Help! My Baby Always Cries in the Car.

Some babies love car journeys. The car was like a magic switch for my first-born. If I was struggling to get him to sleep or to soothe his tears two minutes out in the car would see him sleeping soundly for a good hour, sometimes two. In fact when he was a colicky newborn my husband could often be seen driving around our village in his pyjamas at 2 AM with my son in the car. He would return with a peacefully snoozing baby in the car seat every single time.

The car had less magical properties for babies two and three, it wasn’t the instant light switch it was with number one, but after ten or fifteen minutes of driving we could still pretty much guarantee they would fall asleep. For a couple of years we enjoyed long car journeys as a family of five, three little boys snoozing quietly in the back behind us. If anybody asked me for my top ‘baby calming’ tips “going for a drive” would undoubtedly be in the top three.

Then my daughter was born. She HATED the car. She would scream, loudly, within minutes of being in it and invariably the screaming would continue for almost all of the journey. It was rare that she ever fell asleep in the car, even if she was exhausted. I have spent many, many hours sitting in the back seat next to an unhappy baby stroking, singing and trying everything to comfort her.  I avoided all but really non-essential car journeys that required me to drive so that I could sit next to her and at least have physical contact. We walked a lot that year!

Interestingly at age eight my daughter has horrific travel sickness. Her brothers don’t suffer at all. If we are in the car for longer than fifteen minutes she needs medication to quell the nausea otherwise she vomits in spectacular style. I wonder now if this was the cause of her upset as a baby?

I’m often asked “so, you don’t recommend controlled crying or ‘cry it out’, but what about when I’m driving and I absolutely cannot stop and my baby is screaming?”. I can totally relate, I’ve been there. All I can say is that I feel it is very different deliberately causing  a baby to become distressed and ignoring their cries and responding to the baby verbally and physically as much as possible. We very quickly learned that if a journey wasn’t essential it wasn’t made (in a car anyway). I drove very little during the week when my husband was at work, if I did then my daughter was in the front seat next to me with the airbag turned off. This isn’t something I’d recommend for safety reasons, however I felt we were at less risk of a crash if my full attention was on the road, rather than a screaming baby. At the weekend I would always sit in the back next to my daughter holding her hand, talking to her and stroking her head. We would stop often, by often I mean every twenty to thirty minutes, and avoided motorways to make this more possible. Our journeys would take much longer and we planned around this. Again if the journey wasn’t essential it wasn’t made.  At all points though we were as responsive as possible.


The following are tips that either helped us and/or have helped parents I have worked with when car travelling was a must:

  • Take your baby to see a cranial osteopath or chiropractor. Sometimes effects from the birth (particularly if it was via C-Section, forceps or ventouse or the labour was very long) can cause discomfort to the baby which can be heightened by being in a car seat. Releasing this tension can make them happier travellers.
  • Try different car seats, sometimes the dimensions and angles of different seats can make a really big difference. We had two car seats (one for my car and one for my husband’s) and my daughter was much happier in ‘my’ car seat.
  • Try to time the journey around nap times, getting the baby to sleep and then transferring to the car seat after five or ten minutes, so that much of the journey occurs when they are asleep if possible. Don’t travel if they are awake but tired or due a nap, this can make the crying and distress much worse when overtiredness is added to the mix.
  • Use a white noise or alpha music CD in the car stereo. Play this on repeat throughout the journey to help to soothe your baby (if the recording makes you feel sleepy wear ear plugs or listen to your own music through headphones).
  • Try scenting the car with a baby friendly anti-nausea aromatherapy oil, such as mandarin. If possible use a battery operated aromatherapy diffuser, if not pop a couple of drops on a muslin and drape over the back of seat near to your baby (making sure it can’t fall on the baby though!).
  • If your baby has a comfort object (generally for sleep time) make sure they have it with them. This may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how many people don’t try this.
  • Consider some natural travel sickness remedies, such as Travella, which can be crushed and added to milk or water or just rubbed on the inside of the baby’s cheeks.
  • Consider a portable DVD player/tablet/smart phone holder fixed to the seat in front of the baby. Ordinarily this is something I would never recommend. I am really not a fan of any screen time for babies (or even toddlers), but sometimes this really is the only thing that makes a real difference. Don’t necessarily select children’s programmes though, sometimes videos of animals or fish swimming in the sea can be much more successful!

Sadly none of these tips are magic. Ultimately what seems to help the most is time. Babies may not necessarily grow out of their hatred of car transport, but as they get older they can at least understand more and can also occupy themselves a little more with toys too. Infuriatingly, as with much of parenting, sometimes the most universal solution is to ‘wait it out’. In the meantime however you can rest easy in the knowledge that meeting your baby’s needs as much as possible is not at all comparable to ignoring them akin to behavioural, cry based, sleep training.


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About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
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2 Responses to Help! My Baby Always Cries in the Car.

  1. Georgie says:

    Hi Sarah, having had a child who hated travelling in the car I can certainly relate to so much of this article. However I think it would be responsible of you to advise your readers of the dangers of breastfeeding a child in a moving vehicle (even if they remain restrained).

    “In a crash, everything will weigh its weight multiplied by the G’s of the crash – G’s being the force of gravity. A 30mph crash, like they test the car seats at, has about 20-25 G’s. If mom weighs 120 pounds, and is in a crash with 20 G’s, her entire body will weigh 120 pounds x 20G’s = 2400 pounds. You can imagine that her chest will weigh at least 1,000 of these pounds – and if she is leaning over the baby to nurse, her chest will slam down on the baby’s body in a sudden stop or crash – as both the mom and baby will be moving in the same direction due to the physics of the crash. You wouldn’t drop a 1,000 pound cinder block on a baby – so too you shouldn’t lean over the child to nurse them – as your body can crush the child. Even if you are nursing with your seat belt on, the belt is loose enough that your chest is very close to the baby (otherwise your breast couldn’t be in baby’s mouth), which means that your chest will certainly make hard contact with the baby in a crash.” From the webpage thecarseatlady

  2. Emma says:

    Oh my goodness, I am in exactly the same position with my 3 month old baby as she absolutely detests the car! I’ve tried pretty much everything and at my wits end with it. I end up staying home rather than driving places which is a shame. We went to an event last week which was an hours drive and she screamed the entire way. I’m wondering if it could be motion sickness too so I might look into this.
    Thanks for the article

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