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 tripping with toddlers, timing is everything.
Timing is Everything
In my opinion, this is the single most important piece of advice I can give you on surviving a road
trip with a toddler in-tow.
Timing can make or break everyone's sanity during the drive.
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.
Less than 6 hour trip
Put PJs on
Leave around 7:00PM. Depending on what time your kiddo normally goes to sleep, he may be awake for the beginning part of this trip, but should sleep for the majority of it.
Drive until you reach your destination! Staying awake a few hours past your bedtime will be totally worth it when your kiddos wake up at your final destination the next morning. If you get sleepy, switch drivers or pull over to stretch. Safety first!
More than 6 hour trip
Leave around nap time
Drive for about 3 hours. Many kids sleep pretty well in the car, so your kiddo will likely get a decent nap in. Hopefully for much of this time.
Stop for a planned break (see below).
Get back in the car to finish your drive at 7:00PM. 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 here so, if possible, find a spot that has some fun things to do the next morning. On day 2, repeat the above steps (leave around nap time, etc.).
BEWARE: While timing is everything no matter which form of transportation you take, the above advice on when to travel (during nap/bed time) can actually backfire during plane or train rides!
TIP FOR SUCCESS: 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!
The second most important piece of getting the timing right, is making time for planned stops.
Whether you have a long drive that you are trying to break up, or you must drive while your kiddo is awake, be sure to plan a pit 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 pit 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 (that is, 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 10-20 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 an opportunity to run around
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 (tag, songs with movements) 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.
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 your kids before, you may even anticipate the need for a stop like this based on how they typically last during a long drive.
Trampoline Park (Sky Zone, Sky High Sports)
Bounce House/Play Center (Monkey Joes, Bounce U)
Walk around town - Take a walk around the town, get some ice cream, talk to the locals
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, finding a playground, 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.
When your kiddo wakes up the next morning at your final destination, well rested, happy, and with no post-traumatic grumpiness from the long ride the day before, you will feel like the smartest parents ever!
Even better, no anticipatory stress (for both parents and kids) about the long drive home at the end of your trip.
Most importantly, you've already started making memories on this trip, whether during an afternoon pit stop or with some adult time in the car.
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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