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How to Clean Vomit From a Car Seat (in 16 Easy Steps!)

I’m going to start this post with a warning that this article contains a frank discussion of vomit, so if you can’t handle it, turn away now. (Even though we as parents do clean up a lot of gross things, some of us still have weak stomachs to deal with.)

Most parents have been in  this situation at one time or another. You’re in the car, going to work or running errands, and you notice that your kid looks a little tired in the backseat, and then you hear it: the unmistakable sound of throwing up. It’s happened to me enough that I’ve come up with a list for tips on how to clean up your car (while silently crying at how yucky your life has just become).

  1. Console your child from the driver’s seat while trying not to audibly gag from the smell. Turn the car around and go home. Crack the windows; it’s going to be a long ride.
  2. Open the door and assess the damage. Carefully extract your upset child from their car seat, trying not to get the vomit on your clothes, while also trying to comfort them with a hug. Use a towel (you did remember to always bring a towel, right?) to put in between you and your child so you won’t get as dirty. If you don’t have a towel, just suck it up and give the poor kid a hug.

    A towel with a book that says "don't panic"

    Always know where your towel is! And after you’re done cleaning up, treat yourself to a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster. (Source)

  3. Come up with a game plan for cleaning up the vomit. It helps to pick up all of the large bits first. While you’re doing this, you may find yourself trying to remember what your child may have eaten in the past 24 hours (Chickpeas? Tomatoes? Carrots? Oh dear lord, not milk!)
  4. Somehow bring your child and the car seat inside, at the same time (is this like that riddle with the farmer, the fox, the goose, the bag of grain, and the boat?). Wrap up the vomit-soaked toys in the towel and bring those inside too.
  5. Give your child a nice, warm, soapy bath after tossing their clothes in the washer (if you don’t have a washer, save the clothes to toss in the bathtub later, you don’t want them to sit around and fester for too long). This part is fun! Distract yourself from the task at hand and pretend like you aren’t covered in vomit. In fact, maybe you should get in the bathtub with your kid too.
  6. Disassemble the car seat. If the instructions say “do not machine wash,” toss in on the delicate cycle and cross your fingers. (Note: this is what I do, although you should always consult the car seat manual first just in case. But in my experience, my car seat padding has not been affected by the washer.) If you don’t have a washer, fill up the tub with water and detergent and let the car seat padding soak.
  7. If the straps need to be cleaned, spray on a little of every cleaner you have (separately, rinsing with water in between, because you should not mix cleaners), and then find out that nothing works and now your car seat smells like perfumed vomit.
  8. Find something to keep your little one occupied, or else you may find that they want to “help” to clean the vomit themselves and/or play with the cleaner bottles.
  9. Do some research on how to clean vomit from car seats (hello there, new reader!) and discover that you need an enzymatic cleaner for all bodily fluids. (My cleaner of choice is Nature’s Miracle, available in pet stores, but any cleaner that is enzymatic will work.)

    a cat sitting next to a bottle of nature's miracle cleaner

    This cat has seen some things it can’t unsee. (source)

  10. Call up a friend to buy some enzymatic cleaner, because you’re stuck at home and can’t go buy it at the store, since you temporarily don’t have a usable car seat.
  11. Take a minute and reflect on what a cool person you used to be. Try not to cry at what your life has become while you’re cleaning vomit. This too shall pass.
  12. When the car seat padding is out of the wash, put it on a large towel and roll it up tightly, to get it dry. Hang it up, in the sun if possible, to fully dry before re-assembling car seat.
  13. Smell the car seat to find where the vomit is (and try not to throw up). If you smell any vomit in the straps or padding, spray liberally with enzymatic cleaner. Cover spot with a wet washcloth to keep the area wet for a while—the longer the cleaner stays wet, the longer the enzymes will break down the compounds that cause the smell.
  14. Once everything is dry, get out the manual and try to re-assemble the car seat the proper way (thinking of everything that could go wrong if you put a strap in the wrong place accidentally–no pressure!).
  15. Put your child to bed, vowing to not give them milk before a car ride any more.

    a bottle of milk spilled on the floor, with the following quote by Sophocles: "There is no sense in crying over spilt milk. Why bewail what is done and cannot be recalled?"

    I wonder how much milk vomit Sophocles had to clean up. (source)

  16. Assemble a vomit emergency bag for your car (bath towel, roll of paper towels, enzymatic cleaner, trash bags, large bib, and a bottle of water). Never leave home without it.

And there you have it! Easy as 1-2-3 …. 16! I’ve assembled this list after many, many times where I’ve been on the way to work and had to turn around due to vomit. It was only the most recent time that I finally got smart and assembled a vomit emergency bag (although I did remember to have a towel handy at all times). Hopefully, I won’t have to use my emergency bag but at least I have it.

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Mary

Mary

Mary Brock is a scientist who works on drugs you've hopefully never heard of. She enjoys cooking to Blue Grass music, messing with her cats, and hosting the Boston Skeptics' Book Club. She was born in the South but loves living in New England (despite the lack of chocolate chip pizza). Mary does not use Twitter and don't even try to follow her, because she is always looking over her shoulder.

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