On the Road Again
The concept of cars as magic sleep machines is as much false advertising as “morning” sickness
Photograph by Shannon Gallagher
One of my favorite memories from childhood was when my mother — inspired by who knows what — packed me and my little brother Seth into our newish Honda Accord and started driving south. It was the middle of winter. I was around 11 years old. There was a huge blizzard, and it took us eight hours to go 120 miles over roads that felt like corduroy beneath us. Of course the weather improved as we got closer to Florida, and snow boots and coats were banished to the trunk, happily forgotten. My mom stopped at convenience stores and bought Rainblo gumballs — the ones that turned your mouth awful colors and tasted like pure sugar — and we rode happily along chewing on giant wads of disgusting gum, singing along to Cheryl Wheeler’s “Don't Forget the Guns.” There were a lot of trips like that. I loved them all.
Perhaps these fond memories of road trips (or my mother’s fondness for road trips alone) are why I have such a nomadic spirit. I love to go places: I love to drive, to move. I don’t even mind all the driving that living in the Hudson Valley requires — that is, until I had a baby. Coraline and the car go together like oil and water. If she’s asleep going into the car, there’s a 1 in 5 chance she’ll stay asleep once the car is moving. If she’s awake going into the car, there’s a 99.9 percent chance that by the time I pull out of the driveway, she’ll be screaming. And this is a baby who doesn’t scream: I can count the number of times she’s had a meltdown (outside of the car) on one hand. It’s awful, to hear your baby cry like that, to know they are that unhappy — it makes me feel like I’m doing irrevocable damage to her. So I pull over. I pull over and nurse her, or just hold her, or try to distract her with toys or songs or kisses. It can take me an hour to get to Kingston. This of course has meant that I have tried to limit my driving as much as possible, for her sake and for mine.
It has helped to know that the concept of cars as magic sleep machines is as much false advertising as “morning” sickness. The car meltdown is as common to the new mom experience as blowouts and sleeplessness. And apparently, for most, it does pass eventually. But there are a lot of miles to be covered until then, and so I’ve employed a number of techniques to try to make the car as comfortable and tolerable as possible (for us both). I’ve tried it all, and different things help to varying degrees depending on the day. If there’s something I missed, let me know!
If you don’t already have a convertible car seat, that little change may do the trick, especially for babies with reflux issues. While a convertible seat is still slightly reclined when rear facing, baby will be sitting up more than in an infant seat, which means they can see more (and won’t be gagging on spit up). Other things that may make baby more comfortable (and therefore less fussy): a full belly, dry pants, more or less clothes or blankets, and more or less support. This last one may only be an issue in a convertible seat as there are a variety of different style infant inserts which will brace the baby differently.
In his book The Happiest Baby on the Block, Dr. Harvey Karp explains that the first three months of baby’s life are essentially a “fourth trimester,” where recreating their sensory experience in the womb may help calm them. The things that he recommends doing, or his “Five S’s,” include swaddling, sucking, swinging (which is really more like jiggling), sidelying (turning a baby on their side activates the “calming reflex”), and shushing. This last one is where the white noise comes in. In the womb, baby is constantly surrounded by noise that sounds like a vacuum, or conveniently, radio static. This appears to be fussy Coraline’s kryptonite, in the car at least — I’ve found the trick is to turn the radio on before I put her in the car, and to turn it on loud. It’s interesting to watch her (via small mirror attached to the backseat) sort of zone out. She’s even fallen asleep a couple of times. And though it is not my favorite station, it is worth it to see her so peaceful. (In the summer months, opening a window and letting the wind create the white noise is much more pleasant, but not appropriate when it’s cool out.)
Whether you use an infant or convertible seat, dangly toys are not a bad idea, though a convertible seat requires some McGuyver-like installation (I used braided yarn and safety pins). Once Coraline started tracking things overhead and showing interest in toys and rattles I thought having some things to look at while she’s in her seat could help: it does occasionally. Sometimes I’ll catch her giggling as “Stuart,” a gangly lion-moose, bounces around, and on a really good day she’ll talk to him.
Some moms find success with offering a pacifier. Whether baby uses one only in the car or all the time, since sucking is soothing (see Karp’s “Five S’s”), it may lessen the all-alone-in-the-backseat anxiety. Coraline won’t take one and seems to get very agitated if I force the issue — thank goodness she’s discovered her hands.
I’m happy to report that last week we had a breakthrough: five car rides, no meltdown! Right now the white noise is doing the trick. And Coraline took her first big road trip to Virginia to see her uncles (a nice prelude to our trip this week to Hawaii). So no Mama Greenest next week — mama’s on vacation.