Tips for traveling in the car with babies or toddlers:
1) Prepare your child in advance for a long car ride:
- If you have a long five or six hour trip planned (which would be the lengthiest stretch I recommend taking with young children), practice in the prior weeks by taking short day trips, about one or two hours in length. This will help your youngster adjust to extended car rides and also build your confidence as the traveling parent.
- Days before you leave, you can begin showing your toddler pictures of the destination and talk about some of the people you will see there or the activities in which she might engage. For instance, you can show her a picture of a horse and say, "You will get to pet horses at Camp Ojai." If you build anticipation about the trip, your toddler is likely to feel excitement too.
2) Take precautions: Have your toddler ready for the car ride on the day of the trip:
- I feel it is always better to err on the side of safety, so I recommend dressing your toddler in a brightly colored outfit (such as red) on the day of your trip, so she is easy to spot in a crowd, should you accidentally get separated at a stopover.
- Put a small identification card in her pocket that includes her name, your name, address, phone number, cell phone number, and any other pertinent contact information. I am also a believer in toddler safety leashes for crowded areas. I am constantly asked where to purchase one--try the Right Start chain stores.
3) Have your car and travel items ready in advance:
- Make sure you have a comfortable, easy-to-adjust car seat, and that it is properly secured for your baby or toddler. According to a source from babycenter.com, up to 70% of all car seats are incorrectly installed.
- Pack a cooler with liquid and snacks for yourself and your children. Babies and toddlers can get easily dehydrated, so make sure your cooler keeps liquids (such as water and juice) cold and refreshing for them throughout the ride. You may need to stop at a gas station and buy extra ice to replenish the cooler along the way if the ride is long.
Things to remember, especially for babies:
- Bring plenty of toys, teethers, soft animals, and plastic key rings for baby for the ride.
- Have diapers and wipeys accessible in the car so you don't have to go digging through your suitcase at each stop.
- I like to bring along the following together in a separate bag for easy access: a thermos with hot water, a large sturdy cup, an 8 oz. can of formula, and a clean empty bottle and nipple. When it's time to give the baby the bottle, I then simply open the formula can; this way I don't have to worry about keeping the formula cold for hours on end. I empty the hot water into the cup and warm the bottle. This can be done at any convenient stopover--a park, a playground, or a rest stop. This advance packing spares you the necessity of having to specifically stop at a restaurant in order to obtain hot water.
Things to remember, especially for toddlers or preschoolers:
- Bring drinks as mentioned, especially juice and water. Milk spoils easily; why take a chance? Some good food choices are: crackers and cheese (if the cheese is kept in a cooler), cut up bananas, cheerios, peanut butter finger sandwiches, if she is already chewing these foods well. Bring nutritious foods you know your toddler enjoys, and try not to introduce new food items on your traveling days. Avoid giving your young child food as you drive, as this can be unsafe and can also potentially cause vomiting.
- Give the youngster something to look forward to by announcing pre-determined stopovers: "We're going to stop in San Clemente for a snack in one more hour!" I advise stopping approximately every two hours, depending on your youngsters' needs.
- Whether you are renting a larger vehicle or taking your own car, make sure that your vehicle has a tape or CD player especially for longer rides. I always try to select music that will relax my children and myself, so some of my favorite choices are piano music, classical, instrumental, and soft jazz. You can certainly bring along children's sing-along songs, but just make sure that you have some amenable selections for yourself as well. You will undoubtedly start to grow listless after hours of listening to "Old MacDonald had a farm..."
- Bring appropriate toys in the car for youngsters too: picture books, dolls, musical toys, puppets, picture flash cards, non-toxic crayons with paper. Bring along a rubber ball for a stopover at a park.
- Depending on the child's age, you can play make-up car games to pass the driving time, such as "I spot." Take turns spotting objects that begin with the different letters of the alphabet, starting with A. For instance, you might point to an airplane flying overhead and say, "I spot an airplane.... Now you spot something that starts with the letter B." This game helps the toddler to become more attune to her outward surroundings.
4) Plan your stops, safety, and arrival time in advance:
- I recommend driving no more than five or six hours a day with a youngster; more than this can be stressful for the young traveler. Within a five or six hour drive, plan two or three stops in advance, if possible. Try to make at least one stop at a picnic area, park, or playground so that the child can run around and burn up some of his or her pent-up energy. You can select parks by using an online mapping service such as: MapQuest, Zip2, or CitySearch.
- Never force yourself to keep driving if you are feeling tired. As soon as you feel the onset of fatigue, turn the wheel over to your partner.
- Use stopping time to achieve multiple objectives for you and your youngster: eating, drinking, diaper changing or "potty" time, and simple exercising such as walking or running around. Try to ensure that all of your youngster's basic needs have been met before returning to the road.
- Always be prepared for a breakdown or emergency on the road. Just by being ready in advance for such an event, you can offset much potential danger. Become an AAA member and have your card accessible along with a cell phone, in case you need help. When renting a vehicle, only select services that offer roadside service.
- Try to arrive at your destination early, so everyone has the opportunity to unwind after a long day on the road. Aim for an arrival of no later than 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. which will allow for a calm dinner time (opt for in-room dining on the first night), baby-proofing of the room (if it hasn't already been done by the resort), unpacking, some quiet play time for the toddler, and then bedtime. To ensure an early arrival, plan to leave home early (by having packing already completed on the day of the trip), and also do your best to avoid driving in gridlock traffic time.
- Whenever possible, plan to stay at any destination at least two nights--three or more is better. The amount of packing and unpacking with youngsters will just exhaust you if you stay only one night and then force yourself back onto the road the next morning.