Wouldn't it be nice if car rides with a baby could be like a quiet, peaceful drive through the country? The bright sun shining, birds singing, the warm summer breeze blowing in the window, and through it all your baby sits quietly in his car seat as you enjoy a nice restful drive.
Reality is far from this wishful thinking. A more familiar picture is probably something like this: your toddler kicks and screams while you struggle to strap her in, she whines and fusses to be taken out, you have to reach back (while driving) and try to blindly find every toy that she drops, and you end up arriving late because you had to pull over twice just to give your child a break from the screaming. In this day and age with front seat airbags, most people must put their kids in the back seat, which makes it even harder for you to keep your kids happy and busy if you're driving alone.
While there's no way to make every car ride a perfectly peaceful one, there are many things you can do to entertain and engage your baby while on the road. Driving time can be a learning experience and, if both parents are in the car, a chance to spend some fun time together interacting with your child. If you have a busy schedule and are lacking some good quality time with baby, use any driving time you have to engage her and get reconnected.
Above all, safety is of paramount importance while driving. It's easy to get distracted and take your eyes off the road and hands off the wheel while you try to help your little fusser. This is most dangerous and is not worth the risk. If your baby needs such attention, either wait for a long stop light or pull over. While an occasional glance at baby in the rearview mirror is appropriate, never turn around to look at baby and never turn your body to reach back to help baby while the car is in motion. This takes too much attention off the road and can interfere with your ability to react to any sudden emergencies in front of you.
Here are some interactive play tips for the road that will help both you and baby have a more enjoyable ride together.
Set the stage for a happy drive
There are several simple things you can do that will set baby up for a better drive:
- Tank baby up. A hungry child is a fussy child. Fill up baby's "tank" before you go.
- Nap time. If you have a baby that is easily lulled to sleep in the car, save your errands for when baby is sleepy. And of course, never leave a sleeping baby unattended in a car.
- Awake time. On the other hand, some babies do not easily fall asleep during a drive, and a car ride can be the worst time for such kids. Try to time your trips for right after baby's nap when baby is at his best.
- Set the thermostat. Turn the heater or air conditioner on before you put baby in. A very hot or cold car interior is not a welcome situation for any child.
Getting baby in
If your baby protests loudly every time you try to strap him in, try these distractions to start your drive off right:
- Snack in hand. Get baby's hands and mouth busy before you get to the car. She'll be too busy enjoying a favorite snack to even notice the buckles. Avoid sugary snacks. You don't want a "wired" baby on the road.
- Start the music. Put on a favorite CD or tape before you try to strap baby in. Sing along to add to the distraction. A favorite musical toy may also do the trick.
- Buckle up a buddy. Bring along your toddler's favorite stuffed animal or doll and buckle it up in the seat next to your child first.
Now for that peaceful country drive
While we can't guarantee highway bliss every time you and baby get into the car, the following ideas should make your drive more enjoyable for everyone:
- Mirror, mirror. While baby is still rear-facing in the back seat, set up an extra mirror so baby can see you, and you can keep an eye on her in the rear-view mirror. This visual connection is important for you both.
- Car mobiles. Hang a soft mobile in front of baby and just within reach. This will help keep baby's curious eyes and hands busy.
- Sing-a-long. Simple songs that your older toddler can sing along with can help make a road trip fun.
- Strike up the band. Bring along your toddler's favorite toy instruments. Make her feel like she is part of the music. Clap along when the car is stopped.
- Put your toddler behind the wheel. Not literally. Attach a soft toy dashboard and steering wheel to baby's car seat. Let her mimic what you are doing. "Turn the key", "Car is on", "Beep the horn", "Turn the wheel".
- Busy toys. Keep some busy hands-on toys in the car, such as soft activity books and intricate rattles. A busy baby is a happy baby.
- Wrist and foot rattles are a perfect distraction for baby in the car. Waving arms and kicking legs will keep his attention.
- Teachable moments. A car ride is a perfect time to teach your child about colors. Point to the "blue sky", "red fire truck", "green trees" and "yellow signs" as you drive along. Test her knowledge by asking her to point to the colors she sees on her own.
- Keep water bottles and non-perishable snacks in the car at all times. You can always buy a little more time with these if your child gets antsy.
- Above all, drive safely and keep your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.