“Are we there yet?” This is the all too well-known catchphrase of family travel. I remember asking the question myself as a traveling tot. It never did work in speeding the journey though.
My husband and I have always been avid travelers, and this didn’t stop when we had kids. But it did take some learning and adjustments. Keeping a few simple tips in mind can go a long way when traveling with little ones.
Bring some of your child’s favorite music. Pack a few CD’s, or load some of your kid’s favorite songs on your MP3 player, like I do. If your child enjoys music- and what kid doesn’t- just plugging in some of their favorite tunes and singing along can pass the time beautifully.
As a last resort, pull out a DVD. This is a matter of principle, but I’m of the mindset that kids should not have to be “plugged in” to something electronic 24 hours a day. If you get in the car and simply turn on a video or game for the whole trip, you’re robbing your child of using their imagination, enjoying what can be a very fun and interesting journey, and learning patience. With all that in mind though, the time comes where it’s time to throw lessons to the wind and give yourself and your kids a break. I limit DVDs to one video per trip- that’s one on the way there, one on the way back. A portable DVD player is not expensive, and if you plan to travel once a twice a year, is a good investment. If you don’t want to buy one, borrow one from a friend.
1. Be prepared
When it comes to traveling with kids, nothing can compare to preparation. You may end up over-packing a little- like me- but you have no idea the peace of mind that comes when you complete your journey and realize it went smoothly and you had everything you needed.
In addition to my regular diaper bag, I pack a diaper bag with activities, and a separate bag with snacks. I prefer to spend as much of the trip in the front seat as possible, so I place the bags on the floor in the backseat where I can turn around and reach them.
In your activity bag, include a couple favorite books and maybe one or two new ones. If you have a toddler who is capable of turning pages in a book, a great option is a book with a read-along CD. Give them the book, pop in the CD, and show them how to turn the page every time they hear the specified sound. Bingo! You’re free for ten minutes. Also pack a few toys that you know keep your child’s attention for more than five minutes. For my daughter, these are some of those annoying toys that make sounds which I often keep tucked out of sight at home. A coloring book and crayons or colored pencils are a great car activity. (If you’re traveling in the summer, crayons will melt if left in the car.) Flash cards can be a great car activity. Another great idea for traveling with babies and toddlers is to stop by your local dollar store and pick up a few inexpensive toys that your kids have never seen before. When you sense a boredom meltdown approaching, pull out one of these new toys for an instant pick-me-up!
As for the snack bag, simply pack some of your child’s favorite healthy snacks. For us this includes graham crackers, cereal/fruit bars, Cheerios, and fish crackers. I also throw in a few special snack surprises to pull out when times get tough, such as fruit snacks or suckers. Pack a sippy cup for water or juice and a bottle of water. (This is a great time for those re-use or toss products.) Include some individually wrapped wet wipes for faces and hands, some napkins or paper towels for possible spills and clean up, and some snack sized baggies or cups, and you’re set! (Throw in a plastic bag for garbage as well.)
2. Work around sleep
Many articles and experts advise leaving at night so your baby or child can sleep most of the trip, if you’re comfortable driving at night. This is a great idea- IF your child sleeps well in the car. Some don’t. We tried this once with my oldest daughter, and she slept for about forty-five minutes and then stayed awake for the remainder of the ride. It was also difficult to get her to calm down and know it was bedtime once we reached our destination.
If you child sleeps well in the car, leaving at naptime or bed time is a great strategy. However, if your child struggles with sleeping in their car seat, traveling first thing in the morning, immediately following breakfast is probably your best option. Everyone is fresh and rested from sleeping overnight, and children are generally at their best in the morning hours.
3. Plan for stops
This will not be like the car trips you used to take before you had kids. Forget leisurely drives while you enjoy interesting books or stimulating conversation, those days will return in the future. But for now, it’s all about keeping the peace as you attempt to reach your destination with everyone still happy and in one piece. When our family travels, I deem myself the “entertainment coordinator”. I have my bags of snacks and activities, and I plan to switch between different options about every fifteen or twenty minutes.
You also need to schedule in stops every one and a half to two hours. Plan to stop for at least fifteen minutes per break. If your baby is nursing, plan to stop and breastfeed when they need to. It is illegal in all fifty states to remove your child from their car seat in a moving car. And yes, it is possible to nurse your child in a moving car, but it’s not advisable. Give yourself a break and stop for a few minutes.
During warm weather, rest stops are a great place to take a break, go to the bathroom, and walk around. If it’s cold, don’t discount gas stations for a place to walk for a few minutes, look around, and get a drink. If you’re going to stop over meal time, a fast food restaurant with a play land may be a wonderful option for your toddler to run and jump for a few minutes. Warn them in advance that there is a time limit. Since time is obscure to young children, explain it in terms of how much they will be able to play, “You can go down the slide three times, and then we need to get in the car so we can get to Grandma’s house!”
4. Visit the backseat
If you have a small infant, you may need to spend more time than not in the back seat with them. This is a better vantage point for reading to them and playing with toys, and they may be more content when they simply see another person’s face.
But even if your baby is older, or you have a toddler, pop into the back seat at least once every leg of the journey just to visit and play for a few minutes. They’ll appreciate being close to you as a balance to being trapped in their chair for so many hours.
If you’re the driver, this obviously isn’t an option. Consider placing a mirror at an angle that you and baby can see each other. Or place pictures on the back seat at the foot of your baby’s car seat for them to look at. Magazine pictures of other babies are a favorite, or try a laminated, blown-up photograph of your face- baby’s favorite person!
5. Don’t forget your sense of humor
If you tell yourself in advance that traveling with children may be a little hairy, but you’ll eventually get to your destination and make ends meet on the way; your sanity will be much more intact when you arrive. Think of it as adventure! You never know quite what’s going to happen when you pull out of the driveway.
Whatever it takes to make the ride fun, easy, and peaceful for you and baby, do it. You can get back to life as usual the day after your car trip.
Car Travel Packing Checklists
Diaper Cream Plastic baggies (for dirty diapers or clothes)
Burp rag Bottles and formula, if bottle feeding
Baby food and spoon (if baby is eating solids)
Pacifier Cell phone (for emergencies)
Index card with contact information (if bag is lost)
Pediatrician’s phone number
Changing pad Water and snack for you
Extra outfit for baby, and an extra shirt for you
Crayons or colored pencils
Music (Cds or MP3 player)
DVD player and DVDs
Security item (Lovey, blanket, or toy)
Bottle of water
Individually wrapped wet wipes
Snack-sized baggies or cups
Paper towels or napkins
Plastic bag for garbage