Summer is just around the corner and that means it’s almost road trip season! Just the thought of a road trip with little ones can trigger a stress response, but the good news is that the better we prepare, the better our chances are of having a great family experience! We have some helpful tips for planning a road trip with littles, based on fifteen years of cross-country and international travel with infants, toddlers, preschoolers and beyond.
Tips and Tricks for Road Tripping with Kids
Start small. Making road trips a part of your routine goes a long way towards helping your child prepare for long cross-country trips. Regularly plan day trips and weekend trips to help your child adjust to longer periods of time sitting in the car seat.
Be flexible. Don’t be overly ambitious in planning your itinerary; travel time changes after adding children to your family! Forcing your child to adjust to your schedule when they are tired and cranky will only result in an unhappy child AND unhappy parents! Build in the flexibility to take a few extra breaks. Depending on the age of your child, you may need to stop every 1-2 hours.
Build in downtime. Avoid planning more than two days of back-to-back travel and build “rest days” into your itinerary. Parents often find that including outdoors time where children can explore, stretch their legs and breathe in the fresh air help restore their child’s good spirits! Be sure to check out local parks and nature centers! This is also important for those breaks that you take along the way. Try to look for a park or even just a green space where your child can stretch their legs before getting back in the car. Another tip is to plan an evening in the pool at your hotel – your child will usually sleep very well afterwards!
Plan around rush hour traffic. If you have a child who can sleep anywhere and through anything, this may not be an issue for you, but if you have a light sleeper, the stop and go traffic can be very disruptive to your child’s naptime. Try to avoid entering any metropolitan areas during rush hour.
Plan around naptime. Avoid stopping to fill up on gas during your child’s naptime, even if it means filling up a half-filled tank before naptime. The stops often interfere with a child’s sleep cycle, although a white-noise app or background music may help.
Consider altering your driving schedule. Some parents find that their children do best if they start a road trip in the early hours of the morning (3 or 4am, for example). After getting in the car, the child goes back to sleep, and they can get in a couple hours of uninterrupted drive time. Other parents prefer to drive late into the night to take advantage of those “sleep” hours. Experiment and find out what works best for your family. Whatever you choose, take into consideration the driver’s “alert” hours. Driving at night isn’t safe if the driver is sleepy!
Containing the messes. A messy car can increase stress levels for kids and parents. Bring plenty of extra plastic bags for containing trash or any unexpected messes, a roll of paper towels, Clorox wipes and extra baby wipes. Another life saver is to purchase a waterproof car seat liner – if there are any spills in the car seat, it is so easy to take off the cover, launder or even do a sink rinse in your hotel room, and replace! Always keep an extra couple sets of clothes handy should your child have a spill or blow-out, and have on hand gallon-sized resealable plastic bags to keep soiled clothing in.
Healthy snacks. Avoid sugary beverages or snacks, which can cause mood/energy level swings. Applesauce, fruit/veggie/yogurt/chia pouches, Cheerios, puffs, and rice cakes were popular choices when my children were toddlers. Once they are older you can include cheese sticks, fresh veggies (pre-sliced cucumber, carrots–our kids loved the precut grated carrots and thin sliced baby carrots–bell peppers), fresh fruits (apples, mandarins, bananas, blueberries), dried fruits, hummus and guacamole (the individual cups are amazing). We also loved freezing yogurt tubes and popping those into the cooler – by the time the kids were ready for them they were still nice and cool. Some kids also preferred them frozen. In addition to these, convenient packaged non-perishables like granola bars, veggie straws, crackers, pretzel are good to have on hand. We did also buy lollipops made from 100% juice, which were great for keeping little mouths busy for a while! Avoid eating grapes, nuts and popcorn in the car as they can be a choking hazard for young children. If you have an infant or toddler, always be sure to sit beside them while they are eating in the car. Rear-facing car seats position the child in a reclining position, and you want to ensure they do not choke on any food.
Water bottle. Bring a reusable water bottle or sippy-cup (leak-proof) for each child and refill as needed at hotels and gas stations along the way. This saves on space (you don’t need to bring a case of bottled water) and avoids waste (back wash, or hot bottled water anyone?).
Music and story time. Download your child’s favorite tunes and some early childhood friendly audio books. Your child may only listen for ten minutes, but it’s helpful to provide a variety of activities and listening to an audio book also gives you a break from having to entertain your child.
Car games. Once your child is old enough to identify colors, playing “I Spy” is a fun game, as well as the “Alphabet Sign Game” (find the letters of the alphabet, in order, on passing signs). For preschoolers, you can also print out a travel bingo with pictures of things for them to find.
Illness. Prepare for unexpected illness by packing your child’s medications. Per your pediatrician’s recommendation, consider bringing children’s acetaminophen or ibuprofen, Benadryl, and Dramamine. Make sure you get your pediatrician’s dosage guidelines per your child’s age and weight.
Toys and entertainment. Download your child’s favorite episodes to a tablet and bring a child-sized headphones that is comfortable for your child to wear. (You’ll want to limit the time with a tablet, as too much screen time can actually increase anxiety and edginess.) Consider travel friendly toys such as: etch-a-sketch or magnetic drawing board, wikki stix, a roll of painters tape (yes, painters tape!), water-paint books from Melissa & Doug, mess free magic markers and coloring books, magnetic play sets, pop-its or other fidget toys, writing tablets (LCD), reusable sticker pads, sensory/busy boards (they even have a backpack version), magnetic maze board, board books, travel tangrams (magnetic version), and more! If bringing a coloring book, opt for twistable crayons rather than markers, pencils or the convention crayons. (Stating the obvious, but speaking from experience, crayons melt in the hot sun!)
Naptime. Consider bringing a small pillow, swaddle-type blankets and one cuddy toy/lovey for your child. The swaddles are breathable, but cozy. If your car doesn’t have sunshades, consider purchasing sunshades for your car windows. This is helpful during peak midday sun and naptime.
Car baby mirror. Consider purchasing and mounting a car seat mirror so that you can keep an eye on your little ones from the front sat.
White noise machine. These can be a life saver in a new environment and to help when you have noisy neighbors in a hotel or condo!
Road Tripping with infants.
A few additional tips for road tripping with infants:
- Crib or pack-n-play. Consider calling your hotel ahead of time and reserving a crib or pack-n-play, which helps save on space in your car.
- Bring a spare. Have on hand a spare pacifier and lovey (if applicable)
- Rotate toys. Bring a variety of age appropriate toys (preferably ones that do not require batteries or make noise!), and rotate them regularly.
- Bring extras. Bring more changes of clothes (3-4 outfits per day is a good rule of thumb), diapers and wipes than you think you’ll need!
- Bring a picnic blanket. Infants who are not yet steady walkers may want to stretch their muscles and it’s wonderful to be able to lay out a picnic blanket for them at a rest stop or park so they can crawl, stretch and explore a bit before getting back in their car seat.
- Stroller and/or structured baby carrier. This can be dependent on your vacation plans, but a stroller is useful to have if you can fit it in your car and I never travelled without a baby carrier which enabled me to be hands free!