The thought of driving 10+ hours with a toddler strapped in a car seat is enough to elicit fear and anxiety in even the most prepared parents and I was no exception. When we decided to drive to North Carolina for Thanksgiving we knew that we were taking a huge gamble. The furthest we have ever driven with Leah up until Thanksgiving was the 2 hour drive we often make to the island for our weekends away. And, on even those relatively short trips, there have been times that Leah has decided that she could not be in the car for one more second. But there we were, committing to a 10+ hour drive to NC (and then another 10+hour drive home just a few days later) with little idea as to how Leah would handle the journey. Surprisingly, she remained pretty pleasant the entire trip. Now, I know every child is different and we are blessed with a pretty tolerant and easy going child, but I did prepare for this trip like we were preparing for an apocalypse so I figured I would share the tricks that worked for us when it came to surviving 20+ hours overall in the car with a 15 month old.
1. Split up the trip if possible. We started our drive to North Carolina on Tuesday night, but only drove 2 hours north to Brett’s family condo. We figured we would knock 2 hours off our overall trip, get a good nights sleep, and get up early to start the rest on Wednesday morning. A 2 hour head start might not seem like a lot, but trust me, when the drive on Wednesday only took 10 hours instead of 12, it felt like a HUGE difference. On the way home we did the entire drive in one long, long, LONG trip (thanks for post-Thanksgiving traffic) and I found myself wishing we could have split up the trip into 2 chunks.
2. Encourage a normal nap schedule. Or as normal as you can make it….
Both there and back we left at 5 am which, although miserable for me and Brett, pretty much ensured that Leah would sleep for at least an hour or 2 for the first part of the trip. I put her in the car cozy, with all of her night time objects (binky, blanky and baby) and we pretty much didn’t look at her or talk to her so she could settle in and fall back to sleep. Throughout the day I tried to stick to our normal nap schedule, just like we would if we were home. In the morning around 10 I took away whatever she was playing with, gave her all her night time objects and said, “Time for night night Leah” before turning back around. She never fell asleep right away, and would often fuss or throw her blanky or baby on the floor or seat next to her. Each time I would just turn around, pick up the object, make her all cozy and again say, “Time for night night Leah” just as I would if I was putting her down for a nap at home. If she fussed or cried we didn’t turn around or talk to her, except to hand her back her comfort objects and say night night. Eventually, she would settle herself in and fall asleep. The way there she took a pretty long morning nap (10 am-noon) but the way back she only napped for about 45 minutes, which was fine. I let her wake up and play for a bit before “putting her down” for a second nap a few hours later. It can be frustrating and hard to get them to stick to their normal nap schedule while driving, but I found that it was possible as long as I stuck to it and getting those naps in definitely made Leah a happier baby while she was awake!
3. Snacks, snacks, snacks!
Looking in our car you would have thought we had packed enough food for a 2 week journey. Before we left I stocked up on a bunch of Leah’s favorite and easy to eat in the car snack foods and then packed them in a bag that was easily accessible. Here are a few of our favorite in the car snacks
~Plum fruit pouches
Leah is crazy about these fruit pouches and so am I. Not only are they healthy and come in a large variety of flavors (fruits…fruits and veggies…fruits veggies and grains…and yogurt smoothies) but they are relatively a clean and easy food to eat in the car. Not only that, but Leah is so crazy about them that even when the pouch was clearly empty, she would still happily suck on the pouch giving us a guaranteed 30 minutes of peace and quiet. Bonus is if you can find these (or similar) pouches at discount stores. These pouches are usually close to a $1.50 EACH at our grocery store but I was able to stock up on them at Big Lots for 50 cents each!!
Leah loves the cheddar bunnies and the grahams (and let’s be honest, so do Brett and I). These crackers are great to put into a snack cup and hand back to baby (while mom and dad snack on the rest of the box up front….) And the fact that they are organic makes me feel better about Leah snacking on them as opposed to something like goldfish (which, I’ll be honest, we also eat a lot of….)
Again, it hits my three most important points: easy to eat, baby stays clean while eating it, and mommy likes to snack on them as well. 🙂
Okay, let’s be honest, veggie straws are basically glorified potato chips in straw format claiming to be vegetables. Regardless, I still like them as road trip snacks because I can tell myself Leah is eating such a healthy veggie snack…whatever makes me feel better, right?? (Also, Leah seems to have picked up on my habit of not eating any of the green “spinach” ones because spinach chips are just gross).
Clementines and bananas were our car trip fruits of choice. Leah is currently in a stage where she thinks most fruit (clementines included) are clearly laced with poison so the clementines were just for me, but this kid could eat bananas, or “nanas” all day. I honestly wouldn’t recommend bananas for the car because they are slimey and messy and will pretty much make your car smell like a “nana” for a week. However, when you have a kid who thinks bananas are worth their weight in gold you bring them because handing her a banana is guaranteed to make her happy no matter how upset she is.
3. Bring toys, but stick to favorites.
I didn’t want to overwhelm Leah with toys, or give her too many at a time, so I brought a few favorites and rotated them out along the way. I handed her 1 toy at a time and let her play with it until she was bored before switching it out with another. I didn’t let her see what other toys I had so that when I handed her a new one it came as a surprise to her. We are also lucky because we have a kid who is OBSESSED with books so handing her a book (especially an interactive book) would keep her busy for quite some time. Leah’s current favorite:
Leah loves this book that my sister-in-law gave her. Each monkey has a “pop-able” belly (like bubble wrap) and she will sit there and pop, pop, pop each monkey’s belly again and again. It was funny because at one point during the drive Leah was sitting in her seat, quietly popping her monkeys, when Brett started looking around saying “what is that?!” thinking that little rocks were hitting our windshield. Whatever keeps her happy!
4. Use an Ipad, but not excessively.
Although I brought an Ipad loaded with toddler apps, I barely used it and kept it up front with me to use as an emergency “I’m going to have a melt down” distraction. Before we left I downloaded a few 10-minute long episodes of the show “Pocoyo” (something she has never seen before) and if she was starting to lose her cool in the back seat I would ask, “Do you want to watch Pocoyo?!” and would start the episode and hand the Ipad back. She would happily sit there, watching Pocoyo learn how to use an umbrella, and, by the end of the 10 minute show, she was usually ready to go back to playing with a toy or reading her book (sometimes we had to watch the episode 2x in a row..) After the third or so time she would ask for it “Po-po-yo??” every once and awhile and I would let her watch the show before taking the Ipad back away. Surprisingly, there was never a fit after the show was over and I took the Ipad back. The Ipad proved to be a great tool in breaking up the monotony of her routine, especially since it is something she never plays with at home.
5. When you stop; run, run, run!
Whenever we stopped at a gas station or rest stop I would let Leah walk to and from the bathroom or tell her to “run, run, run!!” around the Dunkin’ Donuts as we waited in line for our coffees. I knew it would be easier (and quicker) to carry her as we tried to hustle in and out of our stops, but I knew that she needed a chance to stretch her legs and get out as much energy as possible. Spending an extra 10 minutes at a stop letting her run around is well worth a happy and tired toddler when she is put back in the car!
6. When in doubt, bring treats.
We had a stash of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate short bread cookies and Mott’s fruit snacks that we would break out as special treats once or twice during the trip. Leah was super excited to have these special snacks and, although I had to let myself accept the fact that she was covering herself in chocolate, (side note…keep baby wipes close at hand for easy car wipe downs!) it was well worth the avoided melt down.
So there are my 6 tricks of the trade in keeping a toddler happy on a road trip. And let’s just say that on the 14 1/2 drive home Leah didn’t lose her cool until they very end when we were getting close to her bedtime (and it was too dark for her to look at her books). I was so proud of her, especially because there were times during our traffic-filled drive that I myself wanted to scream and run out of the car and yet she happily sat in her car seat playing with her toys and eating her snacks! If anyone else has any great toddler road trip tricks I would love to hear them!
Happy kid, happy drive!