11 tips and tricks to make taking a road trip with a toddler much less stressful.
The idea of going on a long car ride with a toddler in tow may seem crazy. You might be picturing endless crying and slowly losing your sanity. But it doesn’t have to be stressful. We took a road trip once when Sage was a baby, so we learned a lot then, but now she’s a toddler we definitely had to make some changes. So here are a few things I’ve learned about taking a road trip with a toddler. I hope these tips will help make your long car journey with a toddler as smooth and stress free as possible.
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Before you even think about setting off, make sure everything is safe for both you and your little one. Carefully read your car seat’s instructions, remembering that each seat is different. Proper car seat installation could be the difference between life and death, and you need to make sure not only the seat is installed correctly, but that your child is fastened in correctly. You can hire a consultant to come to your house and give you a lesson to show you how to properly install and fasten your child in, and this Instagram account has lots of free helpful advice. You also want to ensure there’s no unsupervised snacking or eating on the road. If your child were to choke it would take valuable time to pull over and get them out of their seat.
Pro tip: Make sure your child isn’t wearing a coat in their car seat, since this will affect how securely fastened they are.
You might also want to consider bringing some safety supplies with you. This could include…
It’s also a good idea to get roadside assistance, such as CAA or AAA. I can’t tell you how many times this service has saved me. Whether you’ve locked yourself out of the car, gotten stuck in a snowbank or the engine has overheated (to name a few) they will come to the rescue.
On a road trip, you’ll be spending a lot of time in, you guessed it, your car. So you want to make sure it’s as ready for the trip as you are. Give it a once over a few days before you’re due to leave, checking things like the windshield wipers, tires, windshield fluid, oil and engine. If you’re not sure your car is up to the journey, consider hiring a rental.
You can also prepare your car by purchasing a few helpful essentials. A window screen shade is really important when you have a toddler to shield them from the sun, even in the winter months. Pack a few extra chargers for your phone and tablet, and consider getting a power bank charger. I also make sure to have an extra full box of wipes in the car at all times for sticking fingers and spills, and of course you’ll want to bring your packed diaper bag (check out what I pack in mine here) and extra clothes. A baby car mirror is great not only to allow you to check on your child, but also for them to look at themselves. Alternatively, sit in the back with them, especially if you have an only child. This way they won’t feel as alone, you can entertain them, check on them easily, grab anything they may need, comfort them, watch movies together, play games, you name it!
There’s nothing worse than being strapped into a car for a long journey and being uncomfortable. Make sure they’re wearing comfortable clothing that’s appropriate for the temperature in the car. Layers are always a good option because you can add or remove layers depending on the weather. I usually have a jacket and shoes ready on hand for road stops and exiting the car, although be sure to take jackets off before you buckle them back in! Even in the summer months the AC can make the car cooler, so bring a few lightweight blankets to drape over them to keep them warm. Also, be sure their clothes have no uncomfortable buckles or zippers on them.
Make sure to stop, pull over and allow your little one (and you) to stretch your legs every two hours. You can also use these stops as an opportunity to switch drivers. It’s a good idea to time your stops around your child’s nap schedule so that you’re not having to wake them up mid-nap. Use your rest time to grab a drink or snack, refuel, and allow your little one to get a break, milk or diaper change. Plan stops at strategic stops like a playground or park. That way, if the weather is nice, you can let them run around on the grass to get some movement in, burn off some energy and tire them out for nap time. If the weather isn’t great, a bookstore or mall is a good option.
If you’re traveling a really long distance, you might want to consider breaking the trip up into multiple days. It will be safer, more enjoyable and you avoid driving late at night. We find starting the drive early in the morning and then ending before dinner time is best so that everyone can get a good meal in and have their usual bedtime routine.
The last thing you want to be doing is rifling through the car to find things. It’s such a small space it can quickly get messy, so consider buying a back seat car organization system and car trash bin for diapers, wrappers and fallen food. Also be sure to clean as you go. There is nothing worse than arriving at your destination with a messy car with everything all over the place.
Ideally, you’ll have planned your stops around your toddler’s usual nap schedule. You want them to sleep for as much of the car journey as possible and be awake for your stops so they can play and stretch their legs. The car in general is pretty good for lulling little ones to sleep, but I do find that it doesn’t work quite as well now that Sage is a toddler as it did when she was a baby.
To encourage your little one to nap in the car, make sure you bring your nap essentials with you. If they usually sleep with a teddy or a specific blanket, bring it. If you usually read a book before they go down for a nap, do the same in the car. We also make sure to bring this travel noise machine with us whenever we’re traveling, since Sage associates us switching it on with sleepy time, and you can also play some relaxing bedtime music. Once you know they’re tired, pull down the car seat shade if you have one so that it darkens their view and don’t interact with them for a bit. They’ll hopefully soon drift off.
As I said, the ideal situation is that they’ll sleep for as much of the car journey as possible. But that’s obviously not going to be achievable all the time, especially if your child is a little older and taking less naps, so you want to arm yourself with plenty of in-car entertainment.
Opt for toys that are small enough to play with on their lap and can easily be played with in one spot. I loved this fidget toy cube. It has many sides and activities for a busy toddler to discover, and is great for fine motor skills and development. Sage especially loved the spinner and key lock sides. Other good options are press and pop toys such as this one, this one and this one, this rainbow puzzle stacker and this toy controller that Sage loves! Colouring books are another great option, but be sure to bring a proper pencil case or container to hold crayons in so they don’t end up melting down the sides of the seats! We love these ones that are really easy to hold, and these ones which twist and colour really smoothly.
I know screen time and toddlers is kind of a controversial topic, but when it comes to a long road trip I honestly think a kids tablet is the best thing we could have brought! The one we bought is so lightweight and fits easily into your diaper bag. We pre-downloaded movies and shows from Disney +, Netflix, Amazon Prime etc, as well as games, apps, books and music. It’s got a kid proof case with a built-in stand, you can lock the screen and it has really good parental controls. It’s perfect for traveling!
You don’t have to solely rely on toys and screens though! Old fashioned singalongs are great, as well as story time with books. You could even download a few audiobooks for your little one to listen to. And, believe it or not, they’re also quite capable of entertaining themselves too! Looking out of the window, discovering body parts, using their imagination and babbling are all important. Don’t feel like you need to be the on-flight entertainment the entire trip.
Pro tip: Print out a map and highlight the route you’re going to be driving. That way, when you’re little one shouts ‘are we there yet?’ you can point to where you are on the map and show them how much further it is. If they’re older, they could even follow along on the map and tick off landmarks as you pass them. Think travel bingo!
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. When it comes to traveling with toddlers, arming yourself with plenty of food and snacks is one of the most important things you can do! You know what’s worse than a tired or bored toddler? A hangry toddler!
Bring a no-spill snack cup filled with healthy snacks such as fruit smoothie melts and lentil cracker puffs. Fresh fruit like cut up cucumber, strawberries, bananas and avocado are great for adding a little hydration to their snacks. You can also check out this blog post for lots of healthy toddler snack ideas such as my dry snack trail mix. If you’re using food pouches, be sure to get a holder like this or this. They’re a must for travel. They prevent your child from squeezing the food pouch too hard and having a sticky mess everywhere. Our daughter does this every time! These holders still allow them to squeeze but control the amount of food that comes out the top. Genius! Thank you to the HealthNut follower who told me about these!
You also want to make sure you’ve got a drink for them, whether it’s in a no-spill sippy cup like this or one with a straw like this one we use for Sage. Avoid sugary drinks or juice. No one wants a hyper sugar-fuelled toddler stuck in a car! Stick to water and milk.
For actual meals, bring premade sandwiches that don’t need to be chilled. A favourite of ours is peanut butter and banana with hemp hearts. You can also prepare travel friendly foods like my Blueberry Coconut Muffins or Soft Peanut Butter Coconut Cookies from The Baby HealthNut Cookbook. For more road trip meal ideas, check out this blog post.
Be sure to also pack a silicone bib, extra utensils and something to store your food in. These silicone storage bags aren’t bulky, and they’re airtight and reusable.
If you’re stopping at restaurants along the way, try ordering an appetizer or some side dishes off the regular menu instead of the kids menu for your little ones. The kids menu is usually filled with deep fried fries and chicken nuggets, so it’s nice to switch it up. If you don’t want to order a full adult portion for your toddler, your could share off your plate. Our go to’s are rice, fish, chicken, steamed veggies, avocado, baked sweet potato, scrambled eggs and fresh fruit.
Pro tip: You can freeze some of the muffins and cookies the night before you go so they stay fresh for longer while on the road.
At some point during your road trip, your little one will probably start to cry. It’s kind of inevitable. It can be really hard to keep your focus on the road when you’ve got a toddler tantrum happening in the back. Remember that no matter what your absolute priority is keeping everyone in the car safe. Find a place to pull over at the earliest opportunity. No harm will come to them from waiting a few minutes for you to stop the car. Singing songs and offering distractions are all good things to try, but if you’re driving, your number one priority is concentrating on driving.
There you have it – 11 top tips for taking a road trip with a toddler! What are your top tips? I’m always looking for new tips, so let me know in the comments below!
If you want to see more of my travel tips, check out my Baby Travel Essentials post and my Travel Must Haves post.
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Thai couldn’t have come at a better time! The hubs and I are taking our 10month old twins from Houston, TX to Detroit, MI. I’m bringing all the toys, books and snacks. Praying it’s smooth sailing! 🤞
Good luck on your trip!