How to Road Trip with Kids and Keep Your Sanity

How to road trip with kids and keep your sanity Big A Bigger World

My family is always up for a good adventure. We try to get away at least once a month, sometimes this is a flight or many times it is a good old-fashioned road trip. Got family to visit, a special place you want to check out, birthday party or wedding to attend, a road trip with kids may quite possibly be your way to get there. My favorite place is exploring somewhere new and I love sharing that experience with my kids.

Road trips aren’t new to us. I took Olivia on her first road trip 10 hours away when she was just 3 months, Logan in tow at 22 months. Yup, because who doesn’t want a new challenge with a new baby and an adjusting toddler. With a new breastfed baby, made that the longest road trip of my life. But I would never give up the memories of being on the beach with my parents and my precious babies.

Baby and Mom on Roadtrip

We have road tripped to New York, Nashville, South Carolina, Boston, Richmond, and beach days bringing our kids right along. I have solo road tripped both kids for a five-hour ride stopping to nurse, feed them, change diapers, give some snuggles, get gas, and get back on the road. Anything to let my babies see their daddy while out of town.

Road trips can seem intimidating at first. Seriously, how are you and your kids going to survive hours in the car together? Often when people ask the best advice for going on a road trip I jokingly say the second car. I’m just kidding, you can totally do this.

Road trips just take a little extra preparation and patience, especially when adding kids to the mix, give yourself grace and be prepared.

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Make sure your vehicle is in working order

Trips, in general, come with unpredictability, road trips are not different. Be sure to check your vehicle out first before the trip. There is nothing worse than starting your trip out on the wrong foot with vehicle issues and I can promise you, being on the side of the highway with kids isn’t fun.

So, check your tires, windshield wipers, make sure you have enough window washing fluid, check and make sure your oil change is current, flash your high beams and hit your brake lights and make sure they are good to go. Don’t forget to make sure your jumper cables and spare tire are in tow as well.

For an in-depth guide on preparing your vehicle and driving safe on your next road trip, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s summer driving tips page.

Plan ahead and be realistic

Traveling with children takes extra time, I always add a minimum of three hours to our trip. It might seem like a lot of time to add but by the time to you add stops, bathroom breaks, diaper changes, gas fill-ups, and food breaks it doesn’t seem too long.

That being said, you have take into consideration road trips take longer with kids, honestly, everything takes longer with kids. Allotting for extra times can help ease the stress. You never know when a hiccup can occur, an exploded diaper, a car sick kid, tantrum, traffic stand still or even a potty accident. So give yourself some extra time.

Incorporate nap time

Mom with two kids in car sleeping

When we first started doing road trips I always tried to incorporate nap time in our travels. Timing naps time while driving can help make road trips a little more bearable and easier if your child is not used to being in the car for long periods of time.

We have driven through the night which is great if your children sleep comfortably in the car, but for me, it made me an extra cranky mom and who wants to travel with a cranky mom? Leaving early in the morning is another option to start your road trips, and this tends to be my preference.

I generally like to have everything set up in the car making sure things are situated exactly how I like them before we start out and get the kids involved. How do I like things in the car? I like quick access to a diaper bag, each kid gets a small basket that sits in-between their seat filled their favorite toys and car entertainment, a small cooler of snacks that the passenger can reach, quick access to wipes, and hand sanitizer. I make sure car chargers are in the car since I use my smartphone for navigation.

If you haven’t checked out the waze app yet, do it. This is my favorite navigation app this app lets you know of delays, finds the fastest route, notifies you of objects in the road, as well as if police are spotted.

Once I have everything set up I the car I switch my kids over into comfortable clothing for the trip. You might not think this matters but I want them to be comfortable. Cotton shirts and cotton pants tend to be our go-to.

Road trip day is days Liv will forego the ponytail or pigtails because having them up against the car seat for a long period of time cant be comfortable. I also make sure that my kids have shoes that are easy to put on them. My kids never keep their shoes on in the car, it doesn’t matter if we are driving up the street, as soon as their seatbelt clicks, then off goes the shoes. Having shoes that are easy to slide on like Crocs makes our stops a little fast and easier to get out of the car.

Assign Roles

At every stop, my husband and I  have different roles. I generally take both kids out of the car, have them move around, and take them to the restrooms. During this time my husband is generally pumping gas, moving his legs around, and getting all the trash out of the car. While I put my kids back in the car seats my husband uses the restroom and we are all set and ready to get back on the road.

This has worked well for us on so many trips. This process seems to be the most time effective and keeps our car picked up, I don’t know about your kids but my kids can turn the smallest things into the biggest messes and back seats seem to be their specialty.

The passenger gets the lucky job, they are the regulator of the backseat fights, snack distributor, GPS coordinator, and next stop planner.

Entertainment and snacks

Seriously the most important thing you will place in the car besides your kids will be the things that entertain them for the ride. Entertainment can be toys, books, music, snacks, and anything that keeps your child content. The entertainment has changed as our children have grown.

We try to pack a variety of snacks for everyone on the trip, I try to pack healthy snacks but sometimes you need a little something to get you through the trip. We pack all our snacks beforehand, gas stations prices are more expensive and many stops can add up really quickly.

Some of our snacks include, fresh fruit, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, nuts, juice boxes, chips, pretzels, and my favorite is trail mix. I tend to pack a lot of snacks, with Logan’s sensory issues I like to have extra snacks for the trip if I need to. This way I know I have something that he will eat when push comes to shove.

Essentials for babies

Baby Girl on Road Trip

Olivia’s first road trip was when she was 3 months old. We planned our stops for every 3 hours so we could feed her, take her out of the car seat, change her diaper and give her lots of snuggles. I aimed to get her out of the car seat for at least 20 mins, moving her arms and legs and giving her a little tummy time.

If your baby isn’t used to a road trip a rear-seat mirror can provide both your baby and your comfort being able to see each other’s faces. Entertainment gear is a little different for babies they seem to be easier to please with toys that have noise and lights. Olivia has a great car seat mobile that had little toys with different textures and made different noises. I loved this car seat mobile because I could also use it on the stroller, and her bassinet. Plus this mobile is locked on so there aren’t any tossed toys at the driver, because yes babies can do that.

When traveling with a baby my biggest recommendation is making sure that you have access to the diaper bag. Keep the diaper bag where it can be quickly accessed like the backseat floorboard, you don’t want to be moving around luggage and strollers trying to get a new diaper. Be sure that your diaper bag is well packed, think you have enough outfits, wipes, and diapers? Toss an extra of each in the bag. Seriously, with spit up and diaper blowouts, you will be glad that you have that extra set of clothes.

Babies tend to sleep easier in the car and you can follow your child’s nap schedule if you plan accordingly. We used sunshades to keep the back seat dark and white noise from Youtube to help Olivia stay on her nap time while traveling on the road. I love muslin blankets. Both of my kids still use them even though they are bigger, they tend to be the perfect blanket for the car. I love that you can use them as a nursing cover, on the ground for tummy time, covering the stroller from light and I even used them on the beach to protect Olivia’s legs and arms from the sun.

Olivia would get a small box next to her seat filled with her favorite baby toys. I always tried to bring toys that were either hard plastic with noise and lights that could easily be cleaned or soft toys with a crinkly sound that could easily be tossed in the wash. If you have extra time beforehand check out a second-hand shop or go by Goodwill and clean up toys your child has never seen or played with before.

Pre-make your bottles ahead of time with the formula measured out and having bottled water on hand to easily mix for a quick bottle. You can easily grab a cup of hot water at the gas station to warm up your bottles but having them pre-made can save a ton of time. I have pumped in the car to give Olivia a bottle when there wasn’t a safe area to pull over and nurse her.

Be sure to add a pacifier clip to your baby’s pacifier and clip it where they are able to access them, then add an extra one. The back seat is like the dark hole of missing needed items, especially on a road trip to get the clip if your baby is a pacifier baby.

Entertainment for toddlers

Little boy and girl holding hands on road trip

Toddlers are a little more fun when taking on the open roads. I like to take this as an opportunity to learn and work on joint attention. I point out things that my kids can see and talk about it with them. For example, do you see the cow? What does that cow say? One of Logan’s favorite games was animal sounds and singing Old McDonald and allowing him to pick the next animal. At this age I being to incorporate some books into their travels, hard covered and of interest to them, I pick a harder cover because kids can be destructive.

While the items in each of their baskets change a little, we still use them. My kids both love these books that come with a little paintbrush that is filled with water and you paint the picture and the images appear. I love these books and they are a staple in most of our traveling. I like they only use water so they are mess frees, reusable, and can easily be used at other places like at a restaurant and waiting rooms. There are some other products that are available that are mess-free coloring and if your child is anything like Olivia and into art, these are also great to bring along.

My kid’s great grandmother sent them both small dry-erase boards and they are seriously such a hit. Olivia loves to scribble and draw lots of items and Logan is fascinated with erasing whatever he writes. They are also super easy to use elsewhere and always go in our day packs. You can find cheap and different color pens easily. Seriously one of my kid’s favorite gifts ever and one of the most used ones.

Before your trip take a trip to your local dollar store and pick up some age-appropriate items. Don’t just head to the toy sections either. My kids loved opening items and dollar store band-aids are always a hit, as well as decks of cards, sticky notes. Sure, they make a mess but they are easily cleaned up on the next stop. Window clings are a great item for kids to play with and recreate scenes, they are damage free and a lot easier to clean up than stickers.

Snacks with toddlers are a must. Cheerios, crackers, goldfish, cheese sticks, applesauce pouches are all perfect for road trips with toddlers in tow. Hungry toddlers mean grumpy toddlers so hand over the goldfish and everyone can be happy, right?

If you happen to be on of the lucky parents like me who potty trained a child for a year and a half then potty training is probably is a huge dread when thinking about a road trip. Pull-ups, wipes, hand sanitizer are all musts when hitting the road while potty training. Don’t let potty training hold you back when traveling.

Life goes on as well all gain new skills. If you have a new child that is starting to work on potty training and still having accidents, then be sure to protect your child car seat. Liners are a great way to keep your child’s car seat dry if they are prone to accidents and you aren’t using pull-ups.

Bring along your portable potty is you need to. Sometimes when you gotta go you gotta go. So pulling over and using the portable potty helps keep your child on the road to potty training success. Be sure to bring plastic grocery bags to line the inside of your receptacle with. When done toss in your wipes and tie it up and toss it at your next stop and double high five your kid for doing an awesome job.

Essentials for preschoolers

Little Girl playing with doll on road trip

As our kids have gotten bigger when trying to incorporate a lot more movement into our stops. Kids are meant to be in motion, so sitting in the car can be hard at times,  even for babies. I get my kids out and have them move around. I try to go to places to stop to eat like Chick-Fil-a, or restaurants with play areas so they can burn a little energy.

I also try to look up playground along my route if time allows. Getting the kids out to move around can make a better road trip experience. Don’t forget to add some movement for baby, lay a blanket down and get some tummy time in since your baby will be in the car seat for some time.

If I can’t find a place, we play a good game of Simon Says with lots of giggles.

Entertaining preschoolers follow the same rules of having items that your child likes to play with. Our kids are still a fan of their dry erase boards, now we have a little challenge of who can write letters and numbers. We still hit up Goodwill and the Dollar store beforehand. At this age though, I control the toys this gets to be a new role of the passenger.

At the dollar store, I grab items that I know both my kids will like, bubbles, playdoh, small cars, little activities, little treats they each like, silly putty, dolls, and of course a little lip gloss for Olivia. I like grabbing this stuff at the dollar store because if they get lost or damaged then no big deal. I pass these out during the trip to keep them interested and entertained.

Our kids also now use Kindles for entertainment in the car. We are able to download and choose what apps as well as what movies they are able to watch. Amazon FreeTime is a great service that we utilize, especially since we can limit screen time with it. I use my cell phone to create a hotspot as needed if I need to connect to other apps such as Netflix and ABC Mouse. Be sure to throw in your kid’s headphones and chargers, and stop the “I don’t like what he is watching” or “his stuff is too loud” fights before they happen.

We also bring along dry erase books that are educational and because mom isn’t fun you have to do 5 pages of letters before you can use your kindle gasp, I know my kids think I am the meanest mom in the world but its pretty amazing how quickly both kids can write out some letters.

Our kids now are also huge fans of music sing along, Raffi you deserve many, many, many, gold stars. So kick back and enjoy some “baby beluga” and “baby shark.”

Road tripping with autism

Little boy with Buzz Lightyear on road trip

Traveling with autism creates its own challenges but even with challenges, we don’t let autism prevent us from taking a road trip. With autism, you have to just be a little more prepared and take a little more time prepping your child. I talk to Logan about every trip before we go on it. Children with autism do well with structure and routine, so prepping them beforehand that their routine is going to change will make a big difference.

I always talk up our destination. If we are going to the beach, I grab some books from the library and we read them ahead of time. If we are going to the “Big City” we look up videos about the city and pick something that Logan wants to do when we get there. I get Logan involved with the idea of the trip and we plan for an exciting adventure. I look up things that follow Logan’s interest currently he is into space and robots if there are a space museum or science museums we will check it out and talk about the great things we will see.

Talk about the road trip, I break it down and explain to Logan that we are going to be in the car, for a while. I tell him to let me know if he needs a break and if he needs to stop at the playground, while he is still early in recognizing his needs it’s a good start for him to start learning to advocate for himself, and to learn to self-regulation.

I talk about things that are scary to Logan, lots of people and loud noises and talk about if we may experience them and that he will be safe with mom and dad. Don’t underestimate what your autistic child can understand, Logan understands a lot even if he can’t communicate a lot of it back effectivity.

Incorporate visuals. Autistic children thrive off visuals so add them to your road trip. If your child can follow a checklist of following the course, a simple car, gas station, playground, car,  visual can help them immensely. I always place the GPS where Logan can see it, the GPS shows the arrival times and I can often show that to Logan, in addition to showing him “when the car gets here, then we will stop.”

Bring along a favorite item, be sure to keep an eye on this item. Mark it with your name and number in the case it gets lost (I pray this never happens). Your child’s item could be a lovey, a stuffed animal, a blanket but in our case, it is Buzz Lightyear. Familiar items can help decrease anxiety and provide comfort. Buzz Lightyear is well traveled in our family.

Don’t forget your child’s comfort items if your child uses headphones, a communication device, or relies on sensory toys. Bring them. So often when we are gathering and packing stuff for trips we can forget the most important items.

Let’s get on the road

Little Boy in Car for Road trip

Road trips can be a great way to spend time with your spouse and children while traveling to your destination. Being prepared, having roles to be more efficient with time, having snack and essentials geared toward your child’s age and including moments of movement can all make your trip a more pleasant experience.

Our road trips have been filled with some great laughs, some tears, a couple wrong turns, and lots of wonderful memories. So prepare, pick a destination, pack your bags, grab your kids, and hit the road and get out there and make some unforgettable memories. Just don’t forget to give yourself some extra time and grace and in our case Buzz Lightyear.

Would you still rather fly? That’s okay, I’ve got you covered there too! Check out my flying with toddlers guide.