We get out of the city on most weekends, especially during the summer. Hence, we’ve taken James on road trips from the time he was a little baby and have learned quite a bit about taking a road trip with a toddler or a baby. Through trial and lots of error (including four hours of bumper to bumper traffic with a screaming toddler and an explosive poop situation), we’ve pretty much mastered the art of road tripping with kids and a dog. Whether we’re heading an hour away to the burbs, a couple hours to the Hamptons or a few (or more) hours to the mountains or upstate, here are my top tips for traveling by bar with a baby or toddler (and dog, since we always have Dakota in tow too).
Time It Right
We have tried just about every time — morning nap, afternoon nap, bedtime, a few hours before bedtime, first thing in the morning, middle of the day — you name it. And let me tell you, when you leave is hugely important. The right timing can mean the difference between five hours stuck in traffic with a screaming baby (done it and it nearly broke me; no joke — it got so bad that I may have even started yelling at my husband to let me out of the car in the middle of the highway). Of course, it will depend on your kid and your schedule, but I would say we learned there is a hierarchy in terms of weighing when to leave and here it is:
1) Traffic: Bottom line: go when there is the least amount of traffic. Babies/toddlers get just as cranky and impatient in traffic as adults. Even if your child isn’t sleeping in the car, the movement and seeing things out the window keeps them somewhat entertained and calm. But when you’re barely moving or just crawling along, they get stir crazy and from our experience, that’s when the screaming begins. Plus, if you’re trying to time it so they’ll sleep during some of it, traffic can really throw a wrench in that plan by extending it, sometimes by hours. After spending nearly five hours in gridlock traffic trying to get out of the city after work on a Friday one weekend with a screaming toddler (and let me tell you, his scream is basically the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard and kid did not give up for the entire five hours), I’m still traumatized. Now, we always check traffic first and aim to go at times when there will be little traffic even if that means leaving at the crack of dawn on a Saturday (hey, we’re up anyway, right?) and giving up a Friday night at our destination or leaving after dinner and interrupting his sleep schedule a bit. Even if he’s just woken up and/or it doesn’t coincide with a nap time, we find the ride goes much smoother for EVERYONE when we’re cruising, and even our terrible sleeper of a son ends up falling asleep for at least a little of the drive.
2) Nap Schedule. If you can avoid traffic and go during a designated nap time, you win. It’s easy for little ones to fall asleep in a moving car. You don’t have to worry about entertaining them and you get some snooze or zone out or other me time (personally, I love to use this time to go down an Instagram black hole or shop). Then you arrive at your destination ready to hit the ground running. Even if the drive is long, having them sleep at least a little of the time will be a welcome reprieve. We have tried leaving at bedtime, and that usually does work although he usually doesn’t fall asleep until an hour into the trip, so sometimes we’ll try leaving an hour before bedtime. The issue is, our kid is not one of those that will sleep through the transition from car to crib. However, in those cases, we’ll let him run around a bit while we unpack/get settled and then put him down, and usually he’s exhausted enough to go back down. At this point, he’s adaptable enough that it doesn’t totally throw off his sleep schedule for the week, but when he was littler and we were still just trying to get him on a schedule, I would have been terrified to do that. Still, if it’s a choice between that and leaving earlier and risking sitting in traffic, we’ll choose the bedtime interruption every time (can you tell how traumatized I am? I promise you, it was that bad).
Pack All the Snacks
Snacks are key on a road trip. LOAD up. I’m talking puffs, Annie’s bunnies in every flavor, Mum Mums, fruit, cereal, pretzels, fruit pouches, food pouches for younger ones, and anything else your kid likes to eat. We like to put food in these containers so they can self serve without creating a total mess (though warning, you will need to clean out the car seat and surrounding area post-roadtrip and you’ll still be finding puffs in tiny crevices for months to come). These are also great for mini meals. If we’re heading out first thing in the morning, we’ll stop for bagels or muffins that he can eat in the car and will serve as entertainment for the first hour. Warning: You should avoid anything that might be a choking hazard and I’d sit next to the child to closely monitor if they’re prone to stuffing a bunch of things in their mouth at once or stick to pouches if they’re not great at the whole chewing thing yet. We also like to include some “treat” foods that he doesn’t get on the regs, whether that’s Annie’s fruit snacks, animal crackers, or these organic peanut butter crackers he’s obsessed with. If he’s really good and the trip is taking forever, we sometimes even treat the car to a McDonald’s soft serve cone. We all have a sweet tooth for soft serve and James is obsessed. But I’d def sit next to them for this one to minimize the chance of ice cream going everywhere and bring lots of napkins and wipes. Oh, and save this for closer to the end of the trip in case a sugar high ensues.
Stock Up on Bevs
We also go heavy on beverages, bringing bottled water and sippy cups. I love this sippy cup for keeping his milk cold. You can also pack a cooler for breastmilk or regular milk if you have a little one. Otherwise, pack formula and empty bottles and water bottles and you can make bottles on the go. We usually only do one milk serving at the start of the trip so it’s cold. But if it’s a really long trip, we’ll stop somewhere for lunch/dinner/break and get him a milk there. He’s old enough where we can do that, but before that, we would mix bottles or stop somewhere and I’d breastfeed in the car. Honestly, if he was getting super cranky, we’d just pull over to a McDonalds or rest stop or wherever, I’d breastfeed (I’m modest and paranoid so I’d bring a blanket or sweater to cover up while doing) and it worked great.
Bring All the Electronic Light Up Toys
I usually pack an entire bag of just toys to entertain James. I’ll also hide these toys in the closet for a week before the trip so they feel novel by the time our trip rolls around and since we travel so often, I’ll actually just keep a bunch in the car and try to snag one or two new ones for longer trips. We find that in the car, the annoying light up toys that make noises (Beatbox, this computer,this faux phone, this book, this music toy) tend to be his favorite and keep him occupied the longest. We also bring books, and many of my friends say those work well, but I think James is too young. He’ll sit and play with books on his own at home but not so much in the car, although I’ve tried reading to him sometimes during longer trips. I also love this drawing board for when I need a break from hearing Beepo singing for the hundredth time. And this was a lifesaver before he turned one.
Program the iPad
James isn’t much of a video/TV watcher, but he does love watching certain YouTube videos from his music class or of kids singing this Bunny Hop song. We’ll either bring a wifi hotspot with us in the car so we can stream or download videos he likes so we can give it to him to watch. This is usually more of a last ditch effort when he’s being super cranky but it usually works. You can get an iPad stand for the car so they’re not dropping yours in the car, but James gets cranky and demands to hold it when watching.
Take as Many Breaks as You Need
If you’re going to be in the car for more than 2-3 hours a stretch, take a break. Stop in a town and look for a park. Find a McDonalds with one of those indoor playgrounds. Go to a restaurant and let him run around while you chase him, or go to a nearby mall and do that. If your kid is on the move, letting him get some energy out will definitely help even if it slows you down. We’ve even stopped at state parks and hiking trails. It’s a pain when you have a destination to get to, but it’s worth it not to have them have a meltdown. If you know you’re having a longer drive and your child won’t sleep for the whole thing, plan some stops along the way that have child-friendly activities or baby-friendly spots. Maybe it’s a theme park like Lego Land or a hiking spot (bring the baby carrier) or a pretty tourist destination. Even if your baby isn’t old enough to walk or crawl yet, they’ll appreciate the change of scenery and stimulation and be more likely to nap the rest of the ride.
Bring Lots of Wipes and Napkins (and Changes of Clothes)
Car rides get messy, especially with all the food. We always bring tons of wipes and napkins in addition to extra clothes. I also pack a handy diaper bag that has a roll out portable changing pad so we can change him in the car. They always have explosive poops when you’re on a plane or car trip, it’s a fact. I bring a lot of everything because you never know when a bottle is going to get spilled, a fruit pouch is going to explode over your ceiling, your baby is going to get car sick, or your husband is going to spill an entire coke over himself (yes, there’s usually more than one baby in our car).
Roll with the Punches
James isn’t an easy baby or toddler by any means. He’s the best, but he’s not a good sleeper, never has been, and has a lot of energy and needs lots of attention and stimulation. So if we can survive a roadtrip with him and do it nearly every weekend, you’ve got this. Yes, we’ve had some horrible experiences, but clearly, it hasn’t been that bad that we’d never do it again, and unlike flying you have so much more control over your trip that you can stop whenever, buy things and food along the way, stop to change a diaper without having to fit in a two by two bathroom, etc. If things aren’t going well, pull over, reboot and get back on the road. The more you do it, the better you’ll get and the more tricks you’ll learn that will work for your baby and fam. And the more they’ll get used to cartrips and start to look forward to them.