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It’s the holiday season, which means that families everywhere, including my own, are gearing up for at least one trip to visit family. Ours is in December this year, but I know plenty will be making that long trek this week. However, I’ve been taking road trips with one little one for almost 3 years now and we have already made two 10+ hour one way road trips this year, as well as several day trips with 2-3 hour stretches of driving. I actually took one of those day trips this last weekend.

I quickly discovered that road trips, one of my favorite parts of travelling, are significantly more challenging with kids. And sometimes there isn’t much that can be done if your kid is really upset about travelling. Our first trip with Player 3, when he was 3 months old, went pretty well on the trip down, and catastrophically bad on the way back. We’ve adjusted our expectations, learned a good deal, and since then have had less stressful trips. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way:

Travel Basics

The most important thing you can do is be realistic with your pacing on a road trip. Plan to stop frequently, and make longer stops. A stiff, miserable baby or toddler, especially with a wet diaper, makes for a terrible travel buddy. In our last road trip while both the kids were awake we stopped pretty much every hour; sometimes we were able to stretch it out to an hour and a half. During these stops, besides the obvious bathroom and diaper changes, give your walkers and crawlers a chance to move around. Also clean out the car of trash and switch around entertainment for the little ones. Keeping the activities and stimuli fresh helps children stay content.

Keep snacks and drinks handy for older toddlers. Mine loves fruit and crackers as well as water in his favorite water bottle. Feed baby on your breaks to avoid choking hazards. I offer the baby the chance to nurse at every stop, and now that he’s eating solids he gets meals or snacks at stops. Well fed kids are happier in the car.

When the kids are sleeping in the car, make as much progress as humanly possible. Car rides put little kids to sleep, so if your baby is sleeping well in the car try to go as long as you can manage. Matt and I plan most of  our road trips with sleeping kids in mind. We often leave really early so that we can get some good three-hour stretches of driving while the kids are sleeping. I’ve even heard of some parents driving through the night, so the kids can sleep for the whole trip. I don’t know that my husband and I will ever have the courage to attempt this, but I’ve known a number of families that swear by it.

If you need to, take the trip in two days. Based on our need, sometimes we power through and get through the drive in one day, and sometimes we plan to spend the night in a hotel, or family member’s house, and make the trip in two days.

Entertainment

Keeping your kids entertained is the next challenge to a good road trip. I’m grateful that both our kids travel pretty well, especially since we have a compact car, and with two kids we can’t fit an adult in the backseat. So, with a mirror for the rear-facing seat, and the passenger checking in frequently, we’ve managed to get through a 600 mile trip fairly easily. There are a surprising number of ways to keep the whole family entertained in the car, and with some planning you can keep things going pretty well.

Small Toys: I pack a collection of smaller toys that I can keep in rotation for each of the boys. Refreshing toy options frequently can keep boredom at bay. Small children have shorter attention spans and rarely want to play with the same toys for a long time. For my toddler, his favorite small toys are cars or trains, board books, and coloring books; other kids might also enjoy dolls and stuffed animals. I’m planning to look for some new small toys that will keep him entertained and provide a touch more challenge. For the baby, I regularly rotate teething toys and other baby toys with buttons and textures to keep him stimulated. Be very careful of choking hazards; make certain the toys aren’t too small. I find the baby doesn’t need as much, since he sleeps for a lot of the drive, and loves watching Matt and me in the mirror. If your child has a comfort item, make certain that it’s always accessible.

Books: I love listening to stories as a family in the car. My husband will sometimes read picture books from the front seat so the boys can see the pictures. I’m prone to carsickness if I try to read, watch movies or play games, so I usually favor audio-books and radio dramas that I can run through the car’s sound system. I’ve been collecting these for years, often on disk, but now also on digital download.  Purchasing audio books can be a financial investment, but in my family have excellent replay value. However, I’ve also had some great luck with finding audio books that I can borrow at my local library for trips. Click here to learn how to borrow e-books and audio books on your devices with your library card!

Here are some of my personal favorites for families:

Music: Bust out your kid’s favorite tunes and get ready for a sing along. I have CDs of children’s music from Wee Sing, Countdown Kids and other children’s music companies that we listen to and sing along to in the car all the time. My husband also has a large collection of orchestral video game music that came in games he’s purchased, which can be a nice break from toddler songs, and Christmas tunes.

Movies: Probably the most popular way to keep kids entertained on long car trips, but try to use it sparingly if possible. Too much screen time, especially if you’re driving at night, can prevent your kids from sleeping. But when the baby is sleeping and the toddler is awake, it can help keep the backseat quiet for nap time. Also, a  well-timed movie can help you squeeze a somewhat longer drive in between breaks, so if you’re in an especially isolated area where rest stops are far between, this can help prevent a meltdown.

  • I use my Kindle Fire Tablet to download movies and TV shows from our Prime Account, and other linked accounts. We then put the Kindle in a tablet mount and let Player 3 watch.
  • If you are a Netflix user, the Netflix mobile app gives you the option to temporarily download shows for watching offline.

Mobile Apps: While we do have mobile apps on our phones that we will let our toddler use, there are rules. First of all, he is only allowed to use our phones if he asks and gets permission, and he is also starting to learn that when we tell him time is up, he has to give us our device back. This article in Parent Co. was immensely helpful in learning how to help him disengage from screens. Also, just like movies and TV, try to use these sparingly. I’ve found that keeping variety in car activities, just like home life, helps keep our son happier and less prone to boredom or tantrums.

In searching for apps for your kids make sure to check age recommendations, and read information to choose something you consider age appropriate for your child. I also strongly recommend looking for things that don’t have in-app purchases, unless you are willing to purchase a complete game, and avoid apps that include advertisements. All of these things can confuse, distract, and frustrate children (and adults). I speak from experience.

Here are a couple of app companies that specialize in children’s apps which we have found useful, and are available on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Kindle:

  • Duck Duck Moose LLC: I was directed to this company by my mother in law, whose background is in elementary administration and resources. These award-winning apps include mini games, creative play, interactive nursery rhymes, as well as math and language education. Specializing in preschool and early elementary learning, there are a broad collection of play styles available. And hallelujah, these apps are completely free, no in-app purchases or anything! Player 3’s personal recommendation is Trucks.
  • Toca Boca: I’ve been examining this company for a year, and have recently added them to our app collection now that I believe Player 3 is ready to start playing it. Toca Boca is a Swedish company that focuses on creating fun and accessible digital “free play” for children. They consider their apps “play” as opposed to “games”, giving your child complete freedom to explore and build their own self guided story and activities within each app. The open-ended nature of these apps, as opposed to the rigidity of a more educational app, keeps the games fresh for lots of replay opportunity. The one we have personally played is Toca Life: Town. 

A cool trick I learned from a man I met on a flight: if you have an iPhone or iPad, there is a setting called Guided Access that you can turn on so that you can manually lock your device into one app. I use this if I’m letting my son use an app on my phone, it keeps him from going into my personal settings, social media, email, and other places I don’t want him changing or accessing.

Final Thoughts

Road trips can be a fun family experience or a nightmare. In my personal experience, good planning and a fun playful attitude about it goes a long way in making travel a positive experience for everyone. But rough patches will happen on any road trip. Try not to let that get you down, and remember that your child may be tired, or hungry, or just need some new stimulus.

Happy Trails!

Here’s a few more Items we’ve found invaluable on road trips: