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Road Trips with Toddler, essentials, strategies and tips for long car rides with little ones

Our first long road trip is burned in my mind. Traveling to Kansas from Florida, a 24 hour one way journey, and we had big plans to make it all in one trip.

At the time, we had a 3 year old, 2 year old, and an 8 month old who was exclusively breastfed. You would not believe the amount of Pinterest ideas I gathered, created, and packed, all with visions of enjoyable educational hours passing along with the miles. Surely by now you’re laughing at me!

Let’s just say that I learned a lot on that trip, and the subsequent ones our family has taken. I’m happy to share some tips and tricks so you might not make the same mistakes I did!

Keep it simple. Yes, you heard me right. Do as little as possible for as long as possible to keep your little one entertained! Odds are he has been on a few longer car rides and you didn’t bring out the big guns of entertainment, so try to make it at least a few hours with nothing special. Still today with my older kids I use this technique to make the trip move more quickly! My goal is for nothing extra until we are 2+ (awake) hours into the journey.

I often buy my kids each one sticker book to take and use on the road, one new book they have never seen, and some gel window clings from the dollar spot at Target. Seek and find books like I Spy or Where’s Waldo are perfect for road trips, because they are the gift that keeps on giving. I also usually pony up for some other small toys that my kids have never seen before that will burn some time, but not too many.

For our last trip I took some small Shopkin containers (only do something this small if your kiddo is past putting things in his mouth, of course!) and matchbox cars. Seriously though, less is more. That first trip I had bags and bags of stuff and it was a mistake. Our van felt crowded and my kids felt overwhelmed with options.

Consider traveling during the night. My husband and I have done this two ways. We have both left in the late afternoon and drove through the night (ouch), and also we have left at an absurd hour in the morning, say 2am, to get a chunk of hours done while the kids are still sleepy but the parents have had at least 4-5 hours of sleep. We did the former once or twice, and it works but is hard with two tired parents. We have done the latter quite a few times, and it is now our go to for trips that are longer than 12 hours.

There is a little bit of extra planning that comes with leaving your house in the middle of the night. We pack the car the night before and make a list of things we cannot forget. We tape that list to the back door, so when we are whisking the kiddos out to their car seats  we can’t miss it.

We get up, get the last minute items gathered, grab the warm, sleepy little ones and buckle them in. We don’t talk much to ensure they don’t get too roused, and play boring (to them) talk radio or podcasts on the radio speakers so there is noise but it’s nothing stimulating for little ones. For our older kids, we tell them to expect us to come and carry them to the car to go on our big adventure, and that their job is to go right back to sleep while we ride.

We usually get a good four or five hours down the road before everyone is up and we are stopping for breakfast! To be honest, it’s also been a fantastic time for my husband and I to have really great talks because it’s dark, quiet, and we are feeling bonded from the team work of getting everything together in the middle of the night.

I know, this one is a gamble. There’s always the chance that your tot won’t sleep at all and then you will all be in a traveling torture chamber of tired – but I think the odds are in your favor that it won’t happen that way!

Snacks are your friend. Now is a great time to loosen the reins of what you allow for general snacking, in my opinion. There is nothing to get a toddler to chill happily in his car seat quicker than a fruity, bright colored cereal he’s never seen before! You can talk up how it’s a special ‘adventure snack’ that is reserved only for long car adventures, and it will get even more tot-cred.

Another tip that has served us well is to let our kids choose any snack they want (within reason) when we make pit stops for gas and restrooms. Not only does it give them a sense of freedom and fun, it can be a ‘yes’ when sometimes road trips involve a lot of nos. (Are we there yet? No.)

Take a travel potty. On our first road trip, our neighbor at the time had a random travel potty that looked like a little suitcase, and she insisted that we borrow it. I initially felt like it was kind of overkill, but I took it. Turns out, she was a genius and we ended up buying our own that we still use now, six years later.

Regardless of the type of potty you take, have something available so you can pull over and take care of business as quickly as possible.

Save screens for the end. There will come a time in your trip that you are desperate. You will feel as though you have exhausted every option, and your little ones are just over it. Done. Toast. This is when you want to be able to bring out the screens! If you pop on a movie right away, it will be useless to you later in the trip whether it’s not new or novel. (Ask me how I know.) Plus, once the kids have seen screens it’s hard to get away from them without a lot of pushback. That’s not what you want to have to manage while you’re still six hours from your destination.

Set the tone. This is my last tip, and it’s all about your mindset. I am not a super breezy person by nature, but I try and channel every ounce of my easy-going-ness for road trips.

Motherhood has slowly taught me that my kiddos are little mirrors of my husband and myself. If we are grumpy and having bad attitudes, they will too. If we are making every hiccup of the trip into a fun adventure, being curious about towns we drive through, acting over the moon about the newest gas stations snack options, and being kind toward one another – they will too. I am not saying this part is easy, I’m just saying it’s worthwhile.

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