Road Tripping with a Toddler


The thought of spending fourteen hours in a car with a very active seventeen month old really worried me.  I had fears that our much dreamed-about road trip would turn into a nightmare of screams, wails, carsickness, and an overwhelming desire to go home and sleep in our own beds.  But actually, it wasn’t bad.  No:  it was good.  I feel like we were well prepared for the adventure, and we learned a lot along the way.  Our upcoming summer travels – the two, three and four hours trips – seem so very manageable now.

Here are a few pointers that we gleaned before our trip and that we learned during our thirty-some hours in the car.

Don’t forget your toddler.  Obviously, don’t literally forget that he’s in the car – every parent fears those tragic consequences.  But don’t forget to include him in your conversations during your trip.  It is easy for the front seat parents to get involved in their grown-up discussions, but make an effort to regularly engage your toddler.  Jack’s vocabulary is still very limited, but we took time to call out words that he is learning:  “car,” “fish,” “cup,” and “doggie” to elicit reactions from him.  Even just making goofy sounds back and forth “ooh oohs” and “ah ahs” and “cluck cluck clucks” kept him entertained and engaged.  Songs and nursery rhymes are great ways to pass the time and they can inject some much-needed silliness into a long drive.

Respect naptime, and use it to your advantage.  The excitement of vacation, the new faces and places, different activities and the change from routine can mean that your toddler simply needs more sleep while on vacation.  Additionally, the sound and motion of the vehicle can easily lull a child to sleep.  Respect his need to sleep, and use it to your advantage.  Skip a planned stop and get another hour of freeway under your belt if your toddler is napping.

Don’t be married to your schedule.  It is great to have an itinerary, but don’t set absolute deadlines if you don’t have to.  Every parent knows that things just take longer with kids, and traveling is no exception.  Your estimated four rest stops along the way may grow to six rest stops, two potty breaks, and a dessert-for-the-heck-of-it-because-I-need-a-break-from-driving stop.  It’s okay – your destination will wait for you.  And some of our best memories are of our rest stops:  the group of biker dudes cheering on Jack as he climbed the staircase to the lookout area; Jack having his first sip from a water fountain (and loving it); seeing some of the crazy attractions that roadside America has to offer.  Those moments are just as special as the destination – enjoy them.

The Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, MN. He stands over his corn and peas.

Toys are your friends.  You don’t need to go out and buy a whole passel of new toys before your trip, but a little novelty goes a long way.  A few weeks before our trip we began taking some of Jack’s old standard toys – small, portable toys with a lot of playability – and packing them into a case for the trip.  We doled them out a few at a time during the drive so that he had some “new” things to play with during the trip.

Listen to your toddler.  Those toddlers really do communicate a lot to us.  Before you chalk a carseat outburst up to general fussiness, run down a list of things that could be legitimate problems:   Is he hungry or thirsty?  Take the time to pull over and have a snack stop.  Is the sun on him or in his eyes?  A window sunshade is very handy.  Is he comfortable?  Jack got really agitated during part of our trip, and I couldn’t figure out what was bothering him until we stopped and I took him out of the carseat to find that one of his toys had slid underneath him.  He had been trying to tell me that he was sitting on it, and it wasn’t comfortable.  Poor guy – if only mom had listened better.

Do a test run. In March I had a four hour work-related driving trip scheduled for a Friday, so I made a weekend of it with my family.  It worked well as a test run for our road trip.  It was a good gauge of how long Jack would travel comfortably in his carseat, what additional needs he’d have on a long trip, and generally how we’d feel after four hours in the car with a toddler.  It was a good learning experience and definitely helped us prepare for our big trip.

You know your toddler best.  All of the website advice in the world doesn’t replace the fact that you know your toddler best.  If you know he isn’t ready for a roadtrip, don’t do something that is going to make the whole family miserable.  But if you think that it may not be so bad, give it a try.  There are so many memories to be made on the road.

Happy travels!

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3 Responses to Road Tripping with a Toddler

  1. Kelly

    Thank you for the awesome advice – we'll be taking a long road trip at the end of the summer when Bean will be one, and I can use any help I can get!!

    So glad your trip was a good one. :D
    Kelly recently posted..Just Not On The Same Page

  2. Lauren @ Hobo Mama

    I love how much you emphasize taking it easy and respecting your toddler’s wishes and limits. We’ll have to remember that on our epic journey this summer! With a toddler and a preschooler — ack. Ha ha!
    Lauren @ Hobo Mama recently posted..Do-it-yourself guides from the NPN team!

  3. Stacy @ Sweet Sky

    This was a sweet and helpful post. Like Lauren, I appreciate your gentle suggestions about respecting and connecting to your child.

    I’ll never forget when my husband and I decided to take a road trip to the Oregon coast with our then one-year-old. We were NOT prepared and it ended up raining almost the whole time we were there (without rain gear, in a tiny studio cabin!) but we made the best of it, learned a lot, and can laugh about it now. :)
    Stacy @ Sweet Sky recently posted..Ways to Bring More Mindfulness Into Your Days

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