Any parent knows kids and car seats aren’t necessarily a match made in heaven.
But, car seats are necessary for safety and moms and dads have to find a way for keeping kids happy in car seats. And, if not 100 percent happy, at least content. Or, at least not kicking and screaming. It’s all about the small victories.
My kids are small for their age and they’ve been in booster seats longer than some of their friends. Anything that sets kids apart and makes them stand out is not going to be something kids are going to jump for joy about, especially anything that makes a kid feel “babyish.”
Here are some of the things that have worked for me and some of my favorite moms on the go. We hope these ideas make your trips with kids a little less bumpy.
First Things First: Know the Rules
Car seat laws vary depending on where you live. Know what your local laws require and, if you’re traveling, know the laws of the states you’ll be driving through.
These laws generally vary based on height, weight, and age. For a full list of laws in each state, visit the AAA website. If you’re in (or heading to) Canada, you can find a full list of regulations here.
Top tips for babies and toddlers
Our littlest passengers aren’t going to understand why they’re being restrained and if they’re not into the whole car seat experience, logic and reason aren’t going to be your avenues to keep your kids happy in their car seat.
Sometimes it is all about comfort and distractions.
Toys or mirrors so your littlest ones can keep entertained while in transit might keep the fussing to a minimum. Older children who can read might love books. If that fails, juice boxes and snacks might be your best bet for getting through car trips. Nothing wrong with a little bit of bribery when it comes to keeping kids happy in car seats.
If those fail, try some of these tips:
- Nap time rides. Some little ones love a good car ride, so scheduling a long drive around nap time can be a great way to keep your baby or toddler quiet.
- Chat it up. Let your baby hear your voice and know you’re nearby. It can do wonders to calm someone who’s getting a little grumpy.
- Relaxing music. If your baby has a playlist she loves to sing along to, a song that makes her fall asleep, or an album that puts her to sleep, this is a good time to put it on.
- TV time. If you don’t mind your child having screen time, hook them up with a tablet or phone and let them watch their favorite show.
- Bring someone along. If you have a spouse or older children, recruiting them to ride in the backseat and entertain a little one can be a true lifesaver.
Most crucially, establishing a positive experience for your kids in the car begins from the time you drive them home from the hospital. No, you won’t always be able to keep them in high spirits, but if they recognize the car as a safe, comfortable place, they’ll be more likely to enjoy the ride.
But what about older kids?
My kids are small for their age, and they’re sitting in backless booster seats past the age where most of their friends are. This is a huge point of contention.
Our state has an age/weight policy. While my kids are old enough to be able to ditch the booster seat according to the letter of the law, our state law recommends children stay in booster seats until they’ve attained a certain height. While we could legally have them ride with regular seatbelts (in the rear seat, of course) we choose to have the added safety of booster seats, much to their chagrin.
We make occasional exceptions when they ride with other people. But for our everyday driving, the booster seats provide an extra layer of safety. We’re not willing to let that go. It’s the one “helicopter-y” thing I do and I’m not sorry about it. Keeping kids happy in car seats is a nice. Keeping them as safe as I can is a must have for me.
It can be tough to convince a preteen to put up with a booster seat, but there are some ways to make it easier:
- Make sure they understand the consequences. If a kid doesn’t know a curse word is forbidden, he might head to school and say it. In the same way, a child who doesn’t understand why he still needs a booster seat or who likes to unbuckle or wriggle free may keep trying. Let your child know the safety implications in an age-appropriate way, but also let them know that there will be a punishment if they repeat those behaviors (no TV time, for example).
- Treat them like an adult. Sometimes the best thing to do is acknowledge that your child is in a frustrating situation, empathize with them, and explain the logic behind the law. It may not totally ease the sting, but it will at the very least provide a concrete reason as to why they have to keep doing this hated thing.
- Set up some rewards. Keep a sticker chart visible in the car and let your child add a sticker every time they behave in the car. After a certain number of days, offer them an agreed-upon award: a movie night, a day at the park, whatever. It’s a great way to build a good habit.
- Offer special privileges during car time. Let your kids watch an episode of their favorite TV program on the way home, play video games, pick the music, or read a book just for fun.
- Give positive attention. Some kids act up in the car because they just want attention. So, give it to them… when they do something good. Let them know you’re proud of them for holding their tongue during a long ride, or for communicating their displeasure without raising their voice.
- Give them agency. Sometimes, a big part of the frustration kids have is the fact that they don’t get a say in what happens to them. Safety is non-negotiable, but let your child pick out her own car seat, for example, or teach her how to buckle herself in. Let her participate in the process.
Don’t be a jerk. Seriously. Just don’t.
There is so much about modern parenting that’s divisive. If you see someone not following safety rules, you’ll have to decide how to handle it. That might mean tactfully educating or reporting to the authority.
But, be mindful of approach and tone. While we’re doing what our state recommends, the parents of one of my son’s friends is doing what’s required by law. Neither of us are wrong, but it’s important to have a family-wide understanding of how your unit operates and how you’ll address those concerns.
This type of situation might make things interesting when your kids ride with other families—or vice versa. It’s a good idea to decide ahead of time how you want to address any concerns. Keep it kind.