When my husband and I were brand new parents, we stopped six times during the three-and-a-half hour trek to to visit my sister in Atlanta with our 3-month-old – twice to feed her, twice to change her and twice just to check on her. Since a baby weighing less than 20 pounds faces AWAY from the driver’s seat, what else could we do? One of us had to wrench our body over the front seat or sit next to her to know whether she was all right or not.
Now, with four children on our roster – and four times more resolve – we’re old pros at car travel with kids and believe it or not, we actually enjoy it. We recently took an eight-hour road trip to Florida with our crew, ages 9, 7, 5 and 7 months. We had our moments – on the road you always do. But family travel is terrific if you have no expectations about what you want your trip to be like. Even as prepared as you can possibly be, everything can still go awry.
One of the first elements to road travel with a baby is traveling lightly. That may seem impossible with all the seemingly endless paraphernalia a little one can add to your world, but if you pare back your and your baby’s needs to the absolute necessary daily essentials, you’ll make things more manageable from the start. While you may have one or two large suitcases of belongings, if you will be stopping for overnight stays on the road they should be packed and out of the way.
Take just one overnight bag into your sleep destination (with swimsuits!), a toiletry bag, a cooler, baby’s portable crib (or reserve one) and the ever-important, maintain-it-daily diaper bag. Replenish your bags daily from your stock in the car. The diaper bag will be what you reach for most, so keep it close to your baby’s seat and be thorough with all the things you need. Big statement: all the things you need. For life on the road, just exactly what does that mean?
The Right Attitude
How do you look at it? If you’re thinking, “Oh, I just dread the idea of being in the car with the baby for five hours,” you could be driving toward failure. You’ve got to turn it around for everyone’s sake and open up to the spirit of adventure. It’s been documented that parental emotions impact those of the baby’s, so let’s start with that: If you can keep it together, you will be helping your baby to do the same. Know that the baby will cry at some point on your journey (probably at many points!) and that it’s possible for something like a flat tire to occur. But also know that most babies enjoy the soothing vibration cars make while in motion. The point is, make the best of it. Rise to your road trip occasion and you just might end up thinking, “Yes, this was a challenge, but heck, I did it, I’m better for it and I actually had a good time.
How Far Can You Go?
Be realistic about how much ground you can comfortably cover each day with a baby in tow. Five hours a day has always been plenty for my little ones, but sometimes you may have to drive longer. And leave for your trip when the baby is freshly changed, fed and possibly even drowsy. Timed right, the baby will be lulled to sleep for the first hour or two of your travel. Do your best to anticipate what your child will need and when, in order to stay ahead of the game.
While adults sometimes like to plow ahead on a road trip, kids benefit from periodic breaks. If you have other children with you besides your baby, stopping at a park with a playground can work wonders. Visit www.nps.gov for an easy locator of parks in different states along your route, and refer to your atlas before driving to know what to aim for. If a playground with a park is five extra miles out of your way, what’s the difference? For roadside breaks at a park or rest stop, keep a blanket, a plastic table cloth and disposable wipes ready.
Pack a cooler with healthy food for the road so you can avoid fast food stops. All food items can be kept in your cooler (in plastic bags or containers so things don’t get soggy) along with fixings for sandwiches.
For 7-month-old Thomas, the diaper bag held his essentials: three bottles filled with the right amount of fresh room-temperature water and three small containers with premeasured formula so I could mix easily when needed and not mess with refrigeration, 10 diapers, antibacterial hand cleaner, wipes, a tube of Desitin, a tube of Vaseline, disposable bibs, several jars of baby food, spoons, an extra pacifier (the other remained clipped to his clothing), a wash cloth, two burp cloths, a nail clipper, dishwashing liquid and a bottle washer, sunscreen, a sunhat, several small plastic bags and two changes of clothing. Babies buckled into carseats for long distances can have healthy bowel movements and more than once I was grateful for those extra clothes! Toss anything soiled into your plastic bags.
The Right Stuff
Yes, traveling in a car for hours on end can be monotonous. But if it’s like that for you, just think about the baby! You can read if you like, or play a game like 20 Questions. Older kids may have the bonus of watching a DVD or video or listening to a book on tape.
But what about the baby? When wakeful, he’ll enjoy a short ribbon tied across the backseat of your car with soft hanging toys and pictures for his viewing pleasure. Also, have a small stash of toys handy (without removable parts) to keep little hands occupied. When you do make stops, play with him, get him going, laugh and smile at him.
One more big bonus family essential: when you stop at a motel for the night, make it one with a swimming pool so everyone can unwind and relax. Inflate a baby intertube for your little love and let him go to town, then later, get a good night’s sleep and remember: your road trip is what you make of it!
Susan Day is editor for this publication and a mother of four terrific traveling companions.
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Useful information for family travelers.
Useful tips and more for road trips with kids.
Offers state-by-state regulations for
children’s car seat info.
Locate open spaces and parks along your route.
Map your destination at this handy site.