My child hates her car seat. What can I do?

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My best friend lives in a quiet seaside town in a private security estate. Her two little girls go to school three minutes from home. The first thing she told me when I was there is that her girls were being impossible around car seats.

She’d been too nervous to mention it to me when I was in Cape Town, but her four-year-old had started throwing screaming tantrums, making it impossible to strap her into her car seat … and the almost-two-year-old had figured out how to escape the harness.

My friend is the best mother I know and this doesn’t change that. But she’s made a few fatal errors that will now require her to power through some of the hardest parenting she will have to do for many years. A few months ago, she let her four-year-old sit in the front seat for a drive across the road to the shop. Ever since then, she loses her mind every time she is put into the car seat. Because of this, once they enter the estate, which is 50% empty of people at least half of the year, she lets the girls out of their seats for the 30-second drive to the house.

What’s the big deal?

I don’t understand their daily life, so I don’t know what my friend has to deal with, right? I was in the car to witness the meltdown and wails of resistance. And my mama heart shattered and I wanted to say, “just leave it”. I could feel my friend’s pain and sense her husband’s frustration with me, but I pulled the car over and told the girls that the car doesn’t work when all the belts in the car aren’t done up.

Because what I DO know is crash dynamics. I know that at the moment of impact, your child’s weight is multiplied by the speed you are travelling, so even if you are driving 30km/h inside a security estate, if you slam on brakes because a child or a dog or a squirrel runs out into the road, your 10kg one-year-old will weight 300kg and be thrown straight through the window. I also know that over 50% of crashes happen within 8km of your home. And that the quieter the town, the faster we tend to drive. For more car seat facts, click here.

Prevention is better than cure

This is why I am pedantic about strapping your child in every single time you get into the car with them. As soon as they know there is an alternative, you will face resistance every single time.

“Good behaviour isn’t just sitting in their seat without fighting, but overall good behaviour in a car. A distracted driver is not a safe driver.”

Another trap that parents fall into is rewarding children with not being in their car seat. So, in my friend’s case, saying if her daughters stayed strapped in until the complex, they could get out their seats for the last stretch. Being in a car seat is not a punishment for something. It is as normal as not leaving sharp objects or boiling liquids out where your kids can reach them.

I never let my child out his seat, but he screams every time anyway

Is your child in the right seat for his height, weight and stage of development? If a child is in the wrong seat, they will be uncomfortable and will be understandably upset about going into the seat. This is often why children escape their harnesses.

Is the harness in the correct position? If rear facing, it should come out the seat at or just below the shoulder. If forward facing, at or just above the shoulder. The harness also needs to be tight enough for your child to feel secure. You shouldn’t be able to get more than one to two fingers between the harness and their collarbone. This isn’t just a comfort thing, but also a critical safety consideration.

If your child is rear facing, can they see you? You can get a mirror to attach to the back headrest of the car, which will allow them to see you clearly and allow you to reassure them without having to turn away from the road.

Car-specific entertainment

  • Play an audiobook or favourite singalong songs that are for the car only.
  • Buy specific travel-buddy toys.
  • Choose soft toys so they don’t pose a danger in a crash scenario, and only bring them out when the child is safely in their car seat.

Download our Munchkin free resource: Tips to a great road trip

Reward good behaviour

Good behaviour isn’t just sitting in their seat without fighting, but overall good behaviour in a car. A distracted driver is not a safe driver. Try to avoid giving sweets as rewards, as this can have a knock-on effect on eating habits in the future. Books on a favourite topic are a great reward.

Be fierce

When all else fails, be fierce. You are the mama (or papa) bear and your only job is to keep them safe. If it is safe and possible, stop the car immediately. Unless everybody – including you – straps in properly, the car does not move. No exceptions.

If it is an errand that you can do without them and you have somebody you can leave them with, explain clearly that if they are not strapped in, they cannot go with – and follow through! When your child is older and fighting being in a booster seat or pushing the belt into an unsafe position, discipline them in whatever way you do.

Yes, this is YOUR child and nobody knows them the way you do. Say that to yourself again – this is YOUR CHILD and nobody knows – or loves – them the way you do. I can share advice and beg you to keep them strapped in, but this is YOUR child. Only you can make the decision to strap them in every single time, no matter what.

There are some things in parenting that you can let slide, where the path of least resistance is not only okay, but necessary, to survive parenthood. Strapping your child in their car seat properly every single time isn’t one of them.

Also read:

How to choose the best child car seat
Car safety for pregnant drivers