how to survive a road trip with a toddler

I grew up in a family where we drove everywhere.  Whether we were going on a short car trip to Branson or Chicago or a longer one to the beach or Colorado, we always drove.  Well, with the exception of California, although I think maybe my parents did drive us out there once when I was too little to remember.  I’m sure they regretted that decision…

Last summer, we took 2 trips (not counting Branson) – one to California (San Diego and Los Angeles) and one to Breckenridge, Colorado.  MacKenna was only 8 or 9 months old at the time and actually took her first flight before her first long road trip.  We survived the flight pretty easily – I don’t really think she got fussy at all on our multiple flights – but it was definitely a valuable learning experience.

However, we drove to Breckenridge, which is about 13 hours from St. Louis.  At the time, the thing I was worried about the most was feeding MacKenna.  I was still breastfeeding at the time, so I was more concerned about how exactly I was going to feed her.  We were travelling with Matt’s cross country team, so a bunch of teenagers were not going to want to stop for very long just so their coach’s wife could feed her baby.  We were also lucky enough that MacKenna had a 5 year old in the back seat with her to keep her entertained.  With her still being almost entirely immobile (she was army crawling, but that’s about it), she really didn’t have a problem sitting for hours at a time.

Fast forward to this year.  We now have a toddler.  A very mobile, vocal toddler who can verbalize pretty much exactly what she wants when she wants it.  While I didn’t have to worry about how we were going to feed her, I did have to worry about how we would keep a toddler happy for a 12+ hour car ride.  Thankfully, I can say we survived, but we had a few tricks up our sleeves that helped us.

Toddler road trip

Leave really early, if not the night before.  Everyone I asked about for advice suggested either leaving the night before or leaving really early in the morning.  We didn’t have the option of leaving the night before because Matt was at Mizzou for a teacher appreciation banquet (aw, he’s such a good teacher) and wouldn’t be getting home until late that night.  We talked about leaving as soon as he got home, but I knew that there was no way I was going to make it through the night.  (Driving after 9 or 10 PM and I am falling asleep at the wheel.  Not good.) 

So, instead, we decided that we would leave at 4 AM.  I would drive the first 3 or so hours so Matt could sleep a little longer.  I’m a morning person, so this was not a problem whatsoever for me (I had a huge cup of coffee to get me through, of course).  We woke MacKenna up after we were all packed up and ready to go, changed her diaper (I’ll get to my trick on that too), and left her in her PJs (her favorite Minnie ones of course).  She slept for the first 2 hours and was happy as a clam when she woke up.  Next time, we might reconsider driving through the night, but I think this worked great so I don’t think there is a need to sacrifice our safety with a tired driver when leaving at the crack of dawn worked so well.

Be willing to take longer stops to let your toddler stretch their legs and be active.  MacKenna is a super active baby.  She is constantly moving and hates sitting still for more than a few minutes at the time – the carseat being an exception.  But, she still isn’t really happy if she’s in the carseat very long.  A 12 hour trip would definitely do her in.

With leaving extra early, we knew we could stretch our stops out a little bit to let MacKenna run around and stretch her legs.  Our first stop was just a quick gas stop and diaper change, but I made sure I let her walk to and from the bathroom so she had the chance to be active.  But, our second stop, Matt wanted to check out the Parthenon in Nashville (yes, that Parthenon), which really allowed Kenna to run around and even play for awhile.  We had 2 more stops after that which averaged probably 20 to 30 minutes each (one for lunch and one for peaches).  And Kenna really only fought going back into the carseat once, and that was our very last stop.

Yes, it took us much longer to get to our final destination (we left at 4 AM and made it to Gulf Shores around 6 PM), but it definitely made the trip more manageable with a happy baby.  Happiness trumps time…

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Keep your baby entertained.  This was one of the things I was really worried about.  Because MacKenna is still rear facing (the new rule is rear facing until 2, if you haven’t heard), it’s really hard to keep a baby happy when she can’t see her Mama and Dada. 

The first thing I did was pack up a bag full of toys and books that we kept on the seat next to her so that we had easy access to it.  I had some of her favorite toys and books, some toys and books she hadn’t played with in awhile, as well as a few new toys and books that we knew she’d be excited about (she’s on a huge Elmo kick so a book that came with a stuffed Elmo toy was a lifesaver).

The next thing I did was find some new apps on our phones that we could hand over to her if she really needed something.  I really never thought I’d be “that mom” that let her kids play with her cell phone, but sometimes it’s just about keeping your kid happy.  We have a ton of fun apps that she likes to play with (Elmo Calls, Peekaboo Farm/Fridge/Wild, I Hear Ewe) and she will be happy as long as we give her the app she wants.

(Want in on a little secret?  Set your phone for Guided Access.  When guided access is on while your child is playing with your phone, they can only access the app they are currently playing with.  It is passcode protected so the worst they can do is lock your phone for a long time – we’ve gotten to 3 minutes before, but that’s the longest so far.  Here’s how:

On an iPhone or iPad (make sure it is updated with the newest iOS software):

  1. Go to Settings
  2. Click on General
  3. Scroll down and click on Accessibility
  4. Scroll down to Learning and you will see a thing for Guided Access – click on it to set it to ON and then set the passcode
  5. Now, when your child goes into their favorite app, triple click the Home button and press start.  The only way they can get off of it now is by triple clicking the home button and then putting in the passcode.)

Our last entertainment trick was a DVD player in the car.  Again, another thing that I thought I would NEVER do, but it ended up not only being a lifesaver in the car, but also when trying to get her to bed in a new place.  Matt went out and bought a few Elmo’s World DVDs at some thrift stores for $4 each to take along with us and we popped them in once she really started getting restless.  On the way down, we honestly didn’t use it until the last 2 hours of the trip.  It’s definitely not my favorite way to keep her happy, but it sure did work!

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Bring some new and favorite snacks.  Snacks were definitely another lifesaver.  We have a very picky eater, but we also have a girl who loves to snack.  I bought her some Peanut Butter Cheerios, raisins, and Goldfish as her tried and true favorites, but we also had some other crackers and yogurt in a cooler to keep her happy.  My other advice is to invest in those snack containers that prevent spills.  Kenna didn’t exactly “get” how to use them, but they kept my car a little bit cleaner!  She didn’t eat great in the car (neither did we), but it kept her happy for a little while.

Oh, and make sure you have plenty for her to drink!  We had to run into a gas station for some juice at one point.

It really helps to have a good baby.  I’m really not trying to be rude or brag on my baby (OK, I am a little with the latter one), but having a good baby – one that is willing to sit in the carseat and can entertain themselves – really does make a huge difference.  Matt and I are REALLY lucky that we have a child who can deal with the carseat for long periods of time.  She might not always be happy about it, but she can handle it.  MacKenna doesn’t fuss or whine a lot and she can pretty much communicate exactly what she wants so we can keep her happy (as long as we can understand what the heck she’s saying).

If your baby absolutely HATES the carseat and screams the whole time they are in it, no matter how many tips or tricks that I suggested you use, I just don’t think it’s going to be an easy trip.  Again, I’m not trying to tell you that it’s impossible, but I think this makes a big difference in whether you’re happy once you get to your destination or if you want to pull your hair out.

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One last tip that I’m going to suggest is using overnight diapers while on a long road trip.  Unfortunately, it’s just not possible for us to use cloth diapers while we’re traveling.  I find that cloth holds so much more potty than disposables.  Without my cloth diapers, I knew we weren’t going to make it more than 2 hours until we would have some leaking issues.  So, I went out and bought some overnight diapers that I knew would last more than 2 hours (they seriously are awesome diapers and the only that I am actually willing to spend money on).  We didn’t have any issues with leaking and MacKenna never once complained about being uncomfortable in a poopy or wet diaper.

Was it the easiest trip in the world?  Oh, heck no!  She wasn’t happy the entire trip, but I’d say 90% of the time, we had a content baby in the back seat.  We were only pulling out our hair at the end of the trip because of traffic, not because our child had been crying for 12 hours straight.  I call that a success!

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  • We always try to plan trips around nap time. That definitely helps. Agree for sure on the overnight diapers, too!
    Verna recently posted..Jack’s Birth Story

  • We’ve had quite a few horrible road trips this a.m. It’s like our little one just loses her mind being strapped in her seat. I ended up giving her tons of snacks and yes, allowing them to run around is key!