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When Your Baby Hates the Car Seat

QUESTION: My three-month-old son has hated his car seat from the day we drove him home from the hospital -- so much that he cries till he spits up and I have to pull over. My pediatrician says it is not motion sickness, but a little reflux which occurs when he cries. He always wants to be held. We literally cannot go anywhere.

ANSWER: You already are seeing your son's unique personality. You are right to acknowledge his need to be held. He will need special coaxing, however, so that your needs are met, too.

Certainly you can arrange to lessen the amount of time spent in the car with him, but you cannot be held hostage. You must be able to do the shopping and other errands your family needs.

I assure you, this is not the first time I have heard this distress call. Some babies hate being restricted in a car seat, while others almost purr for a drive. Your son may also show other specific preferences as he grows, some of which will likely even make parenting easier instead of harder. The good news, as well as the bad news, is that he is already a child with specific likes and dislikes. So much for the "blank book" theory!

Begin a program of desensitization. Build positive experiences around the car seat and driving in the car. You may want to purchase some of the special products on the market for babies that are made specifically designed for your child's visual development. They are generally black and white, and are scientifically created to engage the visual patterning of your baby. In the months ahead, you will need to change these patterns, introducing some alterations, such as color.

Play with these patterns, and any other kinds of visual input that your baby enjoys. Babies develop through their sensory channels (visual, hearing, touching) at different rates. You can encourage his auditory and visual development as ways to calm him and to interest him when he gets in his car seat. For example, if he responds to music or singing, you could use this in the car. My grandson, who also hated the car, calmed down when his mother sang to him while driving. (Assuming this does not overly distract you, you may want to try it.)

You may also succeed at desensitizing your son by putting him in the car seat at home for ten minutes at a time while you engage him with the visual patterns, other toys, singing or music. Do not be derailed by his initial protest. Instead, trust that by singing or directing his attention toward his car toys, he will calm down. Play with him for ten minutes, then take him out before he tires of it. You will be teaching him that the car seat can be a fun, safe, and at the very least, tolerable place. Simply the act of putting him in, when you yourself are not under stress to go somewhere, will allow him to accommodate.

Use your patience to develop these strategies at home. Then, if you like, transfer them to the car, with your husband driving and you sitting next to him diverting his attention to the visual toys. Finally, begin taking short trips over his initial protests. Give him his toys, all the time saying with as much conviction and calm as you can muster, "You'll be okay. Mommy needs you to sit safely in your seat while we drive to the store."

He will learn to accommodate you. And his ability to adapt to your needs will increase as he grows. Eventually, your son will learn that moms can be strong willed, too!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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