In Ethiopia, where both our children are from, very few kids ride in car seats. In fact, even buckling up is rare, though I did notice on our last trip that more of the vehicles we rode in actually had a seat belt as an option. Still, strapping a child into a car seat is just not something that is done. When we adopted our first child, Zinashi, she was three years old but the size of an eighteen-month-old. We rode many places in a van in Ethiopia, and I would just put her in our Beco baby carrier on my front whenever we went anywhere. She felt safe and secure and close, and it felt like the safest option to me. It wasn’t as good as a car seat, but it would have to do until we came home, where our own car seat was already installed in our car, waiting in the driveway.
When we were ready to return to the US, my parents offered to pick us up from the airport in their new minivan, which had a built in child seat. I figured that would be simplest, but neglected to asked where the child seat was located. It turned out to be in a captain’s chair, and the closest seat to it was the other captain’s chair in the same row. As soon as we buckled Zinashi in, she started to cry, not understanding what was happening.
When she realized that she would not be in my lap or next to me, things went from bad to worse, and she started to sob. Once we were on the highway, she began shrieking. It occurred to me that not only was she too far away from me to snuggle up, but we were also traveling much faster than we ever did in Ethiopia. The shrieking did not end until we were in our own driveway, hurriedly unbuckling her and pulling her close. I knew then that if we were to travel by car again, there would have to be a plan in place to help Zinashi feel comfortable buckled into her car seat, in an unfamiliar place, at an unfamiliar pace.
The plan we made was pretty simple, and can be broken down into steps. By the time we’d been home a month, Zinashi was comfortable riding in her seat, looking out the window or repeatedly asking where we were going. Even now she prefers company in the back seat, but at the end of our month long plan, she felt confident enough to ride happily. Below are the steps we took to help her get comfortable.
Step One I rode next to Zinashi, with most of my body draped across her seat so she could hold on to me, with a blanket covering us so she wouldn’t see how quickly the landscape passed us by.
Step Two Zinashi held both my hands while riding with the blanket still covering her.
Step Three Zinashi would release one of my hands long enough to move the blanket and peek out.
Step Four Zinashi ditched the blanket and held both my hands.
Step Five Zinashi held one of my hands and no longer needed the blanket. At this point, I could drive places on my own with her, just reaching back to hold her hand when it was safe to do so, but those trips were limited to taking my husband to work, as she really still needed me next to her. I would prepare her before the drive, telling her that I would sit next to her on the way to Ababi’s work, but then I would have to drive us home.
Step Six I rode next to Zinashi, and she played with toys we brought along for her. If I had to drive, she still needed me to reach back and hold her hand part of the time. We took toys in the car that we normally didn’t use in the house, so she was better distracted. We don’t do battery toys, so a little handheld toy that lit up and spun was perfect.
Step Seven I graduated to the front seat, with Zinashi and her distracting toy in the back. Her car seat was placed in the middle, and our back seat was fairly shallow, so when my husband and I were both in the car, she could reach each of us with her feet and we could both turn around and see her easily (while at stop lights for the driver, of course). When we were all three in the car together, sometimes she would ask if my husband or I would sit with her in the back, and we always said yes. If she didn’t ask, however, we would not offer that option.
Step Eight She was completely comfortable. Admittedly, it took a bit longer than a month for this to be reality 100% of the time, but I claimed victory at the 75% mark.
All in all, it was a super simple process, just following our daughter’s lead to figure out when she felt comfortable proceeding to the next step. We felt good that our daughter was both safe in the car seat and also felt comfortable being buckled in. We couldn’t go as many places for awhile, but our daughter’s peace of mind was completely worth the inconvenience. She’s been with us nearly two years, and these days riding in a car is as it should be, simply no big deal.
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