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An issue has come up recently with our new son, in that he is at his most vocally unhappy when in the car.

It's not 100% of the time, but it happens daily. It's only rarely because of dirty diapers or being hungry, so we're having a hard time figuring out if there is a physical reason for his displeasure, or if it's simply emotional.

Regardless, he gets incredibly distressed during these times, which is highly unusual for him. We've tried everything we can to soothe him during this times, and any successes have yet to be repeatable. We've even tried adjusting the straps on the car seat itself to make him more comfortable, but it doesn't do much. He has no problem with the car seat when it's not in the car, even if the 5-point is fully tightened, anyway.

If it were a long road trip, we'd pull over and soothe him out of the car seat. But, this is occurring during the short trips in town (usually <15 minutes).

So instead, I ask what we can do for ourselves?

The primary issue I have while driving with him like that is that I end up distracted, no matter how much I try to focus on my driving. Since we're primarily driving in-town in areas with high pedestrian and biker traffic, I'm not keen on losing my focus.

We try playing the radio or music as counter-noise, but we've found that only seems to help the passenger, not the driver.


I am really asking for solutions for us parents when we're driving, rather than asking for ways to assess our baby. We've been trying everything we can think of, and will keep trying, but we've not got any ideas for ourselves. Half the time there's only one driver, so the other one of us can't distract/soothe him.

I think my wife fairs better than I, when it comes to being distracted. I personally have trouble trying to do anything but focusing on the road. Even adjusting the radio dials makes it very hard for me to focus.

We haven't ruled out a physical cause for his distress (motion sickness, ear pressure, reflux, strap soreness, gas, etc.), because they're very hard to test when it's only happening in the car. However, he's not crying as if he's in pain or ill, but only as if he's unhappy (it's the same cry as when he's set down when he wants to be held, but cranked up a notch). I have a feeling we'll see him outgrow this issue before we can solve this 100%. There are still going to be those times where he cries anyway, because of dirty diapers or hunger, where we need a solution for the driving parent.


Update: I've accepted the top-voted answer, but unfortunately nothing suggested has worked, neither has anything else we've tried. Since there are usually two adults in the car, we end up reaching over and physically distracting the little guy and talking clearly to him. It's an uncomfortable position, but it's the only thing that stops the crying when he gets like that. (That same type of crying has migrated to outside of the car, and the only thing that works is close-up play with one of us, until he gets tired out enough to eat and/or nap)

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    Have you had a quick read of parenting.stackexchange.com/q/1687/316 - it may help? – Rory Alsop Jul 28 '15 at 9:17
  • What about ear plugs or head phones with some music? I know it sounds harsh to block out your child but if his screams are distracting the driver this is an emergency issue. Plus if you have headphones on and give him no reaction (as he becomes older and that works) it would discourage him from screaming. – user7678 Jul 28 '15 at 12:01
  • I just had an idea inspired by Valyrie's answer. Do you think the air pressure is hurting his ears? I don't like to ride in a car with one window open/cracked. It causes pressure and little pops in my ears. I always ask to have a window cracked on the opposite side to equalize the pressure. I think it's irritating because I know what it is, but I bet it could really upset a child. – user7678 Jul 28 '15 at 12:16
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    @RachelC, any ear plug that blocks a wailing infant will block traffic warning noises like honking cars, rescue trucks or similar. Not all of them signal with light only. Bad and dangerous idea. Probably forbidden, depending on where you live. – Stephie Jul 28 '15 at 14:05
  • @RoryAlsop Yup. No help, unfortunately. Thus why I'm asking for help for us parents while we try to figure out how to help our little guy. – user11394 Jul 28 '15 at 15:07
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Some ideas you may not have tried for the baby:

  • Maybe he's getting too much air, or too little.
  • Check to make sure sun isn't getting in his eyes.
  • Try running your errands at different times of the day.
  • Try vibrating the car seat with your hand.
  • Try having the non-driving adult sit in the back next to him.

For the distracted driving part, the best thing I've found is not to try to block everything out, but to intentionally dedicate a very rote part of your brain to the distraction. Try singing or talking to the baby, but something very repetitious you don't have to think about. Your brain sort of says, "Oh, he knows about the baby screaming so I don't have to keep interrupting him." Then focus on keeping your conscious attention on the road.

  • We have literally tried all those things with the baby, and a great deal more. We'll continue to try and soothe him, but we need a solution for the driver more than anything. – user11394 Jul 28 '15 at 15:02
  • Loving the "try having a non-driving adult in the back" as opposed to "try constructing some sort of intricate pulley system and sit in the back with him" – Alec Teal Jul 28 '15 at 15:46
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    @AlecTeal Good point. Although, my university has a Rube Goldberg competition club, and they could probably help out with the pully/lever/marble rolling down a slat/toaster launching a Hot Wheel system. – user11394 Jul 28 '15 at 15:57
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We were in the same boat with our son; he would only settle down when we sped up on the highway, leading to his nickname of Ricky Bobby. We found that, weather permitting, cracking the back windows to allow a bit of white noise from the wind would help a bit. For myself, however, I had to do a LOT of self-talk to keep my mind on driving and not on his caterwauling. I'd narrate what I was doing to my son (annoying the heck out of his sister, but hey, kid, them's the breaks); not sure if it helped HIM very much, but it certainly kept me from being distracted by the howling, since I felt I was at least letting him know his concerns were heard, and by doing THAT, I could quiet the part of me that was pulling me to pay attention to him instead of the road.

  • This would have been my suggestion, even if your voice is not soothing (I know mine isn't to my kids) at least it keeps you focused on something else. Or turn on the radio and sing, that often helps me focus on driving but definitely something you could do to keep your mind focused and cover the crying. – MichaelF Jul 28 '15 at 19:46
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If I can summarize first, it seems the real question is this:

The primary issue I have while driving with him like that is that I end up distracted... Half the time there's only one driver, so the other one of us can't distract/soothe him.

The difficulty seems to be fully focus on driving, despite your crying infant. As I've driven van-fulls of 15 screaming small children, I'll try to give some tips that I found worked for me:

  • Before you leave, reassure yourself that you've taken care of everything you can (dry diaper, comfortable in car seat, well fed baby with access to toys etc.) This will make you feel better that you've done everything you could and keep you from trying to do anything about the crying while driving.
  • Reduce the impact of the noise - play loud music on the radio, classical calming or rock&roll, your choice

  • Remind yourself that the most important thing is getting to your destination safely. Your kid can cry for 15 min and will be just fine.

  • Follow the five safe driving practices using The Smith5KeysTM, a method proven to reduce risks on the road:
  1. Aim High The first rule for this method is “Aim high in steering”. Staying alert of the dangers and traffic ahead not only avoids rear-end collisions, but it also alerts other drivers behind your vehicle to slow down. The driver should steer and focus their attention high, so as to view the road as whole and not just a few feet ahead.
  2. The Big Picture “Be aware of your surroundings at all times” may seem obvious to say, but distracted drivers are just as dangerous as intoxicated ones. Erratic and angry drivers take up a large portion of the traffic we see daily, so avoid major accidents by noticing how other drivers behave on the road. Having the whole picture means that you are doing your part to keep your vehicle as safe as possible while moving 1000ft a second. There are a variety of hazards between your own vehicle and other drivers, and a keen awareness of these dangers will reduce these risks.
  3. Keep Your Eyes Moving The third standard of the Smith System asks drivers to remain alert. Energy drinks can only do so much before they cause the body to crash, and any repetitive motion sends us into a trance. Consistent eye movement prevents your body from entering the trance state, keeping you alert to every driving condition ahead of you.

  4. Leave Yourself an Out The fourth principle of the Smith System states to leave yourself a way out. This means ensure that other drivers do not box you in while selecting their lanes. Do not follow other vehicles too closely, and always anticipate what choices other drivers make.

  5. Make Sure They See You The worst thing a driver can do is assume. Assume other drivers can see them, assume other drivers are not dangerous, or even assume that they will just get to their destination safely. The final rule for the Smith System is “Make Sure You Are Seen”. This rule prevents accidents by removing assumptions made behind the wheel. As a driver, make sure that other drivers can see you and anticipate your move. If you feel you are coming into another driver’s blind spot, use the horn to get their attention.

from -http://www.smith-system.com/

  • 1000ft per second? I think you meant 100 at most. 1000 feet per second is almost 700mph (though that could explain the crying kid!). – Kat May 25 '17 at 22:12
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No one has said this exactly, so I'll throw this out in hopes of it helping.

We are, as parents, hard-wired neurologically to respond to our infant's cry with a fight-or-flight response; there is nothing you can do about that except to read about it and accept that this isn't a true emotion per se but a neurological response that evolved to assure parental care for the young.

Prepare ahead of time; mentally pretend you're going to hear a police siren, but remind yourself that it's not for you. Reward yourself when you are able to hold on to this thought for a bit, with chocolate or a tootsie roll pop or something that's a concrete reminder that this is only your nervous system at work doing what it's supposed to do, but you know better in this case. You deserve a reward.

Remember, too, that unless his car seat actually hurts him somehow, it's more uncomfortable for you than it is for him.

Differential sex-independent amygdala response to infant crying and laughing in parents versus nonparents
Oxytocin Modulates Amygdala, Insula, and Inferior Frontal Gyrus Responses to Infant Crying: A Randomized Controlled Trial

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    Yes, this wiring is what makes it so difficult! My conscious mind knows he's okay for the 10 minute trip home, but my brain wants to respond regardless. I'm perfectly find letting him cry for a little bit, but biology has a different opinion. – user11394 Jul 30 '15 at 22:35
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the last time this happened to me i called my mother on the phone. just having her presence helped the soul-wrenching that his crying causes me and i was able to focus on the road and tune him out. i couldn't hear her very well over speakerphone with him screaming, but just knowing she was there, singing old macdonald with me to try to calm him, left a large portion of brain calm and free to drive.

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    +1 - I did upvote. Honest, I did. I like that you sought support from someone you could rely on. But, in terms of distractions, 1. screaming baby, 2. cellphone, 3. singing Old McDonald together (that is, together): all this uses up valuable working memory, which is already reduced with stress, to the level that I'd wonder if this wasn't actually more hazardous for your infant passenger. But whatever works. – anongoodnurse Aug 13 '15 at 18:37
  • Yes, I appreciate the suggestion, and it may very well work for other visitors, but it won't work for me personally as I can't even handle the cellphone with screaming baby while I'm the passenger. Hopefully this helps others, though. – user11394 Aug 13 '15 at 19:59
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We've had the same issue with our son once we changed his car seat to a forward-facing one, where his older sister is fine for exactly 8.75 hours before she needs a break in the car!

What we think it was, was simply the car seat bottom and angle. It would likely just cause a sore butt and/or lower back. Once we placed a new car-seat, the child is fine(r). We are going on a 20 hour drive so we'll test everyone's patience, but at least for short drives around town and countryside now, he is content.

However, it could also be over-stimulation, which he has now gotten used to (at 1 & 1/2, he is just now showing interest in what his sister is watching on a screen - he'd much rather play, run, jump, etc).

For the parents, which your question was really about, obviously, we've found singing was the best way to soothe the car and stay on focus with the road. Or playing classical music while driving.

The best thing you can likely do is just make sure you have a repeatable pattern in what you're doing and DON'T STRESS OUT about all of this. Exactly "one day" all of his fussing while driving will never happen again. This too shall pass. Don't let it control you or the kids. You'll get along just fine.

Stress will likely be your biggest cause of distraction, just roll with this one like everything else you can't control. You sound like you're doing an awesome as parents in all your trying to soothe the baby and now yourselves while driving.

Best of luck!

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I have a 7 month old baby girl and the thing that helped the most for us, besides having someone sit in the back with her, is to have one of those mirrors mounted on the headrest of the back seat so I can see her face in my rear view mirror. This eases my anxiety about driving with her and I'm not sure if it will help you but I did not see it mentioned here so I thought I would put it out there.

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I use the ¨white noise¨ technique when there are outbursts of unstoppable crying from my 3 months old. Just a few seconds of any white noise sound from my cellphone (there are applications with lots of sounds available) helps to calm the baby.

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