Surviving Road Trips with a Toddler {It’s possible!}

Before our son was born, my husband and I used to take road trips all the time. We’d pack up the car after work on Friday, pick a direction, and easily drive hours away to visit friends or family. It was no big deal at all, and in fact, we really enjoyed the quiet time in the car together.

Now that our family consists of (and I would argue, revolves around) an almost two-year-old, getting across the state to even see the grandparents can be a chore, and a 6-8 hour trek sounds like a complete nightmare. Heck, sometimes just getting to daycare, ten minutes from home, can give me a pounding headache. I don’t know about you, but no part of a long road trip with constant screaming, stopping, and toy throwing sounds the least bit enjoyable. In fact, it sounds about as much fun as a trip to the dentist for a couple of root canals. I know some toddlers are great in the car; mine, however, is not. He wants WHAT he wants WHEN he wants it (which is right now!), but he can’t communicate enough yet to tell me what it is he wants! Is there anything more frustrating???

road trips

But it’s summer time, people! Gas prices are reasonable! Oh, and Baby #2 is coming this fall, and I have an ambitious summer bucket list for our last summer as a family of three. Believe it or not, that bucket list includes lots of items that require us to leave our house….in the car. So I have been on a quest to turn my car seat-hating, tantrum-throwing, short attention span toddler into a respectable road trip passenger. I’m realistic–I’m not expecting the good old days of minimal stops, quiet conversation, the latest music, and ease the whole way. But I do think we can make it an enjoyable summer in the car for all of us. So to those of you who thought road trips were out of the question with their toddlers, fear not, and check out the advice I’ve compiled.

Toddler Road Trip Tips:

Keep them cool and comfortable:

First off, always make sure if you’re traveling during the day that your toddler is covered in sunscreen and dressed in cool, comfortable clothing. You can always put a blanket on them if they get cold, but it’s difficult to remove clothing if they start getting overheated. You might also consider putting them in pajamas depending on how long your trip is going to be. Use sun visors on the backseat car windows to keep the direct sun off them. Make sure they fit comfortably in their car seat and, of course, that they are properly strapped in for maximum safety.

road trips
I’m ready to road trip!

Plan around sleep schedules: 

Leave right around the time your toddler usually takes a nap, and let them take any comfort items they’re used to sleeping with. Pacifiers, security blankets, and special stuffed animals that they normally sleep with should be given to them when you put them in the car to signify that it is nap time. If you have flexibility in your trip, and a second, well-rested driver to help with the driving, you might consider leaving for your trip at bed time and drive at night while your toddler sleeps. My little one is asleep by 8, so realistically we could get a decent distance before stopping at midnight.

Break up the trip and give yourself plenty of time: 

Plan on making frequent stops, getting out of the car at a park or rest stop to let your toddler run around, stopping for meals, and be prepared to just go with the flow and play things by ear. If your toddler is having a melt down and nothing else is working, it’s time to stop. Most of the advice I found was to not go longer than 2-3 hours without stopping to stretch (unless of course you’re driving through the night!) This should go without saying, but do not, I REPEAT, DO NOT wake a sleeping toddler mid-trip unless you ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO. I promise, you will regret it.

Have a bag of tricks: 

Not literally, but you do need an easily accessible bag full of the most entertaining and fun toys and books your little one has. Be forewarned that these toys will probably make loud noises and have buttons that will be pushed repeatedly, but I am sure you’d rather hear Elmo say “You’re my friend!” 1000 times over the blood curdling screams of a temper tantrum. Bring an excessive amount of these items, because they will probably be thrown, and you need to be able to hand your toddler a new toy when the squawking begins. As a side note, I keep my bag of tricks in the car at all times, which makes the toys special ones that are only played with in the car. It also means I always have them on hand (even when we’re just going across town!) and I don’t have to constantly be packing toys up.

road trips
See, this isn’t so bad!

Get creative: 

Toddlers need to be busy. Besides your bag of tricks, you’re going to want activities that will keep them interested for some amount of time. Consider making some easy “stuff and dump” activities; large craft pom-poms that they can stuff into a recycled Cool-Whip container with a hole cut out of the top, or milk caps they can push through the lid of an empty Puffs container, or craft pipe cleaners they can shove through holes in the top of an old oatmeal container. Many sites I looked at also suggested using a 9×12 cookie sheet as a table, and you can give them magnets to stick on the cookie sheet. Another easy idea is to give them the free address label stickers that come in the mail and let them peel and stick them wherever they want. None of these things are fancy or expensive, but they will help occupy your toddler.

Candy, snacks, drinks: 

Be prepared during a road trip to let your normal parenting rules slide, and be assured it is OKAY. Let your toddler have a sucker (just accept that they’re going to make a huge mess) or a few M&Ms. If lunch time is usually at noon, but they’re freaking out at 11:00, let them eat early or have a snack when you normally wouldn’t. Car rides should be enjoyable, and if your toddler feels like its a special and fun occasion, they will be more easygoing, too. Make sure you have plenty of drinks WITHIN EASY REACH, and bring multiple sippy cups for when they throw one into to a corner you can’t reach.

Sing songs and play kids music: 

Sorry to break it to you, but when you travel with a toddler, the driver (or front seat passenger) is no longer the commander of the tunes. I have listened to Mickey’s “Hot Dog Dance” on repeat more times than I care to admit. Download toddler alphabet songs or songs from their favorite shows–trust the people who know how to make children happy with their music! They won’t care about the variety, but I guarantee it will help you keep your sanity. The car is a great time to practice the ABCs and animal sounds, too.

Sit with them in the back seat (?): 

I used a question mark, because this one showed up on almost every resource I found with advice for traveling with toddlers, but I will say it absolutely does NOT work for us. If I am in the backseat with our little one, he doesn’t understand why he can’t sit with me and wants me to hold him. If I’m back there, he’ll be reaching for me and whining something terrible. The advice I found says they get lonely in the back by themselves, so sitting with them to read to them and entertain them can help. I wanted to include it in my list because I’m sure it will work for some families. It is just not an option for us.

Be prepared to ignore them if you have to:

As you well know, toddlers can be difficult, and they know how to push your buttons. When you just got back in the car after a stop, you know their diaper is dry, they aren’t hungry or thirsty, and every toy/activity you seem to give them gets thrown on the floor, if all else fails, sometimes you might just have to turn the music up, face forward, and flat out ignore them. They are trying to get the reaction, or to get you to stop again, and if you ignore them for a few minutes, they will calm themselves down and sometimes even fall asleep from their outburst. In times like those, it’s good to have a co-pilot to squeeze hands with and remind each other that this, too, shall pass.

So, my key takeaways for traveling with toddlers are to plan ahead, take frequent breaks, and bring a wide variety of activities, toys, books, and snacks. Hopefully this will help make even the most difficult mini-travelers a little more pleasant for your future road trips. Happy trails and safe travels…..now get out there and make some memories!

How do you entertain your toddlers on long car trips? How do you handle melt downs mid-trip?


 

Natalie Ivory is a University of Iowa grad who grew in Traer, a small Iowa town. She spent time living in Des Moines and Dayton, OH before relocating back to Cedar Rapids where she’s lived for 6 years. She loves her job in marketing/communications at ACT, Inc and is pursuing her MBA. Natalie has been married to Greg since 2011, and their first son, Leo, was born in the summer of 2014, 7 years to the day after they first met. Baby #2, George, was born in October 2016 making them a happy little family of 4.