Road trips with a Toddler

Road trips with a Toddler

posted in: road trip, Tips | 0

2015-12-05 Santa 013Ahh, the holiday season. Full of family, friends, hot cocoa, Christmas carols, and travel. That last one can be tough with a toddler in tow. This year, our Christmas
travel involves a 12 hour drive (each way) to see family. Luckily for us, we have already done this drive three times (5 if you include the return trips) since we moved in July. After 13,067 road trip miles (give or take a few) this year, we have learned a thing or two about how to help the trip go smoothly and though our experience may help make your holiday travel a little less stressful. 

This post is written with the assumption that there will be two people in the car with baby/toddler. While it is certainly possible to do road-trips with only one adult, it is harder. We have done it, and it requires lots of singing and more frequent stops. However, it is so much easier when you can designate one driver and one baby entertainer (roles can change during the drive). 



  • Consider the timing of your trip carefully.
  • How long is the trip?
  • What time does little one nap/go to sleep?
    • These factors are important in determining when to depart. For a 12 hour trip, we have found that leaving first thing in the morning (as soon as Sprout wakes up) works best. We change her diaper and bringing her into the car, still in her P.J.s and give her some time to wake up. Once she is ready, we give her breakfast and deal with changing her clothes after she eats (when she was younger we’d leave her in her P.J.s all day as they are comfy and don’t bunch up under the car seat straps). This allows us to get in a good amount of driving before she needs a break, pre-nap (more on that below). It also means that we are arriving at our destination pretty close to her bedtime, but early enough that she has some time to explore. Having a little time before her bedtime allows her more time to explore without cutting into her sleep time too much, which helps keep her on her usual schedule. Sprout naps in the car fine, but wants her bed when she is going down for the night. It is easier to avoid this fight.
    • If  we are doing a shorter drive, we have more flexibility in when we leave. Mornings still works well, but sometimes that isn’t feasible. The next best choice is around nap time. The more time LO is sleeping in the car, the smoother the drive will be.  
  • Make as much room in the back seat as possible and have one person sit in the back with baby (alternating driver and baby entertainer role is ideal).
    • I have found putting the car seat behind the driver’s seat provides for the most comfortable ride for the adult baby entertainer, because you can move the passenger seat all the way forward, giving you more space in the back seat.
  • Eat in the car and save your breaks for running around.
    • If you have a long drive, you want to minimize stops, but kids need time to run around and exercise their legs. If you use your breaks for eating then you either spend a longer time on a break, or your kids don’t get time to run around. No run around time = cranky kids. Instead, use your time in the car for eating and save the breaks for getting energy out. Kids are used to sitting when they are eating, so sitting in the car while eating reduces the amount of time you need to find ways to entertain your little one.
    • Use a bib that has a pocket to help catch any fallen food. I really like this one, Dex Baby Dura Bib, because you can unsnap the bib and it is easy to wash, but this one is nice, too (Bibbity Rinse and Roll Portable Bib).
  • Having healthy snacks and meal foods (at least for the baby/toddler), that travel well. 

    • Cheesy Quinoa (my husband made this up, but it is tasty cold and very nutritious great for lunch on the go).
    • Yogurt and fruit (it works best when we feed Sprout with this one, rather than letting her self-feed)
    • Cheese (cheese sticks or slices of cheese work fine)
    • Fruit: Bananas, Apples, Clementines
  • Try to time your breaks for before nap time. 
    Found this awesome park on our last road trip.
    • We have found that giving Sprout time to run around before nap time really helps her sleep longer. A 2+ hour nap is a wonderful thing on a road trip.
  • Have things that facilitate sleep. 
    • For us, having a wide selection of calm music (that doesn’t put the driver to sleep) is very important.
    • Make sure to have all the things that are part of your normal nap/sleep routine, including (if applicable) a few books, lovey, and pacifier.
    • Do some experimenting, but sometime the ‘baby entertainer’ either needs to pretend they are also sleeping (which often leads to sleep) or move up to the front seat. This is also a great time for the primary driver to rest their eyes and/or take a nap.

Entertaining your Little One (i.e. Keeping everyone sane)

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  • Have a few well-selected toys. Since space is limited, you want to make sure you select toys that will hold your little one’s attention for a while, not just five minutes. Here are some that we have found effective:
    • Quietbook: 
      • Over the summer I discovered a quietbook that my mom had made a few decades ago for my brother and borrowed it for Sprout. It keeps her entertained independently more than any toy we have. It is fantastic for the car, flying, and other times when you need to entertain a child (such as church). I made a few pages that I added to the book – it was time consuming and the materials added up quickly. There are several Etsy stores that make very nice books (you can buy them by the page at some shops) – I’d probably go that route unless you are an experienced sewer and have time on your hands. If you are feeling crafty, here are some tutorials (from other websites: a fairly simple page, a cool rocket ship, and many options here).
    • Doodlepro trip or the Clip-on Doodlepro:
      • Both are nice and compact (would work well for air travel too), and entertain Sprout for a substantial amount of time. She likes to draw on it, but even more than that, she likes us to write letters or pictures that she can identify. 
    • Electronic toys:
      • I find that these do not hold Sprouts attention as much as those listed above and ‘engaging’ activities listed below, but they are great for after
        Some form of organization helps. We used a box to make toys, books, and some random toys stand up so we could reach them easily and put a few other toys in the bag. Everything went behind Sprout’s seat.

        the sun has set, as the other toys are too hard to see. Here are a few that we have found entertaining:

    • Sprout likes these too, but they don’t hold her attention quite as long as the others:
      • My first barn (cloth barn with cloth animals that make noises)
      • Pop-up lever toy: The one Sprout has is no longer available, but here are two cute examples, one with Jungle Animals and one with bugs
    • Books:
  • Be engaging:
    • Babies and toddlers love the undivided attention of others. You don’t need a lot of toys to entertain them. Our daughter loves singing songs, particularly songs with hand motions and animal sounds. Here are some of her favorites (Raffi is a great source of inspiration):
      1. Wheels on The Bus
      2. Open, Shut Them
      3. This little piggy (not a song, but engaging nonetheless)
      4. Old MacDonald
      5. Shake your Silly’s Out
      6. Sing When the Spirit Says Sing
      7. Baa, Baa Black Sheep (and variations on it)
    • Overall, just be creative. You can make up versions, which kids often find funny.

What are some of your kids favorite toys and games for in the car? Do you have any road trip tips for other parents? Let us know in the comments section. 


Sprout singing ‘Open, shut them’
Sunglasses are helpful if your little one will be facing the sun and your windows aren’t super tinted!
Sprouts car seat has very loops on the side, just big enough to hang Sprout’s glasses on. This makes it easy for us to find them and keeps them from getting smashed.
Forts aren’t just for the living room (just make sure you don’t block the drivers view).
Easy diaper change: Put your legs on the console then lay your little one along your legs, head by feet. We much prefer car changes than changing Sprout on germy changing tables elsewhere. Added bonus, we don’t have to carry all the accoutrements with us beyond the car. (Note: diaper changes should occur in a parked car.)

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