Post Summary: 15 tips from full-time road trippers on how to survive, and actually enjoy, a road trip with a toddler or baby. Plus everything you need to bring on the road.
Planning on taking a road trip with a toddler or baby and wondering if it’s an awful idea? I get it. Our first road trip with our baby was when he was five months old and what was supposed to be a six hour drive to visit the grandparents turned into a ten hour drive with five hours of him crying nonstop.
Listening to a crying baby is hard no matter where you are. In your car, when all you want is to desperately arrive at your destination…it’s agony.
Cut to two years later and our little family left our life in California and decided to travel full time from state to state in our car. Are we professionals now at this whole long road trips with toddlers thing or just gluttons for punishment? I like to think a little bit of both.
We are so into road tripping we managed to do a four month cross country road trip with our toddler!
Along the way, we’ve learned a lot about what works and what does not work when going on a road trip with a toddler or baby. Traveling with kids of any age always provides some challenges, but doing a long road trip with a toddler is definitely a step up and requires a good dose of preparation and finesse.
Whether you’re on a road trip with a 4-month-old or a road trip with a two-year-old, this post is perfect for anyone who wants to know what to bring on a road trip with toddlers and simple, actionable tips on how to road trip with a toddler.
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TIPS FOR HOW TO ROAD TRIP WITH A TODDLER
1. KEEP THE ROAD TRIP SHORT
To the best of your ability, try to keep the total driving time 4-6 hours a day. I know that’s not always possible. Sometimes you have a set plan and need to arrive somewhere and don’t have the luxury of taking your time to get there. But if it’s something you can do, we highly suggest it.
For instance, if you are going somewhere that’s 8 hours away, can you break it up into two days and find an interesting midway point to stop at for a night? Perhaps even spend an entire day there and add it to the itinerary? During a two-week road trip from Los Angeles, CA to Sandpoint, ID we were able to fit in interesting cities like Santa Rosa, CA, and Bend, Oregon.
If you’re trying to plan a road trip with a baby and have no set destination in mind, a good idea is to see what’s 4-8 hours away from you within driving distance. Maybe plan a family road trip around that and opt to arrive in two days, rather than one long haul.
We have found that slow travel is the best way to travel with toddlers or babies. It allows for everyone to be less stressed and puts the focus on spending time together rather than accomplishing a lot in a short window of time.
If that’s not something you are able to do due to timing and finances, don’t worry, we have plenty of other road trip with toddler tips up our sleeves.
2. TIMING IS EVERYTHING
We have a very set schedule for how we do long car rides with toddlers. We either:
- Fit in about one hour of driving in the late morning and stop for a long lunch at a rest stop or playground. We’ll make sure to play around and get a lot of physical activity before getting in the car at about 30-45 minutes before he typically naps. Thankfully, we have a toddler who sleeps pretty well in his car seat. We can often get 2-3 hours of uninterrupted driving.
- We play really hard with our son in the morning and make sure to get in a lot of physical activity. Then we load him up with carbs (our go-to is always spaghetti) for lunch, do a diaper change, and get him in the car seat about an hour before his regular nap time. When we do this, he usually sleeps for longer, and we can sometimes get 3 hours of napping in.
Many parents swear by nighttime driving when making a road trip with toddlers. The idea is that your toddler will sleep the whole way, and you can potentially avoid all the troubles of driving all day with them.
We’re kind of split on if this is a good idea. Neither of us is too keen on nighttime driving or the idea of arriving super late to our destination. Also, being tired the next day never seemed that appealing to us. Not to mention the genuine fear of falling asleep at the wheel.
Ultimately, the choice is up to each parent and the needs of each family. If your baby doesn’t sleep well in the car, perhaps driving at night would be better when their physical need to sleep is much stronger.
3. ROAD TRIP SNACKS
Snacks are the answer to everything. Are you upset? Have a cracker. Are you bored? Have some cheese. You’re angry that the car seat is too tight? Here’s a pretzel.
I joke. Except…I’m not.
Keeping your little one and their blood sugar at bay is key to keeping a happy road-tripping kid, so come prepared with all the snacks. For babies who are still getting used to solid foods, pre-made baby pouches like these are the best. While eating healthy is a wonderful thing, when going on a road trip with your toddler, we find it’s best to be lenient and let them have some of their favorite snacks.
If you want even more inspiration for road trip snacks, check out our post about the best snacks and meals for a road trip.
4. ROAD TRIP GAMES
Road trips with your kids are a great opportunity to create lifelong memories that you’ll talk about forever. A fun way to create those memories? Road trip games. Keeping everyone entertained and laughing is paramount to making the experience a happy memory.
Admittedly, road trip games with babies aren’t as complex and will be one-sided, but it never hurts to engage with them and get them excited about the journey. Simple games include pointing out the colors of things, counting how many times you see a red car or a game of I spy. It’s more about engaging with them to keep them stimulated and a part of the journey.
With toddlers, there’s an opportunity for more back and forth. Our favorite road trip games to play with toddlers include I spy, would you rather prompts, 20 questions, and a round of fun and silly road trip questions.
For more road trip inspiration here’s our list of 57 road trip questions for families.
5. ROAD TRIP MUSIC
Music is a great tool to keep your “road trip baby” happy. While playing your child’s favorite kids’ music is always a winner, don’t be afraid to try out music that you’ll actually enjoy too! On our road trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we played a continuous selection of bluegrass music and Johnny Cash to help get us in the spirit of our surroundings. He loved it! We’d get in the car and I’d ask him, “What do you want to listen to?’ Without fail, my two-year-old would say, “Johnny Cash!”
So while it’s good to have a selection of upbeat kids music, you can also use it as a time to introduce them to other types of music. Pop music is always a great option because it tends to have simple melodies and repetitive hooks.
You can stream from a music service like Amazon Music. If you don’t have it already, use the free trial and you can always cancel after the road trip if you don’t want it. Check it out here.
6. LISTEN TO AUDIOBOOKS AND PODCASTS
Audiobooks or podcasts are GREAT road trip activities for toddlers. It’s also a great way to lull them into sleep. Before you leave you can peruse through podcasts made for little kids on iTunes or Spotify to see what your kids might like. Make sure to download them before you leave so you don’t have to rely on a strong signal.
Some podcasts your toddlers might like:
- Kids Short Stories: A Bedtime Show By Mr. Jim (Our son loves this one!)
- Deep Blue Sea (Learn about sea creatures, perfect if they enjoy the show Octonauts)
- Story Pirates
- Stories Podcast: A bedtime show for kids of all ages
- Little Stories for Tiny People
You can also opt to do audiobooks through Audible. Audible is Amazon’s audiobook service and like Prime Music, you can do a free trial of the service. Click here to learn more about Audible. Some popular books for toddlers and babies are:
TIP: If the option is available, make sure to download everything on to your phone before you leave so you don’t have to rely on a good signal.
7. ROAD TRIP TOYS
When going on a road trip with a toddler or a baby, bringing old standby toys is always a great option. Even better, bring some new toys they’ve never used. I’m not suggesting you have to spend a lot of money on expensive toys. An easy option is to go to a dollar store or a used children’s store. Another option is to borrow some toys from a fellow parent who doesn’t mind you using them for a week or so.
We suggest keeping the travel toys in a bag with you upfront and doling them out one by one when your child starts to fuss and needs something to focus on. Think of it as your secret tool bag that you dip into only when you need it.
Here are some of our favorite travel toys for babies and toddlers.
- Water Wow Toys are mess-free and inexpensive. This toy is better suited for babies and younger toddlers as it might not hold the attention of an older toddler.
- Reusable stickers from Melissa and Doug are always a great standby. You don’t have to worry about them putting stickers all over the windows and car seat because they’re super easy to peel off.
- Our son LOVED his magnetic doodle board and was one of the only things that kept his attention for more than 5 minutes.
- Links from Manhattan Toy are great simple toys for babies that some young toddlers might enjoy as well. They double as teething toys so they may provide relief if you have the fortune of having a teething baby on your road trip.
- Lacing cards for toddlers give their hands something to fiddle with and helps them to develop their fine motor skills. Plus, if you’ve been reading to them the Hungry Caterpillar book, they’ll love seeing one of their favorite characters in a toy. Check here for prices.
- A travel busy board is a great car seat toy that can keep their little fingers busy trying to latch and unlatch different compartments.
8. FIRST AID KIT
While this won’t help you keep your kid calm, it’s always a good thing to have a fully prepared first aid kit when you’re doing any kind of car travel with toddlers and babies. I prepared a medical kit in preparation for when we left for our year of full-time travel and within 5 months I had already used every item in our bag. There’s always something that comes up. You can buy a fully prepared first aid kit or you can opt to make your own. Some things to include would be:
- Bee Sting Relief
- Antibiotic Ointment
- Kids Tylenol and/or Ibuprofen
- Kids Dramamine
- Instant Ice Pack
- Antiseptic Cleansing Wipes
- Gauze Pads
- First Aid Tape
9. PACK THE ESSENTIALS
Now that you’ve got your toys and packed your first aid kit, there are a few other things that will make your toddler road trip a success:
- Antibacterial wipes
- Hand sanitizer
- Trash bags
- Sunglasses (we love these for toddlers and babies)
- Sunblock (even though you’re inside, the sun can be just as powerful shining through the window.)
- Diaper changing mat (we like to use this one for babies, but in a jam, a swaddle or towel can work as well)
- Travel potty for the potty training toddlers
- Blanket and/or comfort stuffed animal
- Headsets (Perfect for when you want them to listen to music or watch a show and you don’t want to hear the noise. We love these for babies and toddlers since they’re small and kids can easily fall asleep wearing them.)
- Having an organization system will help to create order amongst all the road trip supplies. We like this back seat organizer with SO MANY pockets for all your gadgets, notebooks, and snacks. We particularly like that it has a tablet holder. You can put a movie on without them having to hold the device the entire time.
For a thorough list of road trip essentials check out our post on the ultimate Road Trip Packing List.
10. COMFY CLOTHES
This may feel obvious, but make sure to dress your child comfortably for the car ride. Loose-fitting breathable tops and pants so their bodies can be as relaxed as possible. I can’t imagine sitting in a constricted car seat is comfortable, especially for agile toddlers who need to move around as much as possible. You can even dress them in their pajamas to help coax them towards sleeping in the car.
11. FOLLOW THEIR LEAD
When going on road trips with toddlers and babies, we have found it’s best if we follow their lead to maintain a calm car ride. If he’s getting fussy, instead of forcing another hour of driving, we know to stop and do what he needs to keep his mood stable. Perhaps that’s eating lunch, doing another round of diaper changes, or running around to get his body moving. We’ve learned that keeping him in an even state, keeps everyone happy. Road tripping with a baby means you might have to let go of the strict agenda. Be open to taking lots of breaks when needed and everyone will be happier!
12. GET IN THE BACK SEAT
A great idea when driving long distances with toddlers and babies is to get in the back seat with them. Since their car seats face away from the front of the car, your baby might be soothed by visually seeing you. I did it on my first road trip with my five-month-old baby and it was helpful….until it wasn’t and he cried for five hours. But it might work for you!
Reading books to them or just being able to see you could go a long way toward keeping them content.
13. YOUR ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING
Keeping a sunny attitude will go a long way towards keeping morale up in the car. If something happens, say a tire blows out or a baby has a blowout, keeping a calm steady demeanor will help to keep everyone in a good mood. Our child is such a sponge for the energy around him that if we let our hot-headed ways (and yes, we are both hot-headed) get the best of us, then it isn’t long until our little one starts going off the deep end with us.
The last thing I want my kid to feel is that road trips are NOT fun. So we try to make it fun by channeling our best ability to “go with the flow.”
14. LET GO OF THE RULES
Whenever you’re traveling with young kids and especially when doing a road trip with toddlers, it’s okay to let go of rules a little. You’re on vacation, so if you have to give them extra snacks or let them stay up later than usual…it’s okay.
For us, the main goal of car trips with toddlers is to ensure the most easeful and stress-free journey. If that means giving him a bag of gummy worms, so be it. At home, he gets plenty of structure and healthy food, so a few allowances aren’t going to ruin all the well-laid rules we’ve set down. This leads me to my final tip for traveling with toddlers by car.
15 ALL HAIL THE IPAD
Use the iPad.
I promise you it’s okay. I know we’re all trying to reduce screen time, but on a road trip where you want to stop a meltdown, don’t be afraid to use it. If it works, it works. I believe that parenting isn’t defined by one singular moment in time but rather by the values and habits you consistently uphold. If all your toddler does is play on an iPad, yeah…you might want to consider reducing it, but a few times on a road trip…it’s fine you guys.
I would suggest using the iPad as a final tactic. If the above tips don’t work, then hand it over and call it a day.
You can preload it with educational toddler apps and already downloaded movies from Netflix. Our favorite App to use is Homer. I used to do free apps because I didn’t want to dish out the money, but they were always glitchy and bombarded with ads. Plus, they make those apps so that the kids are continually led into wanting to buy the paid version. I found it’s better to buy a high quality app that offers fantastic content that is continually being updated. I like that Homer has animated popular books and teaches them in a fun and engaging way. My son loves it! You can try out the free trial for 30 days here.
I also like to use a thick toddler-proof cover like this to keep the iPad safe.
Also, if it’s any consolation I grew up in the ’80s when every parent’s idea of a babysitter was plopping their kids in front of a TV screen. And we all managed to turn out okay! Right? Right?
I hope you use all these tips on how to road trip with a toddler and have the ultimate family adventure! Let us know if you have any great tips in the comments below.
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