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6 Tips for Road Trips with Small Kids

Posted by Kristen on July 23, 2009 at 8:00 AM in Traveling
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We have been on the road for a total of 24 1/2 hours, but who's counting? This is the first time we have taken a true road trip with with our kids for distances longer than two hundred miles. It's tricky, this road tripping with kids. Here are some things I'm learning as I go.

1. Don't expect too much from your kids. You know your kids. Can they skip a nap and it is no big deal? Skipping a nap in our house means a guaranteed meltdown from 5:30 on. That's no problem if you don't mind doing dinner with 3 kids under 5 at a sit down restaurant at 7:00 p.m. while one screams maniacally. Can your kids share a hotel bed? We learned the hard way that Nate is a light sleeper who wakes if you flip over. Hello, late night and my apologies to the people in Room 208 and Room 212.

2. Stop often. We all know that your father wouldn't stop even for a bathroom emergency. This is your opportunity to be the cool parent who stopped to see the world's largest horseshoe crab or Truckhenge.

3. Be realistic with your travel goals. Calculate time to your destination and then multiply it by 2 if your kids are little. In the days before kids, I would take my total miles to my destination, divide it by eighty and then add 5 minutes for each fill up of the tank. Believe me when I say that eighty was a conservative estimate. Now? We'd be lucky if we average fifty miles an hour on a highway trip.

4. Pushing them too far will cause more problems than you already have. Do not wait for the baby to get too hungry. Trust me on this one. Now you have a very hungry AND very angry baby that will require more than food to feel better.

5. Use absolutely every stopping opportunity to get some energy out. Pick a gas station that has a patch of grass to run relays. Stop at a restaurant with a kid's play area. Stop at a mall. Just having them walk from one end to the other could tire them out enough to buy you some sanity until the next stop. Stay at a hotel with a pool and have swim races. We spent last night in a hotel with a water park inside. They were exhausted by bedtime. Not that they fell asleep in a timely fashion but I like to think it was better than having nothing.

6. Try to get them to bed at a decent hour if your kids aren't car sleepers. Only .00001% of the population has kids that sleep later when they go to bed later. If those are your kids, we envy you. Our were up at 5:30 this morning. Even with all of us going to bed at 9, I still feel like stabbing my eye out with a fork this morning. I think it has something to do with kids getting up during the night because they were in an unfamiliar place.

We are off to the pool and then back on the road. Pray for me. Seriously. And please do regale us with your road trip tips or horror stories in the comments!


Jess writes...

We're planning a trip to the beach soon and had stocked up on a few little things for the kids...but then suddenly had to make an even longer trip to go see family...and had to use the beach trip stash! By last Monday evening's trip home, the kids were FRIED (and so were their parents), when I remembered that I had my iPod, which had some audio books on it.

Books ftw!!! We didn't hear a peep out of them for the rest of the trip, so long as I kept Mike Mulligan, Fox in Socks, and Skippyjon flowin'. I'm hitting the 'net to find more before we hit the road again.

Road Trip Ready writes...

Your tips mirror some of my own experiences on a two-week road trip with our then 15-month-old baby. Sonic Restaurants often have a grassy area where you can stretch out. At the very least, they generally have picnic tables where you can get out of the car to eat and it's OK if the kids run around or make noise.

Random tip for distracting a crying baby when you're not quite ready to stop for a feeding: in a car with power windows, the driver can roll down the baby's window a bit. The whooshing noise from the wind will distract the baby make them forget why they were crying. At least it buys you a few minutes.

Road Trip Ready writes...

Your tips mirror some of my own experiences on a two-week road trip with our then 15-month-old baby. Sonic Restaurants often have a grassy area where you can stretch out. At the very least, they generally have picnic tables where you can get out of the car to eat and it's OK if the kids run around or make noise.

Random tip for distracting a crying baby when you're not quite ready to stop for a feeding: in a car with power windows, the driver can roll down the baby's window a bit. The whooshing noise from the wind will distract the baby make them forget why they were crying. At least it buys you a few minutes.

Sky writes...

We drove from Nebraska to Kentucky this summer...and my daughter, not a good rider. The first day, we just did a short 4 hours. Then, the next was from Omaha to St. Louis. We had pushed it. Too much. She started screaming right before we got to the St. Louis area. So, I figured, she'll cry, we'll be there soon. Eh, ah, no. We had a friggin' detour AROUND the city that was another 45 minutes. All while she screamed...ear piercing screams. I thought we would all be deaf by the time we got out of the car. Thankfully, we weren't...but it was close. I'm so not one of those parents who would leave their kid on the side of the road, but I'll admit I thought about it. My ears begged me too. (Kidding! Kind of.)

Anyway, after that, she did fine, but I was worried. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse was a big lifesaver, it's too bad we only had one DVD. I think if Johnny, Brand or I see that DVD again in this lifetime, it will be too soon. :)

That's what memories are made of, right?

I must mention, that Paige also fell out of every single bed, at every single hotel. Usually around 3:00 AM. We had the bed rail thing, it just didn't work. I guess.

Becky writes...

When my twins were 7 months old, we did a 14 hour road trip to Orlando for a wedding. One traveled great - the other not. We took along our exersaucer - it was one that wasn't the real fancy type and folded down pretty flat. When we got to rest stops, we got it out, sat at a picnic table in the shade and the babies took turns bouncing and playing. They really enjoyed it and it was a break for them from either being held or strapped to a carseat - a bit of freedom. Yes, it took us longer than 14 hours but the stops made it go smoothly. Then when we stopped to eat, it was a place that had a place area so the 5 year old could have some play time. All in all, the kids did great, however mommy was losing her mind from being car bound for so long. But we survived and had a great trip.

Evelyn writes...

When I was 10, my family moved from Texas to Arizona with my then-9-year-old brother, and our new 2-month-old brother. We drove the whole way, stopping at places like Carlsbad Caverns on the way. I distinctly remember my mom buying each of the older two of us a box with a hinged lid that could fit at our feet in the backseat. We each got to fill our box with books, games, art projects, and small toys that could be used in the car. I still have that box, which I had also decorated with stickers. Crayons, paper, coloring books, stickers, playdough, Model Magic, and those Crayola markers that only mark on special paper would be great in such a box for smaller children. The lap boards with a pillow back are also irreplaceable on a long car trip. Things that are artistic and/or manipulative with engage and grow a child's brain much better than a DVD viewed 15 times. And, never underestimate the power of singing along with your child(ren), or making up games like Count-the-Cows or Count-the-Red-Cars. Even if your child can't count past ten right now, maybe this will be the experience that gets them to 11. Engaging with you will mean more to them than watching a DVD.

Denise writes...

We have only one child (so far) and he is now 19 months. We have traveled all over since he was born and have discovered that almost every month is a little bit different. Know your kid, know his/her stage, and read as many travel tips as you can so you can find the ones that work with your kid and that kid's point in life.

When he was less than a year he slept very well in the car, now, not as much. So, for now, we try very very hard to schedual itineraries that only have us on the road from 6am to 6pm.

Once consistant thing is that we can only go about 250 miles before he needs a 15 minute break or so outside of the car. A trip average of 50mph about matches our experience too.

And ALWAYS have baby snacks in the car. Usually, what he really needs is to move, but a snack can usually buy us an extra 20 minutes or so.

Carolyn writes...

My son had a hard time with getting constipated before we went on a road trip. We found out that after most of the day sitting in the car, he would struggle for days with his bowels. It was hard to watch him cry out because it was too hard to go poop. We found out that if we fed him baby food prunes in the car, that by the time we got to our destination, he was just fine. FYI, it's better to find out after you give them prunes, than to watch your little ones cry out in pain!

MaryMargaret writes...

Back in the day: He was a sweet-natured child, but it's still hard to believe that in 1969 we drove from southern Florida to northern California in an ancient Mercedes with no kiddie car seat, no seat belt, and doors that didn't lock from the inside -- one gentle tug on the door handle and it would have flown open! I got a crick in my neck watching him from the front passenger seat. He probably remained as cheerful and cooperatiave as he did in part becaue he wasn't imprisoned in a strap-n-buckle car seat. However, at every overnight stop, all he wanted to do was just to stay and play.

Debby writes...

We must be some lucky parents! Our plane trips have been pretty short (longest was Pdx to Texas to Denver - with a 3 hour unexpected layover) and each trip has resulted in at least one fellow passenger per trip making the comment, "Wow, your child is such a great traveler, we didn't even know she was there"

We have a bright colored bag (so it doesn't get lost) that sits at her feet and when we get where we are going it becomes her toy-box. She packs a small backpack (that fits in the toy box) with the stuff she thinks she'll want to play with (this ends up in her lap or next to her for most of the trip). I fill the toy box. On the last trip I packed for her a simple sewing project (yep, the airlines allow kid scissors and small sewing needles), pipe cleaners, and the usual drawing stand bys. They sell arts and crafts buckets at most stores and those have provided hours of fun as well. The trick is, knowing what still and quiet activities are engaging for your child and to pack some of the old familiars and along the way surprise them with something new. I had her pack the day before so I knew what she was planning on playing with (her littlest pet shop pets) and I went out and bought her a new one. Once we were on the plane and above the clouds I gave her the new one. I didn’t hear a peep out of her for the next hour!

I think talking to your kids about your expectations of them in the car, or on the plane, and letting them know what they can expect, so they know what to bring, is really important too. Even at 18 months she knew which stuffies and books she needed for a long trip to keep her happy – and she was.

Happy travels everyone!

PS – I totally agree with Evelyn!

Rob writes...

I'm so surprised that no one has mentioned traveling at night.

We have a 2 year-old, and since she was just a few months old, have made multiple 12-13 hour drives with great success when we leave at about 7 p.m., an hour before her bed time. She usually falls asleep during the first half-hour or so, and might wake up when we stop for gas, but is fast asleep again once we get back on the road.

We drive through the night, mom and dad taking turns as necessary, while the other gets some shut-eye. Less traffic, less hassle, time goes faster (for me anyway).

By the time she wakes up, we are either there, or close to being there.

Then we hand her off to grandparents or aunts and uncles for a few hours as we try to catch up on sleep. By lunch time, we're doing well enough to join the living. We also go to bed early as well, and the next day, we're right as rain.

Beth writes...

I remember my brother had his two young sons run races in a parking lot while his wife shopped for groceries during a car trip. My family would try to spot license plates from each state.

Taking along lots of books is good even for one year olds. I remember a co-worker at IBM said her little one year old was quite content to look at Golden Books and other little books in his baby seat in the back seat of her car whenever she drove on errands.

Snacks of Cheerios and other safe finger foods can help.

Thanks to everyone who tries hard to keep their children entertained on planes. I've had bored youngsters kicking the back of my seat for most of several plane flights. On one flight we had a screamer kid. The male flight attendant was able to distract that youngster and everyone applauded him!

Mindy writes...

Wow! This article arrived just in time for us. We're getting ready to hit the road for a 5 hour car trip to the mountains in the morning. My baby is 8 months and this will be her first road trip & overnight stay. Thanks for the good tips; they made me think about things I didn't even consider.

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