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Car trips are tough on some kids – and parents. Maybe the motion makes your child carsick, or they can't handle the feeling of the tight harness, or they panic when they can't move around. Whatever the reason, if you have a baby or child who reacts badly to car rides, you know it.
When my daughter was an infant and toddler, she screamed and wailed her way through each car trip. Sometimes singing would calm her – I remember one airport shuttle ride in which we sang innumerable verses of "Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush" in hoarse, exhausted voices and to the annoyance of the other passengers – but more often, she was inconsolable. And we drove in the car as little as possible.
I wish I had heard some of the following tips, culled from professional car seat installers and inspectors with special needs training.
1. Move around before you strap in
Moving around a bit before being asked to sit still helps many children, so have your child run around the yard 6 times, do 20 jumping jacks, or lift a heavy thing 5 times before getting in the car seat.
2. Consider a weighted vest or tight clothing
Firm pressure and weight calms many children. If your child likes these sensations, you can buy tight clothing or a specially made vest that may help them tolerate the feeling of the harness straps on their body, if that's a problem. We like this Fun and Function Stretch Denim Weighted Vest, which isn't bulky like many weighted therapeutic vests and is thus safe to wear in the car seat (you never want to add extra "fluff" like coats or jackets to children in car seats – see our post Coats and car seats: The deadly mistake you may be making for more). If your child prefers a tight-and-snug feeling, LANBAOSI's gender-neutral Long Sleeve Compression Shirts and Pants look like long johns but keep sensory kids happy.
3. Teach your child to tolerate noise
If your child reacts badly to noises like sirens or honking, you can teach them to cover their ears immediately when they hear the noise. Headphones can also help – many children find the HearTek brand comfortable, and they fold up into the included bag so they're easy to keep in the car.
4. Chew something safe
If your child chews on her fingers or the car seat, redirect that tension-relieving impulse into a safe-to-chew object, like silicone jewelry. You can buy it in super-soft, soft, medium, and firm versions, and these LEGO-like brick necklaces are firm, long-lasting, and lots of fun to chew.
5. Use words and pictures to spell out your expectations
Most children feel calmer when they know exactly what they'll be doing and what their parents will want from them. Before you get in the car, sit with your child and explain: "We're going in the car to Grandma's, and when we get there we will get out and have dinner. I will expect you to sit in your car seat with your harness on, and then sit at dinner and eat." If your child has a language impairment or prefers pictures, you can draw a few or find a picture book in which a child takes a car ride and point out what the child in the book is doing right.
6. Distractions are good
If your child is having a hard time sitting still or keeping a harness on, help her. Play a game in which you count the number of blue cars, sing songs, try to think of every animal that starts with an "A," and so on. A child who's distracted is (probably) not one who's screaming, so that's good for everyone.
7. Consider a special needs car seat
If you have a child with really hard-to-handle car seat issues – for instance, if he continually escapes from the seat – car seats like the Roosevelt, the Churchill, and the E-Z-On Vest have special features that can keep your child contained, safe, and comfortable.
If you have more questions you can contact National Center for the Safe Transportation of Children with Special Healthcare Needs to ask: their toll-free line is staffed by CPSTs who are experienced with special needs, and they're ready to help.
Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.