You’re all packed up for a trip to grandma’s house—and looking at five hours on the road, complete with your little one in tow. There’s no question: marathon car trips with a baby on board take a good amount of planning and organization. But it can be done—and yes, it can even be fun!
In the hustle and bustle that goes along with all trip planning, it can be easy to let things happen, instead of making things happen. Instead, be proactive in making decisions surrounding your vacation. Tackling these questions before leaving home can help make your trip run smoothly:
- Car seat sleeper. If your baby has no trouble snoozing in the car, adjust your travel time to coincide with a nap or bedtime, so she can sleep through part of the journey. If she doesn’t normally get shut-eye on the go, plan to leave immediately after a nap or right after the morning wake-up call. Don’t fool yourself into thinking your little one will switch up her normal roadster habits simply because it’s a special occasion.
- Travel in chunks of time. Break up the drive with stops along the way if circumstances allow it. The longer your baby’s strapped in the car seat, the more likely she’ll become bored and fussy. Do everyone a favor and schedule stops along the way—the more you’re able to break it up, the more likely you’ll be able to meet her needs and prevent meltdowns en route.
- Expect the unexpected. Factor an extra hour or to into your ETA. From diaper explosions that require a complete change of clothes to an inconsolable baby whose tears demand an unexpected 20-minute stop for cuddling, traveling with kids always brings about unplanned surprises. If you plan ahead, you can avoid stress caused by missing family dinner or the scheduled boat trip on the bay.
- Kid-friendly comfort. Long car rides require extra planning to ensure that the baby remains comfortable throughout the ride to grandma’s house. Window shades protect your little one from harsh sunlight and create a darker, nap-inducing atmosphere. A cooler full of snacks, drinks and if necessary, a bottle warmer, will ensure your child stays well-fed and hydrated, while toys, baby-friendly CDs, and books are on hand to provide entertainment during long stretches of highway. Also, a rear-view baby mirror allows you to simultaneously watch the road and your tiny tyke, providing peace of mind.
When prepping the car for your trip, take your time. If you’re traveling with another adult, consider yourself lucky—you’re able to arrange for one person to sit in the backseat next to the baby. If you‘re hitting the road alone with your little one, get creative in setting up the car; use yarn to hang lightweight toys from the ceiling to keep your toddler occupied, tape brightly colored pictures to the back of the seat your little one’s facing, and bring plenty of soft, lightweight toys. Plus, plan for more frequent stops along the way.
Once you’ve planned, packed and prepped the car, you’ve already started out on the right foot. Keep these things in mind as you make your way to your final destination:
- Roll with the punches. Be flexible—when traveling with a baby, even the best-laid plans can be disrupted. If you’re on the verge of snapping, pull over and take a few deep breaths to calm down before getting back on the road.
- Stop when you need to. Trying to push “just a little farther” with a crying baby in the car can be dangerous—you’re distracted and nervous, and your attention’s on your little one instead of the road. Take the time to stop and calm your stressed child before resuming your travel plans.
- Safety first. Keep your baby in her car seat—no exceptions. Many nursing mamas breastfeed their babies during trips, which can be dangerous in a moving car, even if you are both securely belted. There’s no way to foresee an accident, and your body could slam forcefully into your baby upon impact. Resist the urge to make “good” time, pull over and nurse your little one while he’s still in his car seat. That way, when he drifts off to dreamland, you won’t wake him up moving him back into his seat.
- Never, ever leave your baby alone in the car—not even for a minute.
You may be so relieved that you lived through getting from point A to point B that you sort of forget the other trip ahead of you: the trip home. Organize the trip home as well as you did the trip out, and double-check that your supplies are refilled and ready to go a few days in advance. In addition, think about what you learned during trip to your destination that might make the journey home even easier—is there something you wish you would’ve had but didn’t, or something you would’ve done differently? Make any adjustments to your original travel plan now, and you’ll virtually guarantee a smooth, relaxed trip back home.
Parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley is the president of Better Beginnings, Inc., a family resource and education company. She is also the author of twelve parenting books, including the popular "No-Cry" series.