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No Turning Back: Road Trip Advice With Young Children (ages 0-3)

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Updated November 2021. 

I am here to offer advice on traveling with young children. There really is none. There is just survival. I have a three-year-old and a one-year-old. Since the three-year-old was born, we have driven approximately 8500 miles of road trip “fun”, three times cross-country between New York and Colorado, and the “shorter” trip from Colorado to Northern California and back. I had the fortunate, and unfortunate, the experience of experiencing my children, in the car, on these road trips – in each of their age milestones thus far.

Here are my reflections:

0-6 months: Lots of nursing and sleeping. It means a lot of frequent stops but it is doable. Have a set sleep schedule and strategically plan your road trip stops

8 months to around 11 months: You are on your own. Awful. Their seats are still rear-facing, they can’t yet eat finger foods, and most things do not keep their attention for more than five minutes. Plus, all they want to do is move. And who can blame them? The poor little beans just learned how to scoot, crawl, and step, and you strap them in a car for eight hours a day. We did a cross-country when our oldest was ten months old. He screamed the entire way across the country. I swore I would never take a road trip again.

11 months to say about 18 months: It is better, although until the child faces the front I think lengthy trips are still hard. And now that they upped the recommendation for rear-facing to two years…. oh my.

Up until days before our most recent trip, our eleven-month-old screamed even on short rides, so I was more than nervous to head to California. Luckily for us, right before our most recent bout of insane road tripping, my baby picked up finger foods and learned how to use a sippy cup.

A few tricks I used that worked –

Best Snacks for Toddlers

Lots of finger foods, although I was still worried about choking. I did buy a mirror so I could see and limited the foods to teething biscuits and first snacks. Those newer organic foods that have the spouts from Plum or Sprout are genius in my book. No mess. No spoons. And I could just hand it to him, (although, that did up the mess factor). Plus, you can order them on Amazon in bulk for a large discount. Also, he does not yet have juice regularly. But when things got really bad, I would mix a little apple juice and water together. It was one of my secret weapons.

Car Toys for Toddlers

Giant beads on a string. Large enough so they are not a choking hazard and tied on the string so he can move them back and forth. Later, when he is supervised, they provide endless entertainment (say, on an airplane) when he strings them onto said string. (Fine motor skills, right?)

Some sort of activity bells that hang on the back of the seat. These are not usually my thing but he would use his feet to hit the buttons and turn the rattle etc, so it bought us some time.

A soft ball. This really seemed to entertain his feet as he moved it back and forth. Although, there was a lot of picking it up so I’d recommend these balls that are attached with a string with a wristband. 

Secret Weapon Two: The baby loves the remote control at home. He just can’t get enough of it, most likely because it is usually off-limits. For the trip, we took an old VCR remote, removed the batteries and when things were getting really rough, passed it to him. It worked great. He kept thinking he was pulling one over on us by having the remote. Don’t have an old remote lying around? This remote control toy with light and sound will keep them entertained. 

Car Toys For Kids Ages 2+

2 years +++:I can’t take credit for my ideas in this category. Wonderful fellow Internet mothers had many, many a tip. These are a few that worked the best for my very active child:

Pipecleaners. I would not really say my three-year-old has a thing for arts and crafts right now. He is extremely active and would prefer hitting a ball to coloring. That said, he had a blast with pipe cleaners and I had some fun with it as well. We made different animals to accompany us on the dashboard.

Cutouts. We also bought packs of racecar shape cutouts that he loved playing with and coloring. We used an old baking sheet for a lap activity center, which worked great. Not only was he able to draw and play cars on it, but he could also put magnets on it as well.

Activity box. I organized a Tupperware lidded container with lots of new or new-to-him activities. New markers, new crayons, new stickers, etc. I put a picture of him with who he was going to visit on the front. He loved having ownership over his own box. I also did the same for a snack box that he was in charge of. This limited (although did not eliminate) him saying to me, “I am hungry, what do you have?”

Bonus on the Tupperware: On day two on this trip he got car sick and started throwing up. We quickly realized, once the activities were dumped out, that a lidded Tupperware is INDISPENSABLE for these types of accidents (he also peed in it at a later mile marker when we were stuck on a bridge). From now on we will always carry one in the car.

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A few more strategies for toddlers on roadtrips

We have found the best formula for us is to drive in the morning right before the baby’s early nap. Find a lengthy activity to break up the middle part of the day; usually, 3-6 p.m. is our worst time in the car. Then PJ-up (I liked to verb everything) the kids and drive until 9 or 10 p.m. With that said, if possible, we only do 6-7 hours a day of actual car time. I know some folks drive through the night but that wrecks us for the next day. The kids are full of energy and my partner and I are a mess, so we avoid it.

The best place for midday activities

Summer is great. Lots of small towns along the way have outdoor parks, which help wear out the kids. We also love anywhere we can find like a hot springs or a pool, perfect for wearing the kiddos out before eating and putting them back in the car in their PJs. On our latest trip, we were lucky to hit a lot of national parks that offered small hiking opportunities midday. (Believe me, they were small, as in, to the end of the scenic overlook). I know many people frequent McDonald’s play areas. We use it too, but try and limit the amount of fast food for us all. If you are more organized than us, I bet you can even find easily accessible little kid drop-in gyms and play areas along your route. Anything that will let them move!

When one kid is napping, we always break out the mini-DVD player for the other. We try and limit TV time, but I think it is essential for us all at some points.

Hotels are always a mess. You have a successful (or not successful) road trip day and you are so excited to get into a hotel room until you realize there are four of you sleeping in one room. Connecting rooms are amazing if you can get a great deal or swing the cost. If not, we try to pick a place that has an adjoining little area in which we can hide the crib from our view, like a Staybridge or Candlewood Suites. Many Holiday Inn Expresses have a little closet that if you open, blocks the entryway from the main area and then we put our baby in the entry space. Also, sometimes you will end up in a handicap-accessible room if available and those have extra-wide bathrooms that function nicely as a baby room.

The toddler is harder. You either end up going to bed at 8 pm with him or he is wired watching TV with you until who knows when. We have recently found it works better if we put the toddler on one double bed and watch a little movie on the DVD player we brought on the other bed. It is quiet, not as distracting, and our little boy falls asleep fairly easily. We sometimes use headphones. Anything to make it feel like it is our vacation too.

There is no way to avoid the need for a partition between the front and back seats of the vehicle to tune out your children once in a while on the road trip. So someone savvy should invent this as an add-on to the minivan. I can’t tell you how many times I wished there was that button. Yet, however crazy it sounds, I keep coming back for more. There is something about a family road trip. The struggles, the non-showered, sticky food skin feeling, the range of emotions that take place in a confined space, that all offer a bonding experience that you just don’t experience on other trips. We learn how to operate together, adapt, and adjust in ways that I feel have important long-term healthy outcomes for a family.

Or at least that is what I tell myself in the short term as I am cleaning out the vomit Tupperware.

What are the other tips people have out there? I can use all the help I can get, especially because I have many more age milestones to come and may more states to explore with the family.

Guest blogger Letia Frandina is a mother of 2 young boys and blogs about her experiences living in Downtown Denver with her husband at Downtown Digs in Diapers. She earned her PhD from the University of North Carolina in communication studies. When she is not roaming the streets of Denver with her sons, she teaches courses in media culture, public speaking, and urban rhetoric. Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. While clicking these links won’t cost you extra money, they help us keep this site up and running. See our disclosure policy. 

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Comments
  • comment avatar Catherine T July 11, 2011

    Letia…

    This was such a great post. It brought me back to when my husband and I had to drive from CO to PA for a funeral and our two children were 5 months and almost 3 years old at the time. For some reason, we decided that “while we were out and about” we should go from PA and visit my parents in Louisiana, too.

    Ahhhh…to be that young and foolish again!

    We DID live to tell about it, but today I have no idea how we got through that massive roadtrip. All I can say is that I think every trucker in America got a look at my boobs since I was nursing at the time! I think the worst part was that my son LOVED to sleep in the car at 5 months old. That made for peaceful days…and not so peaceful nights.

    Great ideas! LOVE the cookie sheet tip. Totally going to use that!
    Catherine

  • comment avatar Alexandra July 11, 2011

    I found a company that I only can thank heavens was created. My son would get so bored on trips and fuss. I found a toy at Target called Toulouse–LapTrec and another H2-Whoa which are little drawing pads with very few pieces that come off. I can’t speak enough on how it saved our sanity. My son is 2 now and still gets a lot of use out of the toys on trips.

  • comment avatar Amber's Crazy Bloggin' Canuck July 13, 2011

    Great advice! We definitely endured many hours in the car when my kids were younger and you offered some great tips we could have used.

  • comment avatar Linda July 13, 2011

    If you have a membership to your local children’s museum or science museum, check to see if it has reciprocity with other museums around the country, and take the museum list with you when you hit the road. A (free admission) stop for an hour at a new museum can breathe new life into parents and tots.