How to Handle Car Travel when Houdini is Aboard

December 20, 2017 by in category Stay Safe tagged as , with 0 and 0

Here we are in the middle of another winter and that means more time spent in the car. Whether it is a trip to Grandma’s for the holidays, or just running the hundreds of errands around town, driving with kids can be stressful, especially if you’re traveling with your very own escape artist.

“Help my child won’t stay buckled!” is one of the most common concerns we hear from parents. The reasons for unbuckling can range from delight in a new skill, boredom, or wanting mom’s attention to more serious issues such as behavioral or developmental delays. So what do you do?

Here are some suggestions from our Child Passenger Safety experts, maybe one will work for you.*

  • Always wear your seat belt! This is the most important of all. Make sure every person in your car is always buckled. Make sure others transporting your kids insist on everyone being buckled in their cars, too. Children need consistency and they seek to emulate those they love and admire.
  • Make sure your child is sitting in a car seat that fits. If Harry is crammed into a seat that’s too small, of course he’ll try to get out. Wouldn’t you? On the other hand, if the seat is too big or the straps are too loose, a child can easily wiggle out. Make sure straps are snug but not cutting off circulation and the buckle is not pinching (Ouch!). Sometimes trying a different seat helps because the chest clip is harder to open or push down. A child with special needs may need some positioning aids to help make the seat more comfortable. Often times, rolled blankets on the child’s sides can add needed support. If Harry is escaping from a booster seat, then maybe you need to put him back in a harnessed seat that goes to a higher weight limit.
  • Include breaks. Have you been traveling for a long time? Maybe Harry just needs a break. For example, on one long trip we stopped at an empty church parking lot and let my fussy grandson run around for 20 minutes. He got back in his car seat, we continued on our way, and he promptly fell asleep for the remainder of the trip.
  • Make your child the “car seat/seat belt police.” Some children thrive on being the boss, especially if they can tell other siblings what to do. By being in charge of the “everybody’s buckled” rule, Harry may take staying buckled himself more seriously.
  • Provide distractions. Make sure the buckle or chest clip is not the most interesting thing at hand for a bored child. As a parent in the 70’s with no air conditioning, I often thought the pioneers were on to something by having their hot, bored children get out of the wagon and walk. Today you have so many options for entertaining children, from in-vehicle media players to portable devices or even travel books and toys. You can also sing songs, play ABC games, or guessing games to keep kids entertained.
  • Turn it off. Threatening to pull over or “the car doesn’t start until everyone is buckled” sounds great in theory, but seriously, this only works if you are going someplace Harry wants to go — like Disneyland. Using this as a tactic just gives Harry a free “Get Out of Going on Mom’s Boring Errands” card. However, you can turn off favorite music, DVD’s, games and other activities Harry enjoys if that motivates him to stay buckled.
  • Provide praise. If Harry is unbuckling because he loves your reaction, stop reinforcing it. Praise Harry for when he is staying buckled and ignore the bad behavior. Just pull over, re-buckle Harry, then go home or continue on your way without giving him a pay-off for misbehaving. Afterwards give yourself a big reward for not completely losing in on the side of the road after the zillionth time you do this.
  • Provide a reward (OK, a bribe). You can reward Harry for staying buckled with small candies, fruit or stickers, or use a point system so he can earn a special treat at the store. Something that motivates your child, but is no big deal to you works best. For a really determined Houdini, you may need to start out rewarding his good behavior more frequently and then gradually slow down over time.
  • Provide a companion. If you have room, install an old car seat next to Harry and have him buckle in a favorite stuffed animal or doll. If he is checking to make sure “Fluffy” is safe, he may be less likely to unbuckle himself.
  • Use a parent or older sibling as a seat mate. Most often adults sit up front, but if you have another adult riding with you, have him/her sit next to Harry. Grandmas are especially good seat mates or you can have an older child monitor and distract Harry. The seat mate could also hand out small rewards to Harry for staying buckled.
  • Use consequences. You will need to enlist the help of the other kids and a babysitter, but when Harry learns he doesn’t get to go with the family to a fun activity because of safety concerns when traveling, he may get the message. It works this way: You start driving to an activity, if Harry unbuckles, you turn around and go home. No second chances. Harry stays with the babysitter, and the rest of the family goes to the activity. Of course, the one time you have this all arranged will be the one time Harry doesn’t unbuckle his car seat. Life works that way sometimes.
  • Get some professional help. A child with a developmental or behavioral disorder will likely need more than simple reinforcement or distraction techniques. You can talk to a therapist to get ideas on how to develop a behavior plan. The therapist can help you learn how to consistently use the plan to reinforce and increase the desired behavior.
  • Use special needs car seats and restraints. There are many products designed to help with the positioning and support for children with special needs. These seats have harness systems with higher weight limits and other features that can help keep a child restrained. These seats are not cheap, but your insurance or Medicaid may help when the seat is deemed medically necessary. One company, E-Z-On Products, makes a vest with a zipper in the back that can restrain a child without using a seat belt at all.

A Note About Escape-Proof Products

There are products on the market designed to help with this issue. An alarm that sounds when a child unbuckles can alert you to a danger, but other items such as buckle guards and chest clip covers are considered “non-regulated” products by car seat manufacturers and are usually discouraged. They may help contain your child, but you should talk to a car seat technician to learn about the possible risks involved with using them. Also, you should never adapt or modify your car seat yourself in an attempt to keep your child restrained.

The Car Seat Technicians at Primary Children’s Hospital are happy to talk you to help resolve your transportation concerns and issues. We are available from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday – Friday. Call us at 801-662-CARS (2277) or 801-662-6583.

*Remember, that while using duct tape may be tempting, it is never a recommended solution. Duct taped-on mittens, however, might be OK.

Marilyn Morris
Marilyn has a degree in Psychology and English. She has worked at Primary Children’s for 15 years and is a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician and a certified instructor for Transporting Children with Special Health Care Needs. She has 3 children and 8 grandchildren. Marilyn loves to travel, read, and is addicted to family history.

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