Once we had kids (and before we moved), we used to leave the city almost every weekend, 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 baby and a toddler. 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 heading an hour away to the burbs, sitting in hours of traffic on the way to the Hamptons, trekking a few hours upstate to the lake, or ambitiously attempting a longer trip down south, we have managed to survive nearly every type of road trip with a baby and a toddler (and dog) over the years, and these days, we’ve been traveling with a full car now that we have two kids. I’ve learned quite a few lessons along the way and made so many mistakes that it’s really my duty to share. I also get asked all the time how we make our frequent weekend trips work with the kids, so I thought I’d share it all in one blog post. Here are my top tips for surviving a road trip with a baby and a toddler (and a 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 if you want to survive a road trip with a baby and a toddler, and here it is:
1) Traffic: Bottom line: go when there is the least amount of traffic. Babies and 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 your road trip, 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, my kids’ screams, which I imagine are probably like all children’s screams, are basically the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard and our 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 the kids’ sleep schedule a bit. Even if they’ve 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 not sitting in traffic.
On that note, I would also check Wayz or Google Maps before you leave to look out for any accidents and road construction. Sometimes you can’t avoid these things — they pop up along the way or you have no other route, and usually at the most inopportune time (i.e., when you’re on the way to a wedding and about to miss the ceremony). But those tend to be the longest traffic delays, the type where you just crawl along or don’t move for ten minutes at a time, so if you can work to avoid them, you’ll have a much smoother ride. Sometimes one of us will drive and the other will stay on top of Wayz/Google Maps so we can avoid any major delays.
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 to snooze or zone out or just enjoy 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 while eventually the kids will fall asleep, mine are not the type to stay sleeping when we try to transfer them inside, so it’s not the best solution but better than sitting in traffic with them screaming. However, in those cases, we’ll let them run around a bit while we unpack and get settled and then put them down, and usually they’re exhausted enough to go back down. At this point, the kids are adaptable enough that it doesn’t totally throw off their sleep schedule for the week, but when James 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). Ideally though you can go during nap time. It’s a gamble. Sometimes they won’t sleep because it’s too much excitement or light or whatnot, and then they are cranky upon arrival, but that’s the thing about traveling with kids, you need to prep as best you can and then just accept that all may go wrong anyway.
Pack All the Snacks
Snacks are key for a road trip with baby and a toddler. 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 kids like 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-road trip 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 the kids 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 they don’t get on the regs, whether that’s Annie’s fruit snacks, animal crackers, or these organic peanut butter crackers they’re obsessed with. If the kids are really good and the trip is taking forever, we sometimes even treat the car to a McDonald’s soft serve cone. 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 (and a Travel Potty) Too
We also go heavy on beverages, bringing bottled water and sippy cups. I love this sippy cup for keeping milk cold. You can also pack a cooler for breastmilk or regular milk if you have a little one. Otherwise, pack formula, empty bottles and bottled water, and you can make bottles on the go. Both the kids are now old enough that they don’t take bottles anymore, but before that, we would mix bottles or stop somewhere and I’d breastfeed in the car. Honestly, if James or Charlotte were 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). Note: If you have potty trained or in the process of being potty trained kids, I highly recommend bringing a travel potty in the car and you’ll need to take frequent rest stops and basically force them to use the toilet. (This travel car potty is genius and we have this one that we’ve also brought on planes and our cousins gave us this one that folds up and is actually much better for packing.)
Bring New Toys They Can Play With in Their Seats
I usually pack an entire bag of just toys to entertain the kids. 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. Since we travel so often, I’ll try to snag one or two new toys from the dollar store 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 the best for 6-18 months. We used this for Charlotte’s car seat when she was a little baby and this is a fun activity center for babies. We also bring books — the kids just love turning the pages and now James will pretend to read them to Charlotte. 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 James turned one as are these busy boards for 1-2. Now that the kids are a bit older, we love these water coloring books, these types of color and activity books, this magnetic coloring board, and this light up coloring board is a favorite of James’.
Program the iPad
We’ll usually bring a wifi hotspot with us in the car so we can stream or download videos the kids like and download movies and shows and videos in advance to be safe. This is usually more of a last ditch effort when they’re being super cranky but it usually works. We try to save it for later in the trip though when all else fails. You can get an iPad stand for the car so they’re not dropping yours while you’re trying to drive, but we’ve also had James just hold the iPad for both kids to watch.
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 or playground. Find a McDonalds with one of those indoor playgrounds (in non-Covid times). Go explore a town so they can at least walk around. If your kid is on the move, letting them 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 when they get restless. 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 diapers in the car. Kids 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
Both of our kids are high energy and quick to tantrum. So if we can survive a road trip with both of them 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 car trips and start to look forward to them. Like flying, the trick to surviving a road trip with a baby and a toddler is planing ahead and then knowing that not everything will go as planned and that sometimes it will be miserable, but then you’ll get to your destination and have a cocktail and forget about it all.