Crying in the car-seat – expressing an immediate need, or pent-up feelings?

Recently, several parents have talked to me about their baby or toddler crying in the car-seat.

As with every situation in Aware Parenting, when a baby or child starts expressing feelings, I recommend checking - is this an immediate need, or is it a need to express upset feelings?

Small babies in rear-facing seats may be crying from unmet needs including connection, closeness, reassurance, and so on.   Young babies do not have "object permanence", so they are not able to hold in mind that we are still close by if they can’t see or hear us.  They live in the present moment, and have not yet internalised the fact that if we are not there, we will be back. 

So to meet those needs for small babies, here are a few suggestions:
- Put the seat in the front passenger seat (depending on the laws in your country and if you don't have an airbag there);
- If there is someone else apart from the driver in the car (including siblings), ask them to sit in the back next to the baby;
- Rig up a mirror so that your baby can see you;
- Talk and/or sing so that your baby knows that you are close. 

With older babies or toddlers, immediate needs in the car seat might be for choice, connection, exercise, completion (of what they were doing), play, and so on.  You can aim to meet those needs with things like:
- Telling your little one in advance that you will be going in the car,
- Offering choices, "Would you like to take your toy car or toy rabbit with you?"  "Would you like to get in from the back door or the front door? (for crawling/walking babies/toddlers);
- "Shall we go to the car pretending to be doggies?" ;
- Explain where you are going and tell them what needs of theirs might get met there;
- Give them an opportunity to finish what they were doing;
- And finally, leave enough time so that you can give them some Present Time before you get in the car, and so they have an opportunity to express their feelings of reluctance, or cry in your arms.

However, when babies and toddlers and small children are crying intensely, or struggling in the car seat, then this can often be the second reason -  they have some feelings that they need to express. 

The car seat can stimulate feelings of times in their lives when they were unable to move, or had a sense of powerlessness. 

Often, babies and toddlers who have not fully released feelings related to their birth will cry and struggle when in the car-seat, because the car-seat stimulates the birth memories. 

Other feelings/memories include being given a vaccination, or being unable to do something about a situation when they were still unable to move their heads, or sit up, or crawl. 

Any feeling related to helplessness or powerlessness can come up strongly in a car-seat, where there is no getting away, and when an adult is there and somewhat present (because they are driving the car) yet at some distance away.

Feelings may also emerge for babies and toddlers who have control patterns around movement - because they are now forced to be still, and thus the hidden feelings emerge. 

Also, if the baby or toddler has been stopped from crying to release by being breast-fed, his feelings are likely to come up in the car seat.  Any toddler with a control pattern that can't be done in the car is also likely to cry in the car-seat.

However,  when we put our children in the car, it is usually because we want to go somewhere, and it doesn't always meet our needs to sit with them and listen to the crying, struggling and raging that can come in a car-seat. 

And even more importantly, it is not the optimal level of connection and presence for the baby/toddler - especially if we are driving.

So, if your baby or toddler often cries in the car seat, you could find more ways of helping them connect to those feelings at home - to meet your needs for safety and ease, and their needs for emotional safety and support. 

Simply avoiding distracting them from feelings, and aiming to help them give up control patterns, is one way of doing this. 

Alternatively, you could try the "let's help you connect with and express your feelings related to the car-seat, without actually getting in the car-seat" approach. 

Remember, that releasing those kind of feelings involves struggle and intense body movements, and crying, and maybe sweating.  Those feelings related to helplessness were very strong - it may be helpful for you to remember that your child is totally safe in the moment, and that the feelings they are expressing are related to the past, when for some reason they weren't able to express them (for example, when they were in the birthing process). 

This approach, with toddlers or small children, involves talking about getting in the car seat, and then just staying present with the child, and allowing the feelings to emerge.  You are not actually putting them in the car, and you are fully with them, and thus you are creating the precise combination of safety and the stimulus for the feelings, which allows healing to happen.  If you do this when you have plenty of time, and are calm and relaxed and present, your child can let out a big chunk of feelings.  The more opportunity he has to do this here, the less and less he will need to use the opportunity when he is in the car when you are really going somewhere and in a hurry.

With babies, simply spending present time with them, when we hold them without feeding, rocking, jiggling, or active play, and just quietly making eye contact and gentle talking – this gives them the opportunity to express their feelings.  The more opportunity they have to do this in our arms, the less they need to do it in the confined space of the car-seat.

Power-reversal games are also really helpful, so that your toddler or child gets to express feelings related to powerlessness through laughter.  This is likely to also free up the more intense fears that lie underneath.

If we do all we can to meet the immediate needs of our baby or child whilst they are in the car, and also do all we can to help them express their feelings and feel calm in their little bodies at other times, car trips then become an enjoyable and easy time for everyone.

Edited August 2009