It’s the holiday season! It’s that time of year where we find the perfect present for everyone on our list and we all happily pile into the car to head to Grandma’s house. You know, the 5 hour drive where your infant sleeps the entire time, your toddler gets engrossed in their board books and your 6 and 9 year olds leave each other alone. You arrive, fresh as a daisy, to Grandma’s house, ready to celebrate and generally feeling ready to enjoy conflict-free time with the extended family.
Just kidding. It’s the time of year where you frantically pack the car by yourself because your husband got stuck at work, only to pile into the car with several cranky kiddos who you haven’t been able to properly feed while you packed and threw things in gift bags (wrapping paper? are you nuts?), only to have your infant scream the entire time, your toddler get bored 3 minutes in and everyone else snipes at each other.
Well, I hope we can help with a few nuggets of advice here to try and make the whole experience a little bit better, and maybe you arrive only mildly stressed. These tips will be infant and toddler-centric, since that’s our experience. There are tons of resources for traveling with older kids:
- Ciao Bambino – has a good teen travel article, and is an interesting business in kind of being a travel agent for families
- Travel and Leisure has a list of some great car games
- Parents mag has an Ultimate Guide to Travel with kids
- Real Simple has a great Road Trip Checklist
Alright, on to the tips! I’m going to break this up into two age ranges, since I found the challenges were really different depending on my son’s age. One general tip for any diaper-ed baby: apply a zinc oxide-based cream (such as Desitin) on the diaper change that the baby will get into the car with. Sitting in the same diaper for a while always gave my son a bad diaper rash, even if we stopped after a few hours to change him.
Newborns & Infants
- When choosing your departure time, you are strongly advised to leave when the baby typically (ok ok, this is often not a thing but if you can) sleeps their longest stretch. Sure they sleep all the time, but when optimizing your trip for minimal screaming jags, the time when they are the most likely to sleep is the best, even if that falls at 10pm. I value my marriage so I’ll take arriving tired over the possibility of divorce from a continuously cry baby.
- When dressing the baby, I HIGHLY recommend erring on the side of fewer layers, especially if you are using a bucket car seat. The infant car seats are so super padded, I found that my son was pissed because he was sweaty and hot due to the heat of the padding. You can always put a cozy blanket over the top of them, and mittens on their hands while the car warms up.
- Bring multiple pacifiers, ideally multiple of the same pacifier that they prefer. My kid never took one but if yours does, now is not the time to be a pacifier nazi. Give it to them. I say multiple since they may somehow fling it around and if it lands on the car footwell and you’re a germophobe, you’ll want a back up.
- If your baby takes formula or is supplemented with formula, bring pre-measured packs of the powder or a small handheld cooler of pre-mixed stuff. That way you aren’t measuring when hitting a pothole and get covered with a fine dusting of formula. I mean, unless your nose needed a little powdering anyway.
- Munchkin makes our favorite, but there are a bunch of options out there.
- Breastfeeding? I’m not going to lie, this one’s a little harder (but you knew that already). My recommendation is if your ride is going to last more than 2 hours, bring a backup bottle of breastmilk in a bottle cooler, that contains what your baby normally drinks from a bottle plus an extra 2-4 ounces. This is to placate the baby who either is over their pacifier or doesn’t take one, and who cannot be otherwise distracted. Obviously you can’t unstrap the baby to comfort them with the boob as you would normally, so feeding them a bottle right in their seat is the next best bet.
- Also: bring a hand pump to have in case you get stuck in bad traffic and have to express milk. I also used this when my kid predictably guzzled my backup bottle of milk and continued screaming.
- Rear mirror. This way the driver can see whether the baby is sleeping and not suddenly decide to converse with the passengers, waking your blessedly sleeping baby up. This one by Britax is huge and gives me a view of the baby head to toe.
- Burp cloths. Because spit up happens. Accept the inevitable.
- Make sure to have a backup outfit in the diaper bag, zip-locked away to avoid the predicable spills that happen and ruin your backup plan. I was once driving back from my mother’s house and midway through the car ride my 4 month old son had a diaper blow out that covered himself and the car seat. I’ll never forget that smell wafting forward to the drivers’ seat (I was driving alone with the baby) and the feeling of sheer terror at what I’d find in the back.
- Car toys! So I felt a little silly, but in dealing with the fussiest car rider ever I got desperate. Give it a go – anything is worth keeping an awake newborn/infant from losing their ever-loving minds.
- Once the kiddo was eating some solids: bring puffs and the melty teething crackers that dissolve fast (Baby Mum Mums I heart you). This provided entertainment and nutrition, giving me a break from having to hand pump or use up precious stored milk.
- When all else fails: earplugs until you can pull over at a rest stop. Sometimes we would get out and swing the bucket back and forth to soothe the baby back to sleep.
- Ah the toddler stage, when they have AN attention span, just not a long one. Bring plenty of different snacks – toddlers get bored of food too, really quickly. I had grapes, goldfish, sandwich crackers, a pouch, and cheerios.
- Many of the same rules above apply – backup outfit, backup diapers & wipes.
- Board books are helpful, especially if they are able to turn the pages themselves.
- If you have someone in the backseat with the kiddo: bubbles! They provide good entertainment without much disruption to the driver.
- If the drive falls in the evening, consider dressing your toddler in their PJs so that if you run up against bedtime and the baby falls asleep, you can skip the whole step of riling them back up when putting them in PJs and do a car to crib transfer on arrival.
- When all else fails here – rolling the window up and down, on both sides of the backseat, provided last-resort entertainment.
That’s it! We hope you have great holidays, and happy and safe travels!