Traveling With Toddlers: Road Trip Edition

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By the time you read this post, this trip will have come and gone, but I am about to head out on my second major road trip with a toddler in tow. A toddler who feels the same way about his car seat that I feel about Spanx: holds you in safely but constricting and uncomfortable. Except he doesn’t care about safety. He’s just mad.

Traveling with little ones comes with the territory of living away from family. We’ve spent our fair share of time on I-65N headed towards Atlanta. However, when it comes to visiting my family in Virginia, we have always relied on our dear friends at Delta.

After two years of flying with my son, I had finally become something akin to an expert in the baby aviation field. But when COVID-19 hit, my security line stroller skills became a moot point, as my husband and I felt that traveling by car was the best option for us.

In the days preceding our first fourteen-hour road trip earlier this summer, I was on edge. Lists were growing, post-it note reminders wallpapered my kitchen. I had searched noise-canceling headphones on Amazon for when my son started exercising his right to protest the car seat.

Five weeks later, we are about to do it again, and this time I am feeling relatively calm. I haven’t paced the house once or stuck a single hot pink post it to my fridge. I am hoping this list of tips from my last trip helps alleviate stress for any other parent who may be hitting the highway with little ones soon.

Keep it Tidy

Having anything I needed in a designated place saved my sanity on the road. With the cooler right behind the console, the toys all in a bin in right by the car seat, and all diaper bag materials at my feet, I never was scrambling for an item that I needed at the moment. With anything I needed at arm’s reach, meltdowns were avoided (both by me and my toddler).

Keep Them Entertained

This is one area where I had to kick myself off my own high horse. We limit screen time in our house, but if watching a movie keeps my toddler calm in the car, then a movie he shall watch. We purchased a tablet mount for the car, and Buzz Lightyear immediately kept my son from staging a coup. Save this ammo, though, for when you need it. Try out some other activities first, and save the screen time for when it’s about to hit the fan.

I picked out some activities that I save specifically for travel, so they are novel and exciting. A few suggestions include travel Magna Doodles, Melissa and Doug Water Wow sets, books with either sound buttons or flaps, and the VTech Call and Chat Learning Phone.

Pro Tip: Keep his favorite stuffed animal clipped to him with a pacifier clip if possible. Your neck will thank you.

Carseats are tough for long travel! Taking a fun “driving” break. Don’t worry, the car is in park at a rest stop.

Keep Them Fed

In the interest of saving time and money, packing lunches and snacks in the cooler shaved valuable minutes off of our trip. Around his usual snack and lunchtimes, we would pull over and combine this food stop with a bathroom break or filling up the tank. These breaks were a great time for him to eat while sitting on my lap in the parking lot, or to get some energy out in a field at a rest stop after snacking al fresco. I never recommend eating in the car seat, especially if your toddler is still rear-facing, in case there is a choking incident.

I packed his lunch similarly to how I would pack it for preschool- bento box style, filled with items that don’t require utensils. Squares of peanut butter sandwiches, cut up cheese, crackers, and blueberries comprised the perfect mess-free lunch on the go. Yogurt or applesauce pouches made for easy snacks, as well as any bite-sized snack that can go in a snack catcher cup.

Example of a toddler lunch I packed for this coming trip. Minimal mess, no utensils needed.
Sectioned containers make it easy to pack a balanced and mess-free lunch to eat in a parking space or al fresco.

Keep them Rested

Car sleep is your friend. I do have some friends who swear by driving overnight in hopes their littles will sleep the whole time. I am just not comfortable being on the road or making bathroom stops in the middle of the night. It is just a personal preference. Really, scheduling comes down to your needs. If your trip is really long or you have to be there by a certain time, you may need to leave first thing in the morning and pray your little one naps at their nap time. If they fall asleep at other times, it is what it is, but keeping them close to their normal schedule will keep crankiness at bay later on. We keep ours busy, and when we want him to nap (usually right after lunch), we put all distractions away and stream lullabies through the speaker. If your trip is shorter or you are on less of a time crunch, starting your trip at nap time can be a great way to ensure your toddler gets a good stretch of shut-eye.

Goodnight! We removed the iPad from the headrest and put the mirror back for some quiet time. He does his best car naps right after lunchtime, mimicking his schedule at home.

Keep a Change of Clothes Handy

Let’s just say you don’t want to be emptying the car, digging through suitcases for a change of clothes if your toddler has a blowout. Or spills their water. Or falls in mud running around at a rest stop.

Keep Calm

What works for one doesn’t work for all, so just be flexible if things don’t go according to plan. There were many moments on the trip where the tips I shared worked like a dream. There were moments where I had to jump in the back and squeeze in between the car seat and my seventy-five-pound lap dog to keep my son calm. Eventually, we all reach our destination, get selective amnesia, and decide to embark on the whole journey again.

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Melissa Benator is a basketball wife, English teacher, and freelance writer, who spends most of her time getting her cardio in by chasing around her energetic two-year-old son and seventy-five-pound rescue lapdog. She is a Virginia girl who gradually kept migrating further south after graduating from The University of Georgia, where she met her husband. They moved to Pensacola as newlyweds five years ago and fell in love with the turquoise water and white sand. When not at the beach or eating her way down Palafox Street, Melissa can be found improvising in the kitchen, pretending to be Joana Gaines, or splashing in the baby pool with her son. She believes that life is a perpetual learning curve, and motherhood is no exception. Melissa looks forward to connecting with our readers and sharing her joys and challenges as a new(ish) mother.

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