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After a year and a half of pandemic life, it makes me so excited to see families gearing up for road trips! My social media feeds have been filled with smiling families with trunks full of luggage. But my social media feeds have also been filled with the same question:
“How do I take a road trip with a toddler without losing my mind?”
Just a few weeks ago, my family traveled to the beach for the first time in years, and my mind was wrecked with the same question. The last time I traveled with my son he was just an infant. I knew traveling with a 2 year old was going to be a totally different bear. I did quite a lot of research and implemented many strategies. Some were great, and to put it plainly, some of them sucked!
So what do you need to know to have a successful time road tripping with your toddler? Let’s get to it!
1- Be prepared to stop
My pre-motherhood self was a pro at driving long distances non-stop. But with toddlers (and with adults as well) it’s just not healthy to make long distance trips with no stops. Experts recommend that you stop at least every 2 hours and stretch your legs for at least 15 minutes. This is especially important for toddlers, because their bones and muscles are still developing, and sitting for long periods of time can be hard on underdeveloped muscles.
It’s also recommended to not drive for any longer than 8 hours. My family has always found a hotel to stay at halfway to our destination. Yes, it’s more work and more money, but everyone is happier when they’re comfortable and rested.
Should I do overnight road trips?
I’m not an expert by any means, and I’m not in a place to tell you what you should and shouldn’t do. Ultimately, you do what’s best for your family. Some people have absolutely no choice but to do overnight travel, and that’s understandable. Before you make that decision though, ask yourself some questions:
- Will my family and I get sufficient rest? Not all kids sleep well for long stretches of time in the car.
- Do I have a driving partner, and can I trust that we will both be rested enough for long distance travel at night?
- Will I still be able to make stops and stretch our legs?
- Will I be able to get help if something happens to the car in the middle of the night?
- Can I trust that road conditions will be safe at night?
- Will I be driving on well lit roads?
My VERY personal opinion is that there are entirely too many risks to overnight road trips for me to feel comfortable with doing it. I would much rather ensure that my child is comfortable and rested, and I have more assurance if I travel during the day than at night.
Once again, it’s completely up to you, and you’ll definitely get no judgement from me for whatever decision you make!
2- Pack strategically
When I pack, I tend to shove everything into the suitcase, but with toddlers you may need to think about it more. Unlike adults, toddlers are much more likely to soil their clothes, need extra diapers, make emergency potty stops, and make bigger messes.
I always make what I call a “go-bag” of all the things my son would need just for traveling, and leave the suitcase for things needed at the actual destination. You can use a diaper bag, a duffel bag, or even just a backpack. Some things to consider putting in your “go-bag” are:
- Wipes, napkins, toilet paper, anything to clean messes with.
- Extra diapers (if necessary), or extra underwear.
- A potty seat with plastic bags/liners, or a travel toilet seat for public restrooms.
- Extra change of clothes
- Extra comfort things, such as pacifiers or stuffies.
3- Ditch the screen time rules
In my house, I tend to have pretty strict screen time rules. When we’re on the road though, all those rules go out the window! If you want to have 6 straight hours of Paw Patrol? You got it! Sometimes road trips with toddlers are simply about survival.
If using a tablet of some kind, be sure to get a cushiony protective cover in case of drops or bumps.
Not all kids will react well to looser screen time rules, though, which leads me to the next point.
4- Prepare some fresh car activities, or get a new toy just for the road
Toddlers get bored very easily, and the redundancy of a road trips could potentially drive any little one batty! Having something new to play with, or having a novel activity to do can make the time fly for your little ones.
For our last road trip, we got a Paw Patrol bucket and a small car for our son. He spent a solid 2 hours just dropping the car in the bucket and dumping it out! I think we spent $3 on his new toys! No need to spend tons of money on car entertainment. Even if you hide some toys you already own for a few weeks leading up to the trip, and then give them in the car, that could be novel enough for them to be interested.
Here’s some other simple activities to do in the car with your toddler:
- Coloring (I especially love Color Wonder markers and the coloring books that go along with them. No messes!)
- Card games or flash cards
- Busy boards and busy books
5- Plan your stops ahead of time
Like I stated earlier, it’s really important to stop at least every 2 hours to stretch your legs. The problem is that not all road trip stops are going to be the most toddler friendly place.
Before you take off, look up rest areas on the way to your destination. Some people even plan stops at local parks to have more room to run around. On our last trip, we actually just walked around a CVS for a few minutes because there was nowhere else to go!
Regardless of where you stop, having a plan can ease your worries. I used the IExit app to help find rest areas and other necessities off of major highways. It’s totally free, and helped us out so much!
6- Use a sound machine for naps
Some kids sleep better in the car than they do in an actual bed, which is wonderful! But some kids, like mine, just can’t seem to achieve good restful sleep in the car. Having a portable sound machine is a game changer for car naps! My favorite is the Yogasleep Rohm portable sound machine. It’s honestly the best sound machine ever!
7- Be strategic about road trip snacks
I know I’m not the only one who gets excited about munching on a bunch of junk food while driving a long ways away! As fun as that is for adults, it may not be the best strategy for your little one. When you’re sitting for long periods of time and all you’ve eaten is chips and fruit snacks, your belly may not be grateful. Toddler’s bellies are especially sensitive to diet changes.
I personally recommend sticking to similar eating habits at home and on the road. Getting some reusable plastic bags and a small cooler full of fruit, veggies, pouches, and other semi-healthy snacks can help their bellies be in tip top shape. Happy bellies make for happy kids!
Bonus Tip: Check your expectations
Road trips are simultaneously fun and stressful. Remember that you as an adult have probably road tripped a hundred or more times, while your toddler may have never had that experience. Don’t be surprised if tempers are high, or if there’s more tears than usual. Don’t be shocked if your kiddo makes some strange requests, or does out of the ordinary behaviors.
Which is why as a parent, one of the best things you can do to prepare for road trips with toddlers is to simply check your expectations. Be prepared for potentially goofy kid behavior, and have patience with your little one or little ones. The only rule that really matters in traveling with kids is to just get to the destination in one piece! Even if it’s a tough adjustment for your kiddo, I’m sure they’ll remember it one day as a great big adventure that they got to take with you! And what a special memory that will be for both of you!