Apparently as a newborn, I got from A to B in the footwell of an old MG! This sounds shocking to me today when I agonise over putting my daughter in a car that doesn't have a five-star ANCAP rating! As parents, safety is forefront in our minds, and so it should be with our precious cargo on-board.
For more than seven years I have been fortunate enough to drive a different car every week, a perk of being married to a car journalist and something that before child was just fun for me to plan our weekend excursions around. New to Australia and keen to explore our surroundings, the latest two-seater convertible and some fine weather was a good prompt for a trip along the Great Ocean Road for example! Or the latest four-wheel-drive meant a camping trip, damper, some off-roading and a few nights under the amazing outback sky! Oh I remember those days… just!!!
Fast forward to hundreds of cars later and during the weeks leading up to the birth of our daughter Tulsi, we had a string of sports cars; the BMW 640i, the Aston Martin Vantage and our dream car the new Mazda MX-5. All were very interesting when my tummy protruded as far forward as I am tall (162cm), making getting in and out of the cars as tricky as it was to reach both the steering wheel and pedals at the same time!!
The salesman at the Aston Martin showroom was very concerned about me driving in their brand new quarter of a million dollar car so close to my due date!! I think he feared my waters breaking and ruining the beautiful, soft leather interior! And driving the MX-5, three days prior to Tulsi’s birth, I found the steering wheel rubbed against my tummy when it turned!!
This was maybe the first time I really thought about the practicality of the cars we were driving, until it really hit home a week later when Tulsi was born and we had a Toyota Hilux 4WD that I couldn’t come home from the hospital in because I’d had a caesarean, I could hardly walk and definitely felt like I could not climb up the two big steps to get into the passenger seat!! I am sure some women manage it but I was definitely too scared the contents of my stomach would empty out onto the bitumen car park!!
Six weeks later, my caesarean healing nicely and having been given the okay to drive again, I ventured out thinking it would be just like before only with a baby on board… Naively in hindsight!
I had no idea it would take us half an hour just to get from the house and all loaded into the car! Let alone the fact I would move to sitting in the back of the car next to Tulsi’s child seat when my husband was driving (I don’t think I’d even sat in the back seats of a car since I learnt to drive!!)
Or I’d spend what felt like half my life driving laps of our neighbourhood trying to get Tulsi to fall asleep, or the other half parked somewhere trying to get some sleep myself because I’d been up all night trying to get her to sleep and she had now fallen asleep in the car two streets from home! Or me pulling over and feeding her in the back of the car because I just couldn’t handle the letdowns due to her screaming in the back!!
I didn’t realise everything would change and that we’d have a car-hating daughter! Tulsi has screamed hysterically for every second was in a car for at least the first year of her life, except for when she has passed out with exhaustion or admitted defeat and only to be woken up by a reversing beeper or I’ve veered slightly and a shrieking lane departure alarm has sounded!! And the hysterical screaming resumed.
Even now I still hear “no, no, no, no” in her gorgeous little chirpy tones at the suggestion of going in the car!
Quite quickly I realised how practical or impractical different cars are when every week we had to take the child seat out of one and install it into another. For example some cars had very bucket-shaped seats, making it hard to correctly install an infant capsule or seatbelt buckles that would stick in my bum when I’d sit in the back next to Tulsi’s child seat, or top tether points in really impractical places or ISO Fix that was hard to connect to or there would be no cup holder that would hold my cup of tea and my large water bottle.
The list started to become endless and then I found other mums and dads asking me about the same things:
The size of the boot, can we take the stroller with us to do the grocery shopping but only bring either back as there is not space in the boot?!! Can the dog fit in the boot still with the stroller and the shopping? Once the child seat is installed can we only allow a jockey to be front passenger?
Does the size and angle of the back window mean my baby is roasted by the sun? The chirpy little welcome noises the car makes when you turn it on and off, or when you reverse and the parking sensors beeeeeeeeeeeep so loudly! Can you turn all those off with one quick press of a button? I assure you the second your baby is asleep in your car and you pull into your parking space and what feels like a burglar alarm starts sounding because you are a meter away from a bush, you will think very differently about parking sensors!
The volume of the indicators even matter when you have got your baby to sleep and you can’t overtake because the sound of the indicators is too loud and it will wake your sleeping baby, you would give anything to be able to hit a mute button!
Can I put my handbag or nappy bag on the front passenger seat without the seatbelt alarm going off?
The ease of using the radio and ability to very quickly connect your phone and get nursery rhymes playing within five seconds of being in the car to prevent screaming! The amount of space there is to post your baby through the doorway of the car and into their child seat from outside the car or from sitting in the seat next to their child seat inside the car if it is raining or 40 degrees outside!
Is the shape of the headrest in the back conducive to attaching a baby mirror? Is there enough headroom in the back and is the position of the handle and coat hook in the back good for hanging a child’s toy on? Whether you gauge a chunk of your scalp or get your hair caught in it every time you stick your head in or out to do up your baby’s child seat harness!
How easy is it to turn off the automatic engine cut off when you come to a stop at lights? If you have driven 10 circuits of your neighbourhood and your baby is finally asleep and then you stop at a red light, the automatic engine cut out was turned on and ‘no!!!’ baby is awake and you have to start all over again!!
Are there air-con vents in the back to control the climate for the children and can I control them from the front?
Can I get more than one child seat in the back? What is the position of and number of top tether anchor points? How many ISO Fix points are there? If it’s a seven seater can I get through to the third row without uninstalling a child seat every time?
Does the car have leather seats so I can wipe them clean? Is the leather perforated so all the tiny holes will fill with sand and crumbs proving impossible to keep clean?!
Is there a small light in the back I can put on while driving at night so my child isn’t in the dark?
If I wasn’t driving for the first year I travelled in the back of the car normally in the central seat next to Tulsi. So the comfort of the central and rear seats and whether there were good size cup holders in the back became very important to me.
Is there a convenient plug point for our picnic Esky or to keep milk bottles, water or the shopping cold? Can I get the stroller in with that too? Can I fit a double stroller in the boot as well as my shopping and the dog when our family expands?
It was only because I was in a different car each week with a child that I started to realise just how impractical some cars are. Even some of them marketed as ‘family’ cars!!
And on the rare occasions I got to drive alone, on a quiet country road, with my favourite tunes playing and could pretend for just a moment I was 17 and carefree again, was it actually fun for me to drive and was the stereo any good?! And could I wear a ponytail?!?!
Since having our daughter I have noticed that it is a time when many people change their cars for one that is more practical for all the reasons I talk about above and some reasons they don’t even know about yet!! Many people buy their new car while they’re pregnant in preparation for their expanding family and life changes. Almost all our friends ask for our advice and opinions before making their purchase, which led me to start collating the information from our cars each week and eventually producing BabyDrive.com.au!
Having now test driven around 100 cars over two years, with a baby on board, various age and size passengers and different configurations of child seats that I can give very practical and honest advice based on this experience.
I hope the site will be useful and informative for new mums and expanding families when looking for practical information that will help them buy a new car, from one little family to another 🙂