Road trips are a fantastic way to create lasting memories and explore new places, but the thought of embarking on a journey with a toddler in tow can be daunting. From frequent bathroom breaks to unpredictable tantrums, there’s a lot to consider when planning a road trip with your little one. But fear not! With the right preparation, mindset, and a few clever hacks, you can turn your road trip into an enjoyable adventure for the whole family. Here’s a comprehensive guide on how to make your road trip with a toddler smooth and stress-free.
Route: Opt for routes with interesting pit stops or attractions that your toddler will enjoy. This could include parks, playgrounds, or family-friendly restaurants. On a recent road trip I planned our route to pass through a children’s museum, and that was an amazing stop. My daughter played her heart out and she napped so well.
Driving Hours: Plan your driving hours around your toddler’s sleep schedule. Nap Times and bedtime can be your best friends, as a sleeping child means peaceful driving. If you are good at driving at night that is the best time because they will just sleep all night. I am not a night driver so we usually either wake my daughter up early or start the drive around nap time.
Essentials Bag: Pack a separate bag with toddler essentials like diapers, wipes, a change of clothes, snacks, and their favorite toys. Keep this bag within easy reach.
I also packed a small tote with a bunch of ziploc bags full of activities that I could just grab and throw back to my daughter while driving because I did our past 2 road trips all by myself. Here are the examples of the activities I had in the ziplocks
- Pompoms & pipe cleaners in a bag
- Small magnetic white board and magnets
- Animal tubes
- Tablet with pre-downloaded movies
In terms of snacks of course it is great to go healthy with things like fruit, granola bars, veggies, but I need to be honest and realistic with you. By the return leg of my road trip, I had 13 hours left and I pulled into Walmart and bought the cookie snack packs and turned to my daughter and told her “I love you, please eat these cookies and stop screaming”. They worked like a charm. Start with your healthy snacks and only break into the desperate snacks if you are feeling exhausted and need everyone to calm down.
I kept my daughter really hydrated with water which meant I had to stop a lot to change her diaper, but I wanted to avoid constipation. I also would allow her to have apple juice boxes each day as a surprise and a way to make sure the fruit snacks and cookies were not going to mess up regular bowel movements. If you do not already have a travel water bottle for your little one I recommend getting them a new water bottle. This will make them excited to drink their water, plus it will manage spills.
Car Seat Comfort: Ensure your toddler’s car seat is comfortable and properly installed. Consider adding cushioning or neck support for longer journeys. I had a light blanket that she could reach if she wanted some extra comfort because sitting all day in a car seat can be really difficult for the little ones. I have the Evenflo 360 car seat and one thing I do on road trips is flip her from forward to rear facing so she can get some variety in her position. This only works if your kid is in the overlap period where they can be both rear and forward facing.
Frequent Stops: Plan for regular breaks to allow your toddler to stretch their legs, run around, and release pent-up energy. Like I mentioned earlier, stopping at a children’s museum is a great option, but any park, McDonalds play place, or a tourist attraction will do wonders. It will be a battle to get back in the car but it is worth it to stop and take a break.
Tablet or Device: While it’s great to limit screen time, having a tablet or device with their favorite shows or games can be a lifesaver during moments of restlessness. No shame from me if the tablet is your first resort. By the last day of our road trip home I started with the tablet and she watched Matilda the musical on netflix on repeat until we got home. Screen time won’t hurt them, but you will need to do a screen detox once you get home.
My daughter got so used to the tablet on our trip that she thought she could watch shows all day once we got home. I put her on a 3 day zero screen detox and after that just limited screen time.
Patience: Toddlers can be unpredictable, so maintain a patient and positive attitude. If they sense your stress, it might exacerbate their mood. My daughter loves fruit snacks. They have never once failed me at calming her down. 10 minutes into our 30 hour car ride she decided that she hates fruit snacks and if I even offered them to her she would scream. This meant I had to adapt.
We have to remember they are doing a hard thing and I found that If i just explained to my daughter what was happening and told her how proud I am of her being so strong, she would actually calm down and settle herself.
Sing-Alongs and Games: Engage your toddler with fun sing-alongs, I-spy games, or other interactive activities that involve the whole family. I found this fun podcast called Story Pirates that tells stories kids write, my daughter never cried during the times we listened to this so I count that as a successful kids podcast.
Familiar Bedding: If your road trip involves overnight stays, bring along your toddler’s favorite blanket and stuffed animal to create a sense of familiarity at bedtime. Before we left for the trip I had the pack-n-play set up so she could see it and understand what it is used for. She helped me pick stuffed animals and bedding to bring with us.
Pack-n-play hack: The bottom of these things is so hard and uncomfortable. The first time my daughter used it she couldn’t sleep longer than 30 minutes at a time because it was so uncomfortable. This time I went to Walmart and I bought a cheap twin size foam pad that I was able to fold into 3 layers. I then laid a blanket over the foam pad and created 3 inches of padding for her. She slept great on our 2 week road trip. It worked so well that I actually made a large pillowcase cover that the foam pad can be stuffed into.
White Noise: If your toddler is used to sleeping with white noise, consider bringing a portable white noise machine to help them sleep in unfamiliar environments. If you are sleeping at a hotel the AC or heater fan was sufficient white noise for my daughter.
Photo Stops: Use your stops as opportunities for cute and memorable photos. Capture your toddler’s excitement as they explore new places. Since I did a solo road trip with my 1 year old I had to stop driving if I wanted any photos. Every stop we took was well worth it and I wish I took more stops.
If your child is old enough you may consider getting a toddler camera so they can take photos and you can see the world through their eyes.
I spent 99% of the time preparing for my daughter and 1% throwing things together for myself. Next time I do a road trip with my toddler I will try to spend more time getting my healthy snacks, entertainment, and drinks organized. Parents are always thinking of others and that is just how we are! However, road trips with kids can be difficult if you do not get rest and stay busy. You will be happier and a safer driver if you spend time getting yourself set up for success.
Remember, a road trip with a toddler is all about flexibility and adaptability. While there might be challenges along the way, the quality time spent together and the experiences gained far outweigh any momentary hiccups. With careful planning, a positive attitude, and a sense of adventure, your road trip with your toddler can become a cherished family memory for years to come.