WHY would anyone in their right mind want to consider taking long car rides with toddlers?
And yet parents set off on just those kind of horror-house trips every single day. They’re not masochists, they do it for some very good reasons …
- It’s usually best on the budget. Air travel has become way more expensive, and as soon as your child has their second birthday, that’s another seat you have to pay for. It quickly adds up for a growing family.
- It means you don’t have a to rent a car when you get there. Another big cost factor in a family vacation.
- It’s easier to be flexible with plans. If you decide to cut your trip a little bit short, or if you want add a couple of days, you don’t have the hassle of calling airlines and hoping for available seats.
- It’s more family-friendly. If you think a toddler meltdown is tough in the car, try coping with one on public transportation!
So, the road trip is here to stay. As long as there are families that want to get to Grandma’s for the holidays, or to a faraway beach for vacation, we’ll be gritting our teeth, loading the minivan, and settling in for those long car rides with toddlers.
Our family has had a lot of personal experience with this. We’ve logged tens of thousands of road miles with little ones over the years, and some of our trips were better than others. We’ve learned lots of lessons, and here are our 50 tips to save your sanity …
RULE #1 …
1. Stay Calm at All Times
If you, the parent, gets agitated, your toddler will only get worse and you’ll spiral into a bad cycle very quickly. So, take a deep breath.
PRE-PLANNING YOUR TRIP
2. Safety First
A couple of important points on this: (a) Check that all infant car seats are properly installed, and that all belts are adjusted to fit correctly. If you haven’t looked at this for a while, don’t assume they’re still okay. And (b) throughout the trip, look after the driver! Help whoever is in that seat to feel fresh, and do not allow them to be distracted by anything that’s going on.
Also, make sure you have enough water, a first aid kit, a flashlight, an adequately inflated spare tire and jumper cables.
3. Consider Driving at Night
This is huge if you can do it. If the kids are asleep, everything is a whole lot easier and the trip will pass so much more quickly for them. AND (as an added bonus) you’ll avoid a lot of traffic on the roads.
Here’s how to do it. Keep your toddler in their normal routine throughout the day of the journey, then feed them, change them and load them in the car about an hour before their normal bedtime. Don’t overstimulate them, but let them enjoy the first hour of the road trip as something special. Finally, include all your regular bedtime routines – read them a favorite story, sing the usual song, say their prayers. If they always take a special soft toy to bed, give it to them and say “goodnight”.
They’ll be as tired as they usually are at that time, and with a bit of luck they’ll fall off to sleep. Do anything you can to help that last as long as possible.
4. If You Have to Drive by Day, Plan the Optimal Times
Plan around your regular routines of nap times and so on. Your toddler will be most settled if you leave after a good breakfast or lunch meal. And obviously try to avoid peak hour traffic.
5. Add 33% More Hours to Your Expected Drive Time
If your GPS says the trip should take around 10 hours, just plan on 13.5 hours. There’s a good chance you’ll do better, but at least you won’t be disappointed or anxious about missing an important deadline.
Personal confession time: I (Phil) am one of those guys who loves to drive non-stop. Eyes on the road … just get there. But I have learned to make my peace with lots of stops during the toddler years.
6. Don’t Over Pack the Seating Areas
It’s tempting to want to make sure you have everything you could conceivably need for any situation on your long car rides with toddlers. But don’t pack the car so tight that the passenger areas are cramped. If you do, it will make everyone more miserable the longer the journey goes on. Try to keep all luggage in the trunk, or use a rooftop cargo carrier.
7. Pack Strategically
Basically, this means thinking about what you could need access to before you get to journey’s end, and keeping that more accessible. So, think of luggage in three basic categories: (i) What you know you will need along the way … that goes in the passenger cabin with you. (ii) What you may need to get to at some point, including an overnight bag if you’re stopping at a hotel half way … that goes on the outer of the luggage in the trunk so that you can grab it quickly. And (iii) What you are not going to need before you arrive at your destination … that can be just packed wherever it fits in best.
8. Leave a Space Next to the Toddler’s Car Seat for a Parent
This may not be possible if you have a larger family, but do it if you can. Trying to deal with the little one from the front seat every time they need or want something gets tiring, and it’s dangerous for a parent to be unclipping their seat belt and leaning back (which you inevitably will end up doing.)
We’ll come back to this point at Tip #20, where we suggest that you split the driving duties.
9. If Both Parents Have to Sit Up Front, Make a “Pulley System”
That might sound complicated, but it’s actually very simple to do. Thread a piece of rope between the handles on the ceiling of your car or van. (Most vehicles have them.) Then tie a bucket to the rope. All you have to do to send something safely to your back-seat passengers is place it in the bucket and pull the rope. Genius!
10. Get a Travel Tray that Attaches to Your Toddler’s Car Seat
This is a fantastic thing to have on a long trip. It provides a surface for play and for food. It should be something that can be easily detached to get your child in and out. Check this one out!
Alternatively, you can rig your own. Use a cardboard box lid attached to the seat with belts. Or even just a cookie baking tray with a set of magnetic letters and numbers (although this is not so easy to fix in place.)
11. Remember to Bring the Familiar Favorites
Hell hath no fury like a toddler who realizes you forgot their “blankie” or “binky” (or teddy, or whatever …) Make sure you have them in the passenger cabin and ready to go, especially when your child starts to get tired.
12. Dress Everyone in Comfortable Clothes
Fashion is the last thing you need to worry about on long car rides with toddlers. Onesies, PJ’s, and track suits are all great. And while we’re on the subject …
13. Have Extra Changes of Clothes Handy
Pack more into your travel tote than you think you’ll need. You don’t want to have to go pulling luggage out of the trunk, and rummaging through suitcases, because Junior soaked the second change of clothes you just put on him.
14. Plan for a Changing Station in the Car
Accidents and spills happen, and not usually when you’re conveniently passing a rest stop. You need to be able to pull over and change clothes quickly on the go.
15. MAYBE Consider Training Pants or Diapers Just for the Trip?
Okay, we know this is a bit controversial. If you’ve recently potty-trained your toddler, and they’ve been doing well, the thought of taking a backward step may horrify you. We get it. However, you might just think differently after your fourteenth potty stop on the road.
There’s always the possibility that if you do this it will mean a couple of days of adjustment and re-training after you get to your destination. But we’re also confident that it’s not going to do any lasting damage; they’ve already been trained once, and they’ll get back into routine fairly quickly. And it just might make the trip a whole lot more manageable.
16. Keep the Sun Out
Lots of cars now have tinted windows, but not all, and in some cases the tint is not dark enough. Sun shining through car windows will cause three things that you don’t want: (a) it will keep sleepy children awake, (b) it will annoy otherwise happy children when it shines in their eyes, and (c) it can potentially burn a child. This third problem is especially dangerous, and it can happen before you even realize.
The best solution is to fit window shades that are designed for the purpose. They’re widely available; check your local auto parts store or Walmart.
Of course, you can always tape up a piece of cardboard or an old t-shirt too. Which brings us to another tip …
17. Pack a Roll of Duct Tape
It has a thousand uses on a road trip. You can use it to hold trash bags in place, leash a toy that keeps falling under the seats, or even to create little things that amuse a child.
Some people prefer painters tape because they say it comes off surfaces more easily later on. Which is true, but it can also come off more easily during the trip, including when you don’t want it to. So, it’s a judgment call.
18. Don’t Forget the Car Chargers!
The devices that we rely on have multiplied these days. You may need your cellphone for GPS navigation, and in an emergency, you’ll need it for communication. The last thing you want is a flat battery. So, car chargers are essential. Even if you only have one charger, you can rotate it around your various devices. But don’t leave home without it.
19. Have a Backup Plan for Everything
We all imagine a fun family drive, with songs and games, and quiet times when everyone (except the driver) takes a nap. We can map out where the pitstops will be, and what time we’ll arrive at the hotel.
But what if …
Now, you can’t anticipate every possible problem, but do sit down and think through the trip so that you know basically what you’ll do if things don’t go according to plan. Be prepared.
20. Split the Driving Duties
We’ve found that the ideal arrangement is for one parent to drive while the other is sat in the back on toddler duty. We switch roles every 3 hours or so. This is safer, because you can keep the driver fresh, alert and undistracted. But it also gives you both a regular rest from entertaining kids – after a couple of hours of songs and games, you’ll look forward to your turn back behind the wheel! And when your toddler takes a nap, you can both have a little “grown up time” in the front.
21. Put Together a Cleanup Kit
This is another dedicated bag you need to have ready and close at hand. It should include a roll of thick, absorbent paper towels, a box of baby wipes, and trash bags (scented ones are an especially good idea just in case you have a soiled diaper in the car with you for a little while).
22. Pay Attention to Climate Control in the Vehicle
It can be a challenge to get the balance just right for everyone. The driver will get sleepy if it’s too warm and stuffy, but your young passengers need to be cozy warm to encourage sleep. What should you do?
On long car rides with toddlers, you should aim to have fresh air coming in if at all possible; not just cool air conditioning. “Real” air is best for keeping everyone fresh. This may mean cracking a window slightly open, or opening up external vents. Bring sweaters, socks and blankets for sleeping.
23. Track Your Journey on a Map
When the kids start asking “How much longer?”, be ready to show them. Print off a map of where you’re driving, and put it in a plastic sleeve. Bring a marker to draw your progress on the plastic sleeve every now and then. Even younger children can begin to get a sense of distance this way.
24. Keep the Peace with a Sibling Divider
Any parent with more than one child will have experienced that moment when one begins to yell at their brother or sister “Stop looking at me!” It’s quite irrational, and so it can be hard to reason with a child at that moment. They’ve just been in too close proximity for too long, and they need a bit of space for a while.
The answer is a simple divider curtain. All you need is some material and a strip of Velcro. Attach the Velcro to one edge of the curtain, and it will probably stick right to the material of the car ceiling. If this doesn’t work in your vehicle, you can just use the good old duct tape.
25. Make a “Freshen Up” Kit
After hours on the road, everyone can start to feel sweaty and “grimy”. A quick freshen up every couple of hours can help keep you comfortable and more tolerant. Things to include in your kit are bottled water, facial wipes (ones designed for your face, not just baby wipes), skin moisturizer, and chapsticks. Lips tend to get dried out by air-conditioning, so chapsticks are really important.
26. Bring Your Favorite Pain Reliever
A headache or other pain can make a long trip unbearable. Make sure you have some Ibuprofen (eg. Advil) or Acetaminophen (eg. Tylenol). And bring them in BOTH child and adult formulas.
27. Put a Large Cupcake Paper in Each Cup Holder
We love this tip! It’s not just good for long car rides with toddlers either – you can use it all the time. Car cup holders seem to attract sticky substances like a magnet. A cupcake paper makes a great liner that you can replace regularly.
28. Bring Along New Toys
Surprise your toddler with a few new items they’ve never played with before. This is the best way of ensuring that they are intrigued and keep themselves occupied for a little while. You don’t have to spend a lot of money – they don’t have to be expensive toys. Hit the dollar store!
And here’s an extra tip …
29. Individually Wrap Them
Kids love to unwrap gifts, and it will add to how “special” these new toys seem to be. We don’t recommend that you show them the whole pile of six or twelve gifts (whatever you decide on). Just pull one out when you need to focus and settle them. Otherwise you won’t get the full value of any item; they’ll just be looking for the next one to unwrap.
Which brings us to a simple principle …
30. Exhaust One Activity at a Time
Whether it’s a toy, a craft, a game or a singalong, focus on one activity and have fun with it until your passengers start to lose interest.
31. It’s Not a Road Trip Without a Singalong
Tip: load your phone or iPod up with a playlist of their favorite songs, then set it to “shuffle”, so they have to try to guess what song is coming next.
Of course, you can always make do even without any recorded music. Just take turns picking a favorite song, and do it acapella.
32. Include Quieter Music for Down Times
You don’t want a dance party mix when you’re hoping your toddler will take a nap. So, have a playlist of softer music ready too. Tip: Instrumental music is great because it doesn’t stimulate them to think about words and want to sing.
33. Have Some Car Games Prepared
They need to be age appropriate, but there are some old favorites like “I Spy”, “Going on a Picnic”, “Guess My Number”, or just counting things you pass by as you’re driving. Check out this post from the Fisher-Price website.
34. Print Some Road Trip Activity Sheets
Things like “Car Bingo”. There are lots of different options — check out Pinterest again.
35. Sticker Books Are a Favorite
You can get them very cheaply at your local dollar store. They’re sometimes easier for children to use than crayons and pencils in a moving vehicle that’s going over bumps.
36. Bring the Play Dough
Toys with plastic parts, like Duplo, can be hard to keep together in the car. But good old play dough will stay together and stick to your child’s activity tray.
37. Put Together a Craft Bag
Collect materials that you and your toddler can use to make simple things with. You probably already have most of the things you’ll need around the house: aluminum foil, colored paper, post-it-notes, pipe cleaners, cotton wool, yarn, ribbon, etc.
You’ll need to be in the back seat to supervise craft time, because some of the materials could become choking hazards. But it’s wonderful how fascinated kids can become with simple things. It’s cheaper than buying more toys and games, and it’s good for their imagination and building motor skills.
38. Make a Sock Puppet
They’re quick and super-easy to make, and they work wonders. Just when your toddler has had enough of being in the car, and shows signs that they’re about to slip into a meltdown, bring out your sock puppet for a surprise visit. Put on a funny voice, and your little one will soon be laughing and saying “Do it again!”
Check out this step-by-step tutorial on “3 Ways to Make a Sock Puppet”.
39. Blow Some Bubbles
Here’s another “save-the-day” idea. When your toddler’s getting grizzly, blow a few bubbles in the air above them, and have them try to catch them.
40. Then There’s Always Digital Devices!
We know that some parents are absolutely against anything with a screen. If that’s you, fine. We applaud your decision. But we wonder if sometimes it may be a bit of an overreaction. Most things are fine in moderation, and we think that’s true of iPhones, iPads, DVD players, and so on.
When you’ve spent a few hours entertaining your children, there’ll come a time when you need a bit of a break for yourself. It’s okay to put Barney in charge for a little while, or let them play a simple game on an educational app.
Just make sure your devices are charged up and ready to go when you need them!
While we’re talking screens …
41. Make Your Own Quick Movie
This is a great tip: Use your cellphone to video your toddler in a happy moment on the journey – maybe during a game or singalong. Then you can play it back to them later when they’re getting restless.
FOOD & DRINK
Any veteran parent will tell you that the way to your family’s happy hearts on a road trip is through their stomachs!
42. Bring Healthy Snacks for Your Toddler (and For You!)
You know all their favorites, but do watch the sugar content. Sugary treats will keep them quiet for a short period, but it will backfire on you a little while later.
Some good ideas are raisins, string cheese, crackers, goldfish, fruit slices, carrot and celery sticks, dried fruit, nuts, popcorn, and some cookies.
For a little added food fun …
43. Make a Snack Necklace
It’s simple: a piece of string threaded with cheerios, pretzels, and anything else you can find that is shaped so you can thread it on.
44. DO Keep Everyone Hydrated
This is so vital for everyone’s health and comfort on long car rides with toddlers. Do NOT be tempted to think that if the little ones drink less, you won’t have to stop as often. It’s just not safe. Keep them hydrated, and refer back to Tip #15 if you have to.
BREAKS & STOPS
45. Plan to Stop Regularly
As adults, you may be used to only stopping when you need gas. But just get used to the idea that you’re going to need a lot more breaks on long car rides with toddlers. A good rule of thumb is to drive two hours at a time, and then having some kind of pitstop. Even if it’s just for a few minutes to stretch everyone’s legs.
Tip: The only time you DON’T stop is when your toddler is sleeping! Let them sleep as long as possible, and get some extra miles behind you.
46. Find a Park or Playground
There are times when kids just need to get the wiggles out. Stopping for a potty break or some food is fine, but what they really need is to run and jump. You’ll be amazed what a half hour at a park will do for them physically and emotionally. Sometimes it’s all they’ll need, and they’ll get back in the car and go off to sleep.
Tip: Open the Google Maps app, and type in “parks”. It will immediately tell you what parks are close by.
47. In the Car, Shoes Off
Make it a habit that every time you get back in the car, all shoes come off straight away. Here’s why: it’s just more comfortable for traveling. So, if you don’t take them off, it won’t be long before children are kicking them off. Shoes then have a way of migrating all over the car … under seats … into the trunk … beamed into a parallel universe … who knows where! Then you need them at the next stop, and it takes ten minutes to find them.
The solution is to take them all off as soon you get in the car, and store them in the same place every time ready to get out again. (Behind the car seat, in the glove compartment, in a side door compartment, etc.)
48. Consider Breaking Up the Trip
For trips longer than about 8 hours, you may want to think about stopping at a hotel half way. It’s an added adventure for the family, and it will turn an unbearably long day into 2 bearable ones.
Tip: If you do decide to stop …
49. Book a Hotel with an Indoor Pool
It won’t cost you any more money. Pack the bathers in your overnight bag, and everyone can relax, have fun, and wind down for bed after a long day traveling with a splash.
One more thing about the hotel stop …
50. Make a Hotel Room Checklist
Every year, millions of dollars’ worth of items are left behind in hotel rooms. It’s easy to do, especially if you’re trying to get back on the road and have toddlers in tow. So, have a reminder list prepared for all the essentials you don’t want to leave behind. Devices, chargers, favorite toys, pillows, blankets, etc.
BONUS TIP: WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS ON LONG CAR RIDES WITH TODDLERS …
51. Refer back to Rule #1
Stay calm at all times. (Let’s all practice saying that together shall we? Breathe …)
And that brings us to the end of our list of sanity-saving tips. We hope we’ve given you some new ideas and some help for that next trip.
What other ideas have YOU found helpful for long car rides with toddlers? We’d love to know about them. Share them with others by leaving a comment below.
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