Updated: Sep 10, 2021
How To Plan A Road Trip Around A Toddler’s Sleep Schedule?
Timing is EVERYTHING! Seriously, this is the most important piece of advice I can give you for surviving a road trip with a toddler in-tow.
And sleep is my favorite topic, so I get pretty excited about this right here.
The thought of spending hours trapped in a car with a toddler (or in my case, two toddlers) calling my name like a broken record ("mommy, Mommy, MOMMY!"), whining ("I dropped my crackkeerrss"), and crying ("She took my toyyy!") makes me want to ditch our whole vacation, stay at home for the week, leave the kids in daycare, and sit on my back porch sipping coffee in my PJs.
Now, imagine driving down a country road in blissful silence. You turn on your favorite podcast and actually listen to it without interruption. Then... wait for it... you have an adult conversation with your spouse about the podcast. You laugh together and begin to reminisce! You smile and think to yourself... this week away is going to be just what we've needed.
I want blissful silence! And adult conversations! And laughing! But how?
The difference is timing. When it comes to road trips with toddlers, timing truly is everything.
The trick, plan to drive as much of your trip as possible during your child's sleeping hours.
Your schedule will vary depending on the length of your trip.
Plan Your Road Trip: less than 6 hour trip
Put PJs on
Leave in the evening around 6PM. Depending on what time your toddler normally goes to sleep, he or she may be awake for the beginning part of the trip, but should sleep for the majority of it.
Drive until you reach your destination! Driving at night and staying awake a few hours past your bedtime will be totally worth it when your toddler wakes up at your final destination the next morning. If you get sleepy, switch drivers or pull over to stretch. Safety first!
Plan Your Road Trip: more than 6 hour trip
Leave around nap time
Drive for about 3 hours. Many toddlers sleep pretty well in the car, so your kiddo will likely get a decent nap. Hopefully for much of this time.
Stop for a planned break (see Road Trip Activities For Kids).
Get back in the car to finish your drive between 6-7PM. Keep PJs easily accessible so the kids can get changed before getting in the car for the night.
If your drive is more than a one day trip, pick a destination to end at on night one. You will spend the next morning at this destination so, if possible, find a spot that has some fun things to do the next morning (I recommend breakfast on the go, no extra siting, play at the hotel pool or local park, or check out Road Trip Activities for Kids for more ideas).
On day 2, repeat the above steps (leave around nap time, etc.).
Helpful Tips For Road Trip: before you get in the car
No matter what time you leave, the hours before getting into the car should be spent running, jumping, riding bikes, swinging, or whatever other activities your kids want to do that will wear their little butts out.
Since you will likely be trying to pack the car during this time, you and your spouse may want to divide and conqueror. One spouse can be tasked with tiring out the kids while the other can be tasked with packing.
Which parent gets to do which task... I'll leave that up to you!
Helpful Tip For Road Trip: driving at nighttime with sleeping toddler
If your kids are anything like mine, they will fall asleep in the car, but wake up with the car stops. Or even worse with the bright lights of the gas station.
If your kids don't wake so easily, yay.
But if they, here are some things that work for us.
Fill up on gas (and adult drinks and snacks) before bedtime (one less reason to need to stop)
Go potty (adults included) before bedtime (again, one less reason to need to stop)
If you do need to stop for food/drink/potty, park far away from the bright lights if possible (gas station lights are soooo bright!)
If you do need to stop for food/drink/potty, have one parent keep driving while the other goes inside
Helpful Tip: how to handle sleeping kids when you arrive late
Ok, so there is one challenge that occurs when you arrive at your final destination in the middle of the night, after your kids are already asleep.
Let me set the scene for you. The kids are asleep. You arrive at your hotel. You unload the bags and the kids, check in, go to your room, by this time the kids are awake, a few hours into sleep so feeling reenergized and excited to be at the final destination, wanting to explore the room, jump on beds, ask questions, you are exhausted and ready to crash, and you begin to lose your patience.
Some obvious, but helpful tips to help prevent a middle of the night party. Because believe, me, I have been there.
One parent stays in the car, driving around if your kids are sensitive to waking when the car stops, or parked far away from lights if you are stopped.
The other parent checks in, take the bags up to the room, brushes teeth, goes to the bathroom, prepares the room, sets up the pack n play, turns off the lights.
Then bring the kids in. If they are still asleep when you take them out of the car, put a blanket over their head to keep out the lights, carry them straight to the room and tuck them right into bed.
Helpful Tips For Family Travel: planes, trains, public transportation
Timing is everything no matter which form of transportation you take. However, the above advice on when to travel (during nap/bed time) can actually backfire during plane or train rides!
Eek! I actually avoid travel on public transportation during regular nap times. Nap times often get skipped when on planes and trains. And, can often end in fussy, overtired toddlers.
Road Trip Activities For Kids
Ooo, I love this topic too. It actually is an extension to my favorite road trip with toddlers topic, which is timing travel around your toddlers nap and sleep schedule. A key part of getting the timing right is making time for planned stops.
When I think of road trip activities for kids, I actually think activities both in and out of the car. Check out How To Keep Your Toddler Happily Entertained On A Road Trip for more in-the-car activity ideas.
Whether you have a long road trip that you are trying to break up or you must drive while your toddler is awake, be sure to plan a rest stop (or two) to allow both you and kids a chance to shake your sillies out.
Although everyone will be excited to get to the final destination, these rest stops can end up being a fun and memorable part of your trip. Treat them as part of your vacation!
Although you do need to push through some discomfort and whining during your drive (if you ever want to get to your destination), there will be times when you are no longer able to entertain or distract your kids in the car. Be flexible! Even a 10 minute stop can rejuvenate everyone and buy you a few more solid hours of driving.
Fast food restaurant with a playground - Good chance to go potty, grab a quick bite to eat, and give the kids the opportunity to run around. Even if the restaurant doesn't have a playground, let one parent out of the car, find a strip of grass nearby, and let the kids shake their sillies out while the other parent goes through the drive through.
Playground - If your kids are going stir crazy, find a playground and let them have at it
Rest Area (on the interstate) - Rest stops usually have a grassy area which are perfect for running around. Play a fun game or two to ensure everyone makes the most of the break.
Gas station - Re-fuel the car, relieve your bladder, and stretch your legs. Sometimes this is all your kids need.
Games to Play - Tag, Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, have a dance party, make an obstacle course with things from nature, count how many times your kids can run laps, songs with movement (google this for ideas), bring a ball to kick around/pass,
If you are in need of a solid hour or two out of the car, look ahead to the next big town and do a search on your phone for kid-friendly attractions in that area.
If you have taken a road trip with kids before, you may even anticipate the need for a stop like this based on how long they typically last on a car trip.
Bounce House/Play Center
Walk around town - Take a walk around the town, get some ice cream, talk to the locals, get fresh air
If you plan on stopping for a long break (for example, in-between naptime and bedtime) do some research ahead of time and plan an afternoon in a city or town along your route.
You may want pick a few things to do so you can choose your activities the day-of based on everyone's mood and the weather.
No matter how long your drive is, if there is a fun city or town along your route, you may choose to break up your drive and have an adventurous afternoon.
Breweries - Breweries are a winning pick for both adults and children. Many breweries have games (life sized jenga, ping-pong, playing cards) which can provide at least an hours worth of fun for the kids, allowing you enough time to enjoy a drink. Bonus points if the brewery has an outdoor space!
Local Events - Check the local town's website for events that may be going on that day. You may get lucky enough to be there during a fair, live-music event, or sports game!
Parks - Perfect for running around, playgrounds, or playing a game (throw a baseball/glove or soccer ball in the car if you have space)
Children's Museums/Zoo - Is there a local train museum, petting zoo, aquarium, children's science center? Check out the local attractions for something fun and different to do.
Trampoline Park/Bounce House/Bowling Alley - Anything to allow your kiddos the opportunity to move around and release some energy after spending all day in the car
Restaurants - Since you are already stopped, take a break from the fast food you normally eat while on the road and check out a local restaurant. Try to pick a place that will be fun for the kids, as you can be sure they won't want to sit too long during their time out of the car. I love restaurants with outdoor seating (when the weather is right) and a space for kids to run around while in sight of parents who need a moment of peace and quiet.
Katie Ramirez, RN, BSN, CLC
Born Happy, Owner and Care Consultant
Katie Ramirez is a Registered Nurse and Certified Lactation Counselor. She has spent more than a decade serving patients at major university hospitals such as Vanderbilt University and Penn State University Medical Centers. Katie now spends her time supporting and empowering parents of babies and toddlers as owner and Care Consultant for Born Happy.
Katie is the proud mother of two beautiful children, Roberto (age 3), and Veronica (age 1). She has a passion for health, wellness, and happy children, and believes that, with the necessary knowledge and support, all parents can live happy.
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