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Help! My Kids Hate Their Car Seats!

Elise Mawson, Taxi Baby

This is a ubiquitous parenting challenge – how can we support and encourage reluctant children who (often loudly and passionately) resist being strapped into their car seats?

The first thing to understand is that all children will resist their car seats at some point, if not all the time. Children have a natural instinct to move and explore their environment, and it goes against this instinct for them to be strapped into a car seat which severely limits their range of movement. Rest assured, it’s normal and natural for kids to fight against their car seats – ‘my kid cries in her car seat’ isn’t a reason not to use one.

When kids resist their car seats, even as babies, their reactions can be extreme - from blood curdling screams to violent outbursts. As parents, we need to expect these reactions, and more importantly, we need to respect these reactions. Although it might appear otherwise, once you’ve checked that the harness isn’t actually pinching your child (more on that soon), the screams and cries don’t necessarily mean your child is in pain, or even that they’re uncomfortable. More often than not, the extreme reactions are because they don’t want to be strapped into the car seat in that moment. They’re (vehemently) disagreeing with your decision to strap them into their car seat right here, right now. Personally, I believe it’s completely healthy for children to be allowed, even encouraged, to express their feelings and voice their objections. I believe feelings, and the expression of them, should not be discounted, dismissed or discouraged – even when it comes to car seats.

After we’ve expected, respected and acknowledged their feelings, there is a lot that we can do to help our kids when they resist their car seats.

1. Talk to your kids about what to expect

Give your kids fair warning that in 15 minutes they’ll need to hop in their car seat and tighten their harness. When it comes to actually buckling them in, give them a play- by-play: “it’s time to sit in your car seat, I’m going to pick you up and put you in your car seat, I’m going to put your arm under the seat belt now and buckle it, can you hear the click noise? I’m going to tighten the seat belt now...” Even if your child isn’t talking yet, they understand a huge amount of what you say. When a child predicts an event that comes true, their brains respond positively, so letting them ‘predict’ the buckle closing, then hearing or seeing it close helps them.

2. Make sure the car seat fits them properly

Some kids are genuinely uncomfortable in their car seats, particularly if there is a lot of padding (especially around their face) which can make them feel hot or trigger sensory discomfort, or if it’s very reclined and they’d prefer to sit more upright. If this is the case, you may want to consider moving to the next-stage child restraint (ask us if you’re not sure what that would be for your child), if it’s safe and appropriate to do so.

Regardless of the product used, it’s important to ensure the harness is properly tightened – too tight can cause discomfort and too loose is both unsafe and can be unsettling for many children who don’t like the ambiguity of being able to move a bit, but not as much as they want to. Harnesses should be as snug as a hug – if you can pinch the strap of the harness onto itself, then it’s too loose and if you can’t comfortably fit one finger between your child’s shoulder and the harness, then it’s too tight. 99% of the time, our kids’ harnesses are too loose. For kids who manage to escape from their (properly tightened) harnesses, some accessories such as the InfaSecure Securall or BeSafe Belt Collector can safely help keep the harness in the correct position without introducing additional safety risks.

Another consideration is whether the child restraint is appropriate for your child’s nature. If you have a very active, wriggly child, then a car seat with an in-built harness which can be tightened may be easier for both of you to manage than a booster seat which relies solely on the adult seat belt which is much easier to move.

3. Set firm limits and stick to them

It’s important that from here on out, we insist our kids use their car seats for every single journey. This firm limit helps children know their boundaries, and even if they resist and test those boundaries, they feel safe and secure when we reinforce them.

If you’re going back to using a car seat, after a period without one, then expect that both you and your child will have a period of adjustment to the new way of the world. We

often underestimate the impact our change in mindset will have on ourselves.

4. As a last resort, distract distract distract

I’m not a fan of distraction and redirection, as I firmly believe it’s healthy for kids to express their unhappy feelings and I prefer to acknowledge and accept these. Saying things like “I understand you don’t want to be in your car seat right now”, “I can see that you’re upset right now” and “I hear you, you’re not happy” can help both you and your child view the screaming and crying in a more positive, even constructive manner.

However, in the short term, distraction often has some immediately soothing results. Redirecting your child’s attention to toys, cartoons on your phone, or food may work for you. Keep in mind that any item in a vehicle that is not secured can become a dangerous projectile during a car accident, so soft toys are a safer choice than hard ones (eg. wooden or metal toys). Furthermore, offering food to children who are strapped into their car seats can present a choking hazard, so choose foods with low choking risk and make sure you can always see your child if they’re eating in the car.

Ensuring our kids always use car seats, even when they don’t want to, it’s not easy - but it’s definitely worthwhile. We never know when an accident may occur and prevention is much easier to live with than the alternative.

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