12 Tips for Babies and Toddlers who Scream in the Car

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I think most moms would agree, there is nothing more stressful than driving in the car with a hysterical child.

Ever since my now 2.5 year old was an infant he has absolutely hated his carseat. Within moments of pulling out the driveway the screaming and thrashing would start, and as a mom I felt powerless in knowing that I couldn’t soothe him. The louder his screaming, the more stressed out I became, and it led to a vicious and miserable cycle for both of us. There were times that my son screamed so hard that he would cough, gag, or stop breathing for a few seconds. It was absolutely terrifying.

For 2 years I racked my brain trying to figure out why my son hated the car so much, and one day it finally hit me. This is just his “thing.” While some kids struggle with nap time and others pick battles over meals, my child just hates the car. Being strapped in and unable to move around freely, not having access to all his favorite toys and activities, and not always understanding where we were going are just some of the reasons I think the car has always been a nightmare for my son.

Driving in the car continues to be a daily challenge for us, but over the years we have found some creative ways to cope. And if you have a child like mine, believe me when I tell you that not all of these suggestions will work for every child. Some of these ideas work wonderfully for my son one day, and don’t work at all the next day. My hope is that you can add these 12 tips and tricks to your toolbox of strategies for the next time you find yourself with a screaming child in the car…

1. Dress your child for comfort

Young children have a very hard time regulating their body temperature, and can become overheated quickly in the car especially when they are crying. I always put my son in his carseat with one less layer than I would have him in outside, just in case he overheats. Then if it’s too cold for him I can always put on the heater in the car or put a blanket over him.

2. Keep the pacifier within reach

When it comes to keeping babies happy in the car, the key is keep their soothing items within reach. As a baby my son loved his pacifier, but would become frantic when he dropped it while we were driving. It was all I could do not to reach back and try to find it for him while driving. I knew it was unsafe, but I couldn’t stand hearing him so upset. We discovered this awesome product, which keeps pacifiers within reach!

It attaches to the top of your child’s infant seat, and will save you the struggle (and the danger) of reaching back to put your child’s pacifier back in their mouth. Plus it teaches your baby to be more independent (score)!

3. For rear facing babies, use a mirror

When you have a rear-facing child that screams and thrashes in the car, it can be scary not being able to see their face to make sure they are okay. When my son was too quiet I couldn’t tell if he was asleep or having a hard time breathing. I highly recommend investing in a car mirror (we use this one), so that you can keep an eye on your little one to see what is going on at all times.

4. Play or sing some favorite songs

One easy way to improve your child’s mood in the car is by playing some of their favorite music. Songs from movies that they like or some favorite nursery rhymes…any music that they enjoy can help keep them happy while driving. I like to sing songs that I know my son is learning in preschool to strengthen that connection between home and school. You can also try soothing instrumental music if you want them to try and go to sleep.

5. Keep snacks in the car for emergencies

In general, I try to make sure that my son is fed before we get in the car so that I know hunger isn’t the cause for his crankiness. Sometimes though it just isn’t possible, which is why we keep an emergency snack stash in the car. Granola bars are nice because they are easy for kids to hold and won’t spill all over the carseat like a cup of goldfish crackers, for example.

6. Have a special “car toy”

Children love novelty, so keeping a special toy in the car can help make your little one excited to go in their carseat. My son loves having two toy animals in the car (one for each hand). Make sure that the toy you choose is easy for your child to grip to minimize them dropping it.

7. Keep the sun out of their eyes

One of the big reasons kids hate the car is the sun shining in their face. My car doesn’t have tinted windows so the sun would shine in my son’s eyes from every angle. Early on we invested in these car window sun shades and it made a huge difference. What I love about these sun shades is that they are super easy to stick on any window (they self-cling) and they stay on really well.

8. Give lots of attention when they are calm

For the longest time I had this concept completely backwards. When my son was calm and quiet, I was also quiet. And then when he started screaming I would start to talk to him, negotiate, bargain, etc. I finally realized that I was encouraging his screaming by not giving him attention when he was calm and quiet. So I made the switch, and what a difference it has made! I make it a point to give my son lots of attention when he is calm and happy and to be more silent when he is screaming. I usually say to him “When you are calm, I’ll be ready to talk/sing/etc.”

9. Imagination distraction

This has been a life-saver for us over the last several months. Sometimes older babies and toddlers are just simply bored in the car. Using an “imagination distraction” means engaging your child’s imagination to help them keep their mind off of what is bothering them. My son loves disney characters, so we spend a lot of time “looking for” disney characters out the window and talking about what they might be doing outside of the car. “Is Mickey Mouse driving in a car too? What color car is he driving?” It sounds ridiculous, but kids love this! Think about what kinds of things your child loves and use those topics to engage their imagination.

10. Retell stories

You know those books or stories that your child asks to hear over and over and over again? You probably know every word by heart, and the car is an excellent time to retell those stories to your child. Not only is it a great distraction, but it’s an awesome pre-literacy activity that encourages your child to imagine, retell, and sequence.

11. Teach them calming strategies

This is a really important one for toddlers who are beginning to get a sense of how to self-regulate. I spend a lot of time talking with my son about ways he can calm down if he gets upset. Taking deep breaths, hugging a stuffed animal, counting to three, etc. are all great ways to teach your child that they can calm themselves down in the car. Sometimes after a couple minutes of crying, my son (who is 2.5) will actually take deep breaths and say “I take deep breaths Mommy, I’m ok” and stop crying. Other times this isn’t the case, and that’s ok too.  I’m grateful for the times that it works and I know that he is learning valuable skills in the process!

12. Use your own calming strategies

When all else fails, sometimes the only way to cope with car screaming is to practice our own calming strategies. For me, this means taking deep breaths, putting on music, thinking about something else, or rolling down the windows. Above all, just know that you are doing the best you can and that this too shall pass.

What do you do to keep calm during stressful car moments? Share with me in the comments below!

12 thoughts on “12 Tips for Babies and Toddlers who Scream in the Car

  1. Love these tips! A couple of my kids HATED the car as babies, but thankfully their screaming phase didn’t last long. We live in the middle of nowhere and have to drive a ton, so I think this helped (just doing it more often).

    Always check the straps to make sure nothing is pinching or rubbing funny. Sometimes it’s discomfort that makes them scream.

    One of my kids started getting car sick when he was a little older, and he’d been our worst screamer in the car as a baby. I’m thinking those are connected, and as he got older we always made sure he had some soft little mint candy (those ones you usually see at weddings) to chew on. That really helped!

    1. Such a good point about the straps! And car sickness is the worst – I used to get very carsick as a child. Now I’m wondering if my son might be experiencing that as well! Thanks so much for your input.

  2. I definitely need to get a sun shield for my the windows because my little one loves to tear the sun shield off of his car seat recently. I also love your tip about continuing to talk and engage with your child while they are being calm to avoid a screaming fit. Once the screaming starts, there’s usually no turning back for us to get him to calm down.

    1. Same here – once the screaming starts we’ve lost the battle. I find that the more I talk to my son when he’s screaming, the longer it goes on. It’s so hard but we just have to wait it out.

  3. The baby mirror was super helpful when my kiddos were rear-facing! I remember checking my rear-view every minute the first time I drove solo with a baby. And it gives them something to look at other than a boring seat back : )

  4. These are great tips! I needed to read this – we have a 2yo who detests the car and I look forward to trying some of your ideas the next time we take a car ride.

  5. Thanks for sharing these – very applicable for our youngest. This is exactly what I needed to read today.

  6. I have 4 boys, my youngest is 8 months, and NONE of them like(d) their car seat! We are getting ready to leave for a road trip at the end of this week (which includes a 13 hour drive) and I’m a little worried…I think I am going to pick up that binky hanger thing, at the very least it might distract him! I’m also going to try to find some of those pillows for the car seat strap for my 3 year old, hoping that might help as some of our driving will be during peak sleep times (yikes!). Thanks for all your suggestions!

    1. Best of luck to you!! I hope that some of these tips work for you and that you all have a peaceful road trip!!

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