Road-Tripping with Toddlers
TLDR at Bottom. Caitlen and I have loved road-tripping for nearly as long as we've been together. When we had children, we saw no reason for that to change. In the three years since we first had the G-man, we've cruised up and down the east coast in our faithful Ford Expedition and become somewhat expert in the art of road-tripping with a toddler. Cruising the highway with an infant presents certain challenges, to be sure. There are stops for breast-feeding and diaper changes and sometimes you're confronted with unconsolable wailing from a despondent baby. That can be difficult, but accommodating the high-energy excitement of a toddler within the constricting confines of a car can be harder.
Toddlers are like the ocean: calm and beautiful one moment, raging tempests the next. As a parent, you're like a captain. Read the ocean well and you can avoid its mighty squalls. Heed not its signs and risk great peril. By the time your child hits his or her toddler years, it's safe to say that you've become an expert at tending to his or her needs. It's not an oversimplification to say that that is all there is to parenting and it's as true around the house as it is when blasting down the highway at 75 mph.
In our experience, successful road trips can be reduced to three main elements: food, music, and frequent stops. Surprisingly enough, it doesn't matter much for us what time we set out. If the G-man has had a full night's sleep or we set out at 3 am, we can usually keep him in a good mood either way. Will he occasionally get upset about one thing or another? Certainly, but you find me a parent who says their toddler never gets upset and I'll have found you a liar. The point is, G-man can and does sleep in his rear-facing convertible car seat very well and, therefore, we need not fear an early morning departure.
Caitlen often jokes that G-man is a "threenager" due to his hilarious 'tude and voracious appetite. As with real teenagers, you can help the 'tude by tending to the appetite. We like to bring lots of snacks: bananas, apples, grapes, apple sauce squeeze packs, PB&Js — basically anything we can throw together. These are not lunch! or any meal for that matter. These are just snacks to fill in the yawning void between stops. On a normal day around the house or around town, I wouldn't advocate keeping a steady stream of snacks available, but road trip days are an exercise in triage.
We like to stop for real meals, stretch our legs, and let the little ones expend a little bit of energy. These stops keep everyone happier and healthier. It's good to find a full-service restaurant with better food than the loathsomely expedient golden arches. At the very least, make time for something as simple as the time-honored Cracker Barrel. Thirty extra minutes is a worthy sacrifice in the name of sanity and contentedness.
In between meals, music is a vital ally. The G-man has a particular love for "Trucks" performed by Fountains of Wayne, so when he asks for it sixteen times in a row I go ahead and play it again and again. It doesn't hurt that I, too, love that song. Which brings me to another point: you should invest in quality, kid-safe music. The Frog Trouble CD by Sandra Boynton is superb! Whatever music you and your child enjoy, the important point is to keep the party rolling with a steady playlist until your munchkins drift off into a vibration-induced sleep.
Caitlen and I have a baby still in diapers and we cloth diaper — except when flying someplace — which dictates fairly frequent stops, but the same is true for toddlers. Speaking from experience, it is folly to rely on the discretion of a three year old as to when he or she needs to visit the nearest lavatory and while the G-man can regularly go several hours between stops, we make a habit of not letting our intervals stretch longer than two hours at at a time. Unless he is asleep. In that case, we try to cover as much ground as we can and pray that he holds it until after he wakes. Usually — almost every time — that's not to great a gamble. When we stop, other than at meal times, we are sure to find a clean restroom and a reasonably open space to allow the G-man to run out some of that endless toddler energy without fear of speeding cars or other hazards. Of course, sometimes you'll find yourself woefully incapable of finding a clean restroom. In those circumstances it's nice to have a backup plan. For just these instances, we bring the Cool Gear Travel Potty. It's great because it folds rather compactly and uses standard gallon-sized storage bags to catch you little one's business.
Meals, potty breaks, and exercise stops take valuable time, but they are unavoidable. Therefore, you must be mindful of how they will affect your rate of progress. For instance, before we had children, Caitlen and I could make the drive between our old home in Bradenton and my dad's home in South Carolina in nine hours. These days, we consider ourselves lucky if we make it in twelve. The last time we made the drive, we were in separate cars with a U-haul trailer in tow and it took us close to 14-hours over the span of two days. You'll save yourself a lot of frustration if you learn to just accept that traveling with children is a sloooow process.
When your road-trip stretches over many days of driving — as with our last trip to South Carolina — you'd be wise to stop early rather than push on late into the night. Our children do best when we stick to our normal routines. Our surroundings may be in nearly constant flux, but our schedule doesn't have to change. Therefore, we eat dinner between six and seven every night and put them to bed between seven and eight, every night (excluding rare, extenuating circumstances). That means on road trips we're looking for a hotel, if we don't already have one booked, in the late afternoon and the whole family gets a good night's sleep before the next day of driving.
These are some of the key factors that help me and Caitlen have successful road trips with our toddler and infant. It's nonetheless important to remember that the needs of our children are constantly changing and we must, therefore, change our habits to suit their needs. The parent who adapts quickly is a parent who generally succeeds with his or her children. Do you have any unique problems when road-tripping with your kids or do you have any special tricks? Please share them in the comments!
- Take time to stop for real meals.
- Bring plenty of easy snacks for munchies while cruising
- Don't hesitate to play that favorite song on repeat.
- Stop every two to three hours for potty breaks and to stretch your legs. Find an open space to burn off some energy.
- Set realistic goals for daily travel distance. Figure that your drive-time will increase by about 33%.
- On multi-day trips, stop early and get your little ones to bed on time.