty of visual stimulation in the car is important. You can have a box of special travelling toys in your car; you can make a mobile for the car; you can make a brightly coloured plastic baby chain from the headrest of the front passenger seat to the headrest of the rear passenger seat and clip toys to it. Vary the toys to find out what works best.
You can clip other toys to the car seat and anywhere else convenient in your car. You can also place a mirror at an angle that lets your baby see you.
Music and noise
Certain types of music and noise can be soothing to babies. White noise can help calm a baby (e.g. the sound of waves), or there might be some favourite songs that you and your baby bond over. Again, you’re looking for positive psychological associations to help trick your baby into believing that the car journey is a safe and fun place.
Experiment with different types of music to find out what works best.
Never smoke in your car
It is illegal to smoke in your car when you are carrying a child under 16 years old, even if you have wound the window down. The on-the-spot fine is $250 in NSW. This protects children against secondhand smoke, but what about when the child isn’t in the car? If you smoke in your car your car seats and upholstery become impregnated with toxins. This makes your car smell and makes it less pleasant for your baby to travel in the car.
Your baby’s health
Driving with a sick baby will not be pleasant for you or the baby. Ensure that your baby is in good health. If it is teething, a teething toy will help. Pacifiers/dummies can help, too.
A sunshade on the window can help keep your baby at a pleasant temperature if the sun is strong on that side of the car. You can also open a window slightly or use the air conditioning.
Plan your journey for regular breaks
Know where you can stop on your journey for feeding, nappy changes, etc. If you can travel when they usually sleep, that’s the best time travel. Journeys can take longer than usual.