We're driving down the road, rocking out to some kid-appropriate beats, headed for the park on a sunny afternoon. Suddenly, a tiny blond head pokes up beside me. I knee-jerk swerved to the side of the road and parked, causing said golden noggin'-ed toddler to go flinging into the front seat beside me. This was the first time my son unbuckled his own seat belt, and, unfortunately, this wasn't his last. Sadly, toddlers don't learn from the old parental trick of intentionally making a child that has unsecured him/herself bonk their heads lightly or fall down. Natural consequences are a waste on kids this age.
So how can you stop a toddler from unbuckling their seat belt or car seat straps?
My toddler certainly is not the first child to master escaping his car seat. In fact, a recent study found 51% of children at some point unbuckled their own straps while their parents were driving, and 75% of those children were toddlers. This makes it no surprise that there are actually anti-toddler seat belt removal products available.
Seat belt buckle guards: These simple plastic covers fit over your seat belt's buckle, making it impossible for the release button to be pressed. You can get different versions to fit the various buckles on different vehicles.
Seat belt removal alarms: This small attachment lets off an annoying sound when the seat belt is unbuckled. They work both to alert you that your child is escaping, and to scare your toddler into stopping what they're doing.
Buckle pads: These cloth apparatuses cover front buckles on car seats. These aren't exactly hard for a determined toddler to figure out, but they are cute and can be distracting from the buckle release itself.
Strap clips and other hints: You can also purchase clips that hold the front straps close to your child's neck so they can't simply slip out of the car seat without unbuckling. If you have a child who is making a habit of escaping from their seat, and you don't already have a 5-point harness cart seat, it's recommended you switch over. Five-point car seats offer more straps that prevent that little wiggling out routine many kids do.
On top of just making escape nigh impossible, it also helps to distract from the desire to escape. In addition, a busy child in the car is far quieter than a bored child in the car.
Magic markers: Crayola makes marker kits that will write only on the special paper that comes with the kit. Personally, I feel the paper is too expensive for regular in-home use; however, for a car trip, keeping a clipboard version works well to keep a toddler busy drawing. As the markers only work on the special paper, your child can't draw on the windows, seats and ceiling of your vehicle while you are predisposed driving and can't stop them.
Bubbles: You can find small no-spill bubble kits for a few dollars in most department stores. I have yet to find a toddler who isn't entertained by bubbles. The no-spill means no mess, and as most toddlers are less than adept at bubble blowing, generally they spend more time working on blowing a few bubbles than actually blowing any, so your car likely won't be covered in soap.
Car toys: The above are just a few ideas that worked well for my children. What will work for you will really depend on your toddler. Some toddlers love toys trucks, others like coloring. Find a toy your child can play with for 10-15 minutes without becoming bored, and make it a "car toy." This means your toddler only gets to use the toy while in the car, and won't likely tire of it. It is a good idea, however, to change out your "car toy" every now and then.
Car games: You can try playing games with your toddler while you drive such as I Spy. Most typical road trip games can be altered to fit your toddler's developmental level, and even teach things such as colors, numbers and shapes in the process.
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Seat belt study
Overview example of car seat gadgets