Constant motion is most toddlers’ default mode, so it’s no surprise the average toddler considers being constrained by a car seat for extended periods of time as more of an agonizing punishment than an act of loving protection. Kat Armstrong, a Toronto-based mom of three, went through a period in which her middle kid would stiffen up like a board whenever she tried to buckle him in. Even short jaunts in the car with her son Lauchie, now three, started off with a wrestling match.
“It got to the point where I’d have to put my forearm across the lap section of the car seat to keep him from straightening out when I fastened him in,” Armstrong says. She was careful, however, to talk her son through the process while she got him into position. “I’d say, ‘I know you’re not happy about what I’m doing, but we have to go. Let’s have a hug now, and we can talk more about it when we get there.’” As simple as it sounds, acknowledging and validating those feelings—especially with a toddler who’s not yet verbal enough to articulate his frustration—can go a long way toward helping to shift the dynamic.
How to get your toddler in the seat In an ideal world, our kids would be precocious enough to respond to rational arguments from birth. In reality, it’s rare for a thorough explanation of safety and provincial laws to have much of an effect on a tantrumming toddler. Even if your child isn’t able to grasp the particulars, providing context—and being consistent—is key, says Janet Lansbury, the California-based author of No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame. “By the time they’re toddlers, we’ve already said, ‘You don’t seem to want to get in here, but I have to keep you safe.’”
Provincial regulations vary, but in general, kids must weigh at least 20 pounds to be seated in a forward-facing position—although safety experts recommend keeping children rear-facing until they reach their seat’s height or weight limits for that position. How long children must be secured in car seats with five-point harness systems also depends on your province, but the recommended age and weight are generally five or six years old, or a minimum of 40 pounds. Consult the manufacturer’s instructions for both your particular car seat model as well as the vehicle seat, and be sure to get your child’s car seat checked by a certified Child Passenger Safety Association of Canada technician to ensure it’s installed correctly.
While safety is never negotiable, Sharalyn Crossfield, a child passenger safety educator and seat installer, and mother of four in Toronto, suggests offering toddlers opportunities to participate in the process. “At that age, kids want to do things themselves,” she says. “If you do it for them, it’s invariably wrong. If they do it, it’s right.”
Encourage your kid to climb into the car independently (you can tuck a small folding stool under the front passenger seat for an extra boost), and let her try to buckle the chest strap on her own, ensuring it’s properly positioned. Small rewards can also defuse pre-drive battles. “Say, ‘If you get into the seat smoothly, you get a sticker or an M&M,’” says Crossfield. “There’s nothing wrong with a little bribery.”
How to keep her happy Once your kid is safely buckled in, the challenge becomes keeping her content while she’s stuck in the harness. Crossfield recommends keeping a stash of special car-only toys close at hand. “Nothing heavy and hard,” she says, because those items can become dangerous projectiles in the case of a collision. Plush toys and soft fabric or paperback books are good options.
Once toddlers are forward-facing, easy-to-handle snacks like sippy cups of water and containers of dry cereal or small crackers that won’t make too much of a mess can provide distraction and keep hunger at bay.
And while you’re working to soothe your kid’s jangled nerves, soothe your own by remembering that car seat protests are a normal phase, developmentally speaking. “In a transitional situation like this, with a toddler whose life is an eternal transition, it’s important to know that it’s healthy and typical for them to say ‘no,’” says Lansbury. “The best thing is not to engage in the battle. You’re going to override your child in this situation, as you would in any other case where safety matters.”
Did you know? All car seats have expiry dates. If you’re using a seat that belonged to your older kid, check when it expires and replace the seat if it is past due. Transport Canada also recommends replacing any car seat that was involved in a collision, and checking with the manufacturer to see about replacing a seat if the shell or webbing is torn or damaged.
A version of this article appeared in our December 2016 issue with the headline, "Strapped in," p. 58.