One of the great parts about being a parent is getting to experience the wonder of seeing the world through a child’s eyes again. Even though traveling with young children often requires extra planning and patience, don’t let that keep you stuck at home.
Whether you and your child are traveling to a place that is familiar to you or to a new destination, your trip can be the perfect opportunity to make priceless memories with your child. Never underestimate what a child is able to take in; even young babies can be surprisingly observant and often understand far more than we give them credit for.
Here are some points to keep in mind when you are planning a long car trip with young children.
Set Realistic Expectations
The way you think about your trip and the events you expect to happen can often turn out to be the biggest asset or the biggest hurdle to a positive travel experience.
Having unrealistic expectations for your trip can lead to frustration on everyone’s part and leave you feeling like the trip was a stressful failure.
You may find yourself disappointed if you expect something like this from your young child:
- They will sleep for a majority of the trip.
- They will eat neatly over the napkin you give them.
- They will be content to quietly look out the window for hours at a time.
- They can power through the driving with as few breaks as possible.
- They might cry for a little while here and there, but they will snap out of it in a few minutes and start having fun again.
On the other hand, reasonable expectations can help you identify potential problems and come up with a plan for handling those issues.
The odds are good that you and everyone in the car will have a happier and more relaxed trip if you have these types of expectations:
- You realize that you will need to stop often for breaks, and you allow for this extra time in your travel plan.
- You have some ideas for several age-appropriate toys or activities.
- You recognize that messes are bound to happen and you have strategies for dealing with them.
- You expect that a fair amount of crying or whining is probably inevitable, and you have some strategies in mind for helping everyone cope.
Prepare Necessary and Convenient Baby Gear
A Safe Car Seat
Ensuring correct car seat installation is essential even when you don’t have a long trip planned, but double-checking the seat for proper settings before you leave is a smart idea. The straps could become loosened or worn over time, or guidelines may have had a recent update.
Since parents are around their children so often, it can be easy to overlook how much they have grown. Many convertible car seats have several setting options that adjust to fit your child as they grow. Preparing for a long trip is a perfect time to revisit your child’s car seat settings and make any adjustments needed for their current height.
If you have any questions or concerns about whether your child’s car seat is set up correctly, contact your local police or fire station. Police officers and firefighters are trained on the most current guidelines for installing and using car seats safely, and car seat check-ups are usually a free community service. Different stations may offer walk-in safety checks or by appointment only, so get in touch with your local office to find out their policy.
Comfortable Clothing in Simple layers
Your child is likely to be most comfortable when dressed in soft clothing that allows them to move easily and won’t bind or constrict. Avoid shirts with large collars or rough zipper teeth. Car seat straps need to fit snugly, and they can often push extra fabric or scratchy items close to your child’s face.
If you are traveling in cold weather, always take the extra time to remove a puffy or bulky coat before buckling your child into their car seat. The extra padding prevents you from being able to adjust the car seat straps to a safe tension and could lead to your child being injured in the event of a crash. Dress your child in warm, thin layers and tuck their coat over the car seat to keep them warm.
Mirror for rear-facing car seats
Mirrors that mount to the backseat headrest can be a great way for you to easily keep an eye on your rear-facing baby. When adjusted properly, you should be able to see your baby in your rear-view mirror.
These items are typically fairly inexpensive and are readily available at mass merchandisers or online.
A selection of fun and calming music.
Create a couple of road trip playlists before you leave. Include some upbeat and fun songs that you and your child can sing or bounce along with together. Have another collection of soothing songs or lullabies that you can play to help encourage your child to relax or go to sleep.
Plan for the Actual Drive
Firstly, don’t forget to prepare your car for a long journey. The last thing you want is a breakdown with a child that has already had enough of the journey. Preferably get the car serviced but at the very least check your fluid levels and ensure the battery is up to the job.
If you thought kids can be messy on short trips then you wait until you see the mess they can create on a long road trip. If you haven’t got one already then now might be the time to consider getting some protection for your car seats. Good covers are relatively cheap and will give you some peace of mind.
Expect to Take Frequent Breaks
Sitting for long periods of time, restricted range of motion and monotony are a couple of the things that can make a long car trip uncomfortable for anyone. Keep in mind that your child is experiencing all of these same discomforts with the addition of being further confined in their car seat.
Making a point to stop every two to three hours can go a long way toward improving the moods of everyone in the car. Even if your child is not walking yet, just taking them out of their car seat and holding them gives your child the chance to flex their muscles, stretch and get some fresh air. It also gives you a chance to look your child in the eyes and snuggle or talk to them.
Try to Plan Some Fun Along the Way
To take the previous point a little further, why not make the most of your breaks and plan some fun stops along the way?
Research your planned route and look for any family-friendly restaurants, attractions, scenic areas or historical markers. Depending on the area you are traveling through, you may be surprised how much fun you can have before you even get to your destination.
Consider Traveling During Normal Sleep Times
Depending on the length of your trip, you may want to think about leaving at an unusual time, like very early morning or even late at night. The goal is to try to get a large portion of driving done while your child is asleep and disrupt their schedule as little as possible.
However, never attempt to drive unless you are well rested and can make arrangements to get adequate sleep yourself.
If you are traveling with your partner or another passenger, it could be a good idea to keep some open space next to the car seat. Despite your best efforts to bring along enough toys to entertain your baby, it’s likely that your baby may simply feel lonely and will appreciate someone sitting next to them for at least some of the trip.
A Plan for Changing Your Child’s Diaper or Clothing
Have a plan for quickly dealing with soiled diapers or clothing. If you have a small car or are traveling with several bags, the front passenger seat may be the best spot to lay your child for easy changes.
Have Some Ideas for Dealing With Crying
Since young children often lack the ability to communicate effectively through words, crying or whining are often the only options they have to express their feelings.
Discomfort from being strapped tightly in their car seat, being too hot or too cold, feeling tired from being out of their normal routine and boredom are just a few reasons your child may feel the need to cry.
Here are a few ideas to consider for times when the stress levels rise:
- Soothing music or singing lullabies if you think your child is tired.
- Take a rest stop to cuddle, get some fresh air or exercise.
- Offer a snack if you think your child might be hungry.
- Try to assess if your child may be cold or too warm, and add or remove clothing as needed.
- Check to see if your baby has a dirty diaper or your older child needs to use the bathroom.
- If these don’t work or can’t be done right away, remind yourself that this is indeed temporary and your child will stop crying eventually. Even though it isn’t easy, maintaining a peaceful and soothing attitude yourself may help your child calm down a little faster.
Infants (Less than 12 months)
What to Bring Along
You don’t want to be fumbling around in your packed luggage to find a clean outfit if your little one gets dirty from a leaky diaper or spit-up episode. Pack these items in a separate bag that you can easily reach during a rest stop.
- Plenty of diapers and wet wipes. These are definitely items you do not want to run out of. Err on the side of caution and bring more diapers and wipes than your baby typically goes through.
- A good diaper cream. Extended time in the car might mean that you won’t be aware of a wet or soiled diaper as soon as you would at home. Additionally, if you are traveling on a busy highway, you may not have the immediate opportunity to pull over and change a diaper. An effective diaper cream can help soothe any redness before it becomes a painful rash. You could also put some cream on your baby before you leave and at diaper changes throughout the drive as a preventative measure.
- Spare outfits. Have a few changes of simple clothing easily at hand. Choose pieces that are easy to put on and take off your baby.
- Sanitizing wipes for bottles, pacifiers and toys. These wipes will not replace washing with soap and water, but they can come in handy for quick cleaning of several baby items.
- Plastic bags for dirty diapers or clothing. Especially if you will not be able to throw away a soiled diaper immediately after changing it, you will want a way to contain the mess and hopefully reduce the smell as much as possible. Always pack plastic bags of any kind safely out of your child’s reach.
- Hand sanitizer. If you have to change a diaper on the side of a rural road, it’s likely you will not have access to water for hand washing. A sanitizing gel can help reduce germs until you reach your next bathroom.
Fortunately, this is the age group that tends to sleep the most. Unfortunately, this is also the age group that is typically the least able to entertain themselves for long.
Toys with bright colors, flashing lights, sound or music are usually the most popular choices for babies. Older infants are typically able to hold small books or toys and play by themselves for a while, but they may still need someone to actively play with them at times throughout the trip. Younger babies often require more one on one attention during awake times.
However, every baby is an individual. Your infant may surprise you by quietly and contentedly enjoying the car’s motion and the view out the window.
Formula Feeding Tips
If you plan to feed your infant bottles of formula or breast milk, always stop the car and take your baby out of their car seat to feed them. Never prop a bottle up or let your baby eat unsupervised.
A premixed formula is probably the easiest option for bottle feeding during a road trip. A powdered formula will take a little more prep work, but it is still very doable. Most sources of US tap water should be safe for your baby to drink. However, bringing along your own bottled water can help eliminate fears of contamination and might actually turn out to be the easiest option.
Depending on the length of your trip, you may want to bring along a thermos of warm water to prepare your baby’s bottle. You can also warm a bottle by running it under warm tap water during a rest stop, or you can use an electric bottle warmer that plugs into your car’s power outlet.
Bottles prepared with room temperature water are perfectly safe, but your baby may find the temperature difference to be a shock if they are accustomed to warm bottles. Slowly introduce room temperature bottles a couple of weeks before your trip to help ease the transition.
Wash all bottles as soon as possible after your baby eats. Bringing along some bottle soap might make washing a little easier.
You can nurse your baby at any rest area, gas station or restaurant you stop at along the way, although you might find it easier and faster to nurse your baby in the car during a break.
Pack any nursing supplies in an easily accessible place. Some items that you may find helpful could include disposable nursing pads, a nursing cover or light blanket and burp cloths.
If you plan to pump and feed bottles of breast milk, bring along your regular pumping supplies and check if a car adaptor is available for your breast pump’s model. Wash all pumping-related parts as soon as possible. Wipes and soap designed for cleaning breast milk and cold-water sanitizing tablets can work well for traveling.
If you won’t be feeding your pumped milk within a few hours, have a cooler bag with ice ready to store your milk for up to 24 hours. Follow the same suggestions listed in the previous section for warming a bottle on the go.
For more detailed information see our safely handling breast milk guide.
If your older infant routinely eats snacks at home, they can also eat their favorites under supervision during rest stops.
These types of snacks usually work well for infants:
- O-shaped cereal
- Puree pouches
- Baby crackers
- Baby Puffs
Your baby’s regular formula or breast milk routine should be sufficient to keep them adequately hydrated.
How Soon Can a Newborn Take a Long Trip?
A newborn should be able to travel long distances safely if the following are true:
- Your baby was born at full term. Babies who were born prematurely could be more prone to breathing or temperature control difficulties that could make long periods of time in the car stressful or dangerous. Preemies could also be more susceptible to picking up a virus or a bacterial infection in new or crowded places. Home is often the safest place for a premature baby until they have had the chance to grow stronger physically and developmentally.
- Your baby has no health problems or special needs. If your baby requires any specialized care or treatments, you may want to delay your trip until you feel comfortable with your baby’s daily routine.
- Your baby’s doctor gives you the OK. Make sure your baby has a thorough newborn wellness checkup and you have discussed the trip with your doctor prior to leaving. It could also be a good idea to familiarize yourself with the local clinics, hospitals or doctors at your destination.
- You have your car sear set up for a newborn to use safely. Newborns lack the muscle strength to move their heads if they settle into an uncomfortable or dangerous position. This can be especially problematic during a long trip where you won’t be able to monitor them closely. A padded support pillow can be a great way to provide head support and help to keep your baby comfortable and safe. These pillows are specifically designed to be safe for young babies to use in car seats and other sitting equipment. You can find these pillows at mass merchandisers or online.
- You are prepared for more frequent stops. Newborns have a very small stomach capacity and need to eat frequently. They can also produce up to 10 to 12 soiled and wet diapers daily. Plan to stop roughly every one to two hours.
Toddlers (1-2 years)
What to bring along
Accidents and messes are still pretty common for toddlers, so having extra clothing easily at hand will probably come in handy.
If your toddler wears diapers, the same suggestions apply for them as for infants: bring more than you anticipate using. Wet wipes, quality diaper cream, plastic bags for soiled items and hand sanitizer are other necessities.
If your toddler is potty trained but still uses a toilet seat ring, you may want to bring the ring along in a large plastic bag. It can be very frustrating to pull over for a potty break only to find that your child refuses to use a toilet that is unfamiliar or that they are afraid of falling into. Even though carrying around an extra piece might be inconvenient, having your child’s own seat ring could greatly reduce the chances of frequent, fruitless trips to the potty and accidents in the car seat.
Encourage Activity When Possible
Toddlers are known to have great amounts of energy, and they love to move around. Whenever you stop at a safe area for them to walk or run in, give them the chance to let off some steam. They might even take a good nap after some exercise!
Toys and Entertainment
Some children in this age group are very attached to certain toys or blankets. If your toddler has a special item, let them bring it along. However, make sure you keep an extra close eye on this beloved piece to avoid it getting lost.
In addition to bringing along some of your child’s favorite toys from home, consider purchasing a few new inexpensive ones. Look for toys that have lots of buttons or simple activities to keep your toddler busy. Flashing lights, songs and sounds usually help keep them interested as well. If you want to save a little money as well as avoid bringing any new toys into your home permanently, ask a mom friend if you can borrow some toys or books to bring along on your trip.
Sturdy board books with lift-the-flaps, sparkly or shiny pictures or different textures can help keep your toddler occupied for a while. Place a few books in their car seat with them so they can have a selection to choose from by themselves.
Young children usually love snack time, and giving your child small pieces they can feed themselves can help keep little hands busy. Toddlers are usually adept at feeding themselves finger foods, but you should still supervise them closely whenever they are eating.
Here are some snacks that are usually popular with toddlers:
- Puree Pouches
- String cheese
- Soft fruit slices
While you certainly need to give your child enough fluid to be adequately hydrated, excessive drinks usually lead to excessive stops for the potty or to change a diaper. Offer drinks with snacks, meals and periodically on the road, but keep your child’s cup in the front seat with you to avoid drinking out of boredom.
Older Kids (3-4 years)
What to bring along
While older children are not as mess-prone as the younger ones, having a spare change of clothing handy could still be a good idea.
If your child has a favorite pillow or blanket, they might find it easier to relax and go to sleep with their special item.
If your child has a tablet or other device, they can use it to watch TV shows or movies. Downloading some episodes or movies before you leave might be a good idea since signal strength can vary greatly and data rates can add up quickly. You may also want to research some fun apps you could download for the trip. They could be a good way to practice letter or number skills while you are on the road.
Simplified versions of classic car games like road trip bingo, I Spy and the license plate game can be a fun way to engage your child with the view around them. Have your child look for colors, simple shapes or common items that they can easily identify.
Preschoolers often love to sing along to their favorite songs. If you see your child is becoming bored and restless, playing some upbeat music might be a positive way to channel some of that pent-up energy. If your child enjoys listening to stories, an engaging audiobook might also be a good idea for some quieter moments.
Coloring is typically a popular activity with preschoolers. There are mess-free art products available at mass merchandisers and online that can be a great idea in the car. Washable crayons are probably your best bet if you want to stick with traditional products. However, only give your child crayons if you are confident they can be trusted to not bite or eat them.
Most children in this age group are able to ride in a forward-facing car seat and have a better view out the window. They may be content for a while to simply watch the scenery go by.
Preschoolers are usually easier to feed on the road, and they often like many of the same foods adults do.
- Trail mix
- Granola bars
The same guidelines for toddler drinks also apply to this age group: Give adequate fluids but don’t allow unlimited drinks.
After You Get Home
Despite your best efforts to encourage regular naps and familiar activities, traveling will in all likelihood disrupt your child’s routine. Some young children may have no problems whatsoever in returning to their normal daily activities, while some others may need a few days to settle back into their typical routine. If your child is having some difficulties with sleep or behavior after getting back home, do your best to be patient with them and remind yourself that this phase will probably be over soon.
After all those snacks eaten in the car, be sure to give your car seat a thorough vacuum and wipe out anything left in the cupholders. Don’t forget to completely remove the car seat and vacuum the car’s interior as well; crumbs seem to have a knack for finding their way into the strangest nooks and crannies.
Every road trip with young children has the potential to be successful and enjoyable as long as you have realistic expectations, do some prep work in advance and plan carefully.
By taking your child along to see the world with you, you are fostering their sense of adventure, building irreplaceable memories and bonding as a family. Even though taking your young child on a long car trip may mean some extra time and work, your efforts can lead to great rewards.