Some drop off in their baby car seat in seconds; some scream for hours. Driving long distance with a baby is unpredictable and never boring. For minimum stress levels all round, we answer the key questions on how to manage your kids in the car.

We love our children more than anything. But an unhappy baby in the back seat can put our patience to the test. A crying baby hits 80 to 120 decibels. That’s as loud as an oncoming ambulance. Or a jackhammer. It’s an unbearable noise level in a small space, with zero chance of escape. And it’s a reality faced by many parents taking a road trip with a baby. If your ability to resist stress is as great as the lung volume of your offspring, congratulations! If not, read on. This article is both your baby travel checklist and the place to find the answers to all your questions about how to manage kids in the car. Despite everything, we know you wouldn’t want to be without your screaming little monkeys, so use this guide to help you reach your destination in one piece, safe and relaxed with your loved ones.

Q&A: 9 questions about babies and kids in the car

1. Where is the safest place for your child?

Passenger, middle, or by the window in the back – which seat is the car is safest for your child? Jasmin Bozem, Development Specialist for Child Safety at BMW, recommends the seat behind the front passenger, as seat belt tighteners usually come standard on the outer rear seats. The seat behind the front passenger is also on the same side as the curb when parking, and can be reached safely when climbing in and out, far away from traffic. Here, the child can be buckled up in safety. Another plus compared to the seat behind the driver is the lower likelihood of a side impact in the event of an accident.

2. What do you need to watch out for when your child is on the passenger side?

Your baby is crying in the back seat and is desperate to come to you. You’ve tried everything, but to no avail. Your nerves are shredded. Your last hope is to bring your child (and its seat) to the passenger seat next to you so that it can calm down… But watch out –while rules on this vary both internationally and from state to state in the US, in many places it is illegal to have the child in a front seat if a back seat is available. Statistically speaking, the front passenger seat is also the least safe place in the car.

A stressed parent behind the wheel is perhaps a greater danger still. As a driver, you are responsible for your own safety and that of your child, and you must not be distracted by your offspring. If you do have a baby in the front passenger seat, the baby car seat must be rear-facing, and the front passenger-side airbag must be switched off.” The user manual for your car will show you how to do this.

A child in a front-facing child seat should not sit too close to the front airbag. The front passenger seat should be pushed back as far as it can go so that your baby is well protected by the airbag.

3. What do you need to know when buying a child seat?

You know the feeling: you spend so much time researching the right stroller, you could probably write a PhD on it. Well, you could easily spend just as much time researching the right child seat. So here’s some tips to lighten the load:

Infant car seats
The birth of your baby is probably the most beautiful moment in the life of any parent. And rightly so! One of your new responsibilities is to provide a child seat when ferrying your offspring about the neighborhood and further afield for the next decade or so (various age, weight and height restrictions apply across the US and around the world, depending on locality – but typically in developed countries some sort of child seat is required until at least the age of eight, sometimes into the teenage years). Your car’s logbook will show what seats are suitable for which car, but unfortunately your child comes without instructions. You can also find information on which models your car’s restraint system is suitable for in the child seat instructions. It starts with the backwards-mounted baby car seat, mandatory for babies up to 13 kilograms (28 pounds) until an age of 15 months according to the i-Size safety standard. Bozem’s recommendation goes beyond the statutory provisions: “Ride with your child facing backwards as long as possible!”

Forward-facing child seats
Don’t be put off. The range of different child seats out there may look like you need a degree in mathematics, but in reality you don’t need to be a genius! Generally speaking, it all comes down to size, age and weight. The following two child seat categories are available on the market: universal child seats and semi-universal child seats.

Internationally, many countries follow the United Nations European Regional standard ECE-R44, which categorizes child seats into the following groups:

  • Group 0: up to 22 lbs (10 kg)/9 months
  • Group 0+: up to 28 lbs (13 kg)/18 months
  • Group 1: 20 to 40 lbs (9 to 18 kg)/up to 4 years
  • Group 2: 33 to 55 lbs (15 to 25 kg)/up to 7 years
  • Group 3: 48 to 79 lbs (22 to 36 kg)/from 7 years

Europe’s newer i-Size classification (ECE-R129), which requires an ISOFIX connection, stipulates that the weight of the child and the child seat together must not exceed 72 pounds (33 kilograms).

Booster seats
Like all car seat requirements, when a child should move to a booster seat, and when this is no longer required, varies by locality. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends all children who have outgrown child safety seats should be properly restrained in booster seats until they are at least eight years old, unless they are at least 4 feet 9 inches tall (1.45 meter). A summary of car seat requirements for US states can be found here. In Europe and the UK, children are required to use a booster seat until they are at least 4 feet 5 (1.35 meter) tall.

It is also recommended to use a booster seat that has a backrest in order to protect your child in the event of sideways impact.

The purchase
Did you know? From birth to the age of 12, we spend an average of around USD 90,000 on a child. You definitely should not scrimp on your child seat, though. It’s one of the few areas for your child where you shouldn’t just grab a second-hand bargain.

You should choose a car seat that is in good condition and complies with local standards. In the US, that means Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. In Europe and many other locations around the world, car seats must comply with UN Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) regulations ECE-R44/03, R44/04 and R129 (i-Size) and need to have a valid test standard seal.

“You can only see whether the seat is ultimately the right one for your car or not in a seat test in the vehicle,” explains Jasmin Bozem, Development Specialist for Child Safety at BMW. It’s the only way to find out whether a seat fits your car in terms of dimensions and whether the seat belts are easy to reach. If you can check off these points, your little ones can also take a seat for testing.

4. How do you go about fitting a child seat?

That’s easy! Right?

Or maybe not: A UK study found that child seats are improperly fitted in almost 60 percent of cases. For most people, user instructions are about as exciting to read as a phone book. But with a child seat you should make an exception and follow them carefully.

The following points are important for correct fitting:

  • Children up to at least 15 months old or weighing up to 13 kilograms (28 pounds) are required to sit in a backwards-mounted baby car seat.
  • Child seats can be installed in your vehicle via the car’s own seat belt system, or using ISOFIX. The advantage of this system is that it is quick and easy to use. LATCH/ISOFIX fixtures are not found in every car, however.

5. How do you fasten your child in properly?

You’re parents. Stress is your middle name. However, it’s important that you take the time to make sure you fasten your offspring carefully and correctly before you go. And not just how ever is most comfortable for your child. “Safety must always come before comfort,” explains Jasmin Bozem, Development Specialist for Child Safety at BMW. Experts recommend the following safety tips:

  • The belt must always fit snugly. For that reason, your child shouldn’t be wearing thick clothing. Take off any winter jackets or ski suits before your drive.
  • Fitting snugly means that your flat hand – and only your flat hand – should fit between the belt and body. Your child must not be able to slide the belt under their armpits.
  • Don’t forget to adjust the route of the seatbelt to the size of your child, especially on the shoulders. The lap belt must not be too loose.
  • Child lock your rear doors in case your child decides to get out while you’re driving.

Just as important as buckling your babies and children in is unbuckling them back out. Always take your little ones with you when you leave your car. This is especially necessary in the summer! The temperatures inside the vehicle can rise incredibly quickly in the heat or direct sunlight. Even if the windows are open a crack, the temperatures can quickly rise to a range that is dangerous for the child’s health. On top of that, children sweat less than adults and therefore heat up faster. Their life could be in jeopardy!

6. How long can a baby stay in a car seat?

Even if you’re keen to introduce your new offspring to your friends and your entire family, don’t go traveling far with a newborn. Stay at home or nearby initially. Don’t plan on driving long distances with your baby before the age of three months. Before that, a baby’s muscles are still too weak to absorb the shocks of car travel. Trips should not last longer than two hours at a time. Once they’ve reached three months, your offspring will be ready to handle longer car journeys. However, as a driver, you’re likely to need lots of patience. You should include plenty of breaks, during which you should always take the baby out of its car seat.

7. How do you keep your youngsters occupied in the car?

“Are we nearly there yet?” Five words that you’ll often hear from your child. On continuous loop. Most educationalists advise allowing children to get bored and not intervening, so that they learn to cope with it. That’s easier said than done, though. A crying baby or a whining child can be extremely stressful for drivers, so any tricks that help prevent that are basically safety tips too! Your little screamer feels trapped in its seat, bored and wants to go to mommy or daddy. What’s the magic cure? Entertainment! Children and babies want to be entertained. Here are some tips:

  • Toys should always be on hand. If possible, attached to the seat with a short string or cord to avoid any unwanted stops. And be sure not to forget your child’s favorite cuddly toy, or you may have to turn back halfway!
  • Set aside some toys just for the car. You won’t believe how much your child will be looking forward to every trip!
  • There are lots of games that the whole family can pass the time with, including I Spy, Guess the License Plate, and many others.
  • If your children don’t get travel sick, tabletsbooks and art supplies are ideal for keeping them occupied.
  • Last but not least, an oldy but a goody. A good old audio story or two!

8. What do you do if your child gets travel sick?

What could be more disturbing from the mouths of your youngest passengers than whining? How about dinner from the night before – sprayed all over the car seats? Travel sickness usually begins when a child is around two years old, when their sense of balance is fully developed and their body consciously realizes that sitting still and a moving car do not go together. Keep plastic bags and wet wipes handy on every car trip! But how can you prevent your car from needing an interior clean after every vacation?

These tips will help:

  • Drive at night or at times when your child normally sleeps. A sleeping child cannot throw up.
  • Adapt your driving style: take corners slowly and don’t brake abruptly. Your car interior will thank you for it!
  • Children who are eating do not moan and are kept occupied. That said, your child does not need an all-you-can-eat buffet while driving. At the end of the day, a full stomach is more ammo!
  • Chewing gum can help suppress nausea in adults. However, chewing gum is somewhat taboo for small children.
  • A child staring at a book or tablet lacks the visual reference to the outside environment we mentioned above. A good old audiobook or two is better.

9. What kit do you need in the car?

As well as a baby car seat and a child seat, there are other purchases for your car that really do make sense. In the summertime in particular, there’s no getting away from sun shading for your baby in the car. If you want to protect your car’s upholstery from the pressure points of a child seat and the back of the front seats from dirt and food residue, there is also a solution: a backrest cover and child seat underlay. Car mirrors for babies, meanwhile, are popular but not recommended. These attach to the backrest of a rear seat so that drivers can monitor a baby in a rear-facing baby car seat. Our safety advice would be that these represent too much of distraction from the road for the driver.