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Last month, my family was lucky enough to enjoy a quick getaway to California. We LOVED spending time in cooler weather and staring at the ocean waves while we relaxed. Since California is only a state away, about a 6 hour drive not counting any stops you make to fill up/eat/etc. we knew we would be road tripping it. I was a little nervous making that happen with a three year old and a six month old.
Luckily, overall things went pretty well. I wanted to share some things that worked for our family on this trip in hopes that it might help you with your next trip on the open road! So, here are my 6 tips to surviving a road trip with little kids.
1. What time you leave is key
When we took our son on his first road trip, we made the terrible mistake of thinking- let’s leave right before his bed time so he’ll sleep the whole way!! While that was a good theory and he didn’t wake up too much during the actual trip, we were then left with a baby who was woken up at our destination and figured it was time to wake up for the day. And then we had a 2:15 AM CRYFEST that led to my husband taking him for a walk for an hour in the dark. It wasn’t a preferred way to start the trip.
This time we left right after both the kids normally wake up-5:45 AM. This was great for us because traffic was minimal, the desert weather hadn’t turned our car into an oven yet, and we got to our destination right around lunch time. It also included their normal naptime schedule so we still got a bit of extended sleep. On the way back, we left right after a nice big brunch- around 12:30. They were both fed, happy, and it was just barely past their regular naptime/quiet time so again we got some sleep but got back home at a time that let them be up for a bit, eat dinner, and then crash again at their normal bedtime.
2. Embrace car friendly snacks and activities
For us that meant buying some fruit snacks and sticking with apples and granola bars over the ever crumbling favorite snack of granola bars or stickier, more staining fruits like berries. We also had books that were fun or well known enough without us having to read them to our toddler. Also, our little guy loves stickers and coloring but the idea of crayons melting in hidden corners of our car sounded horrible so we embraced things like color wonder products and sticker books where the stickers only stick to the pages of the book and are reusable!
3. Point out new things to your kids & listen to their reaction
I have made the drive we took for our vacation many times throughout my life so it all seems kind of a blur to me. For my toddler, though, everything was brand new and this reawakened my own sense of wonder. Suddenly our trip was full of conversations that included observations like: WOW! look at how big those mountains are, look how high up we are now, yes- that is a metal dinosoar, cool- check out how many cars are part of that long choo-choo train! Bonus: This made time pass more quickly for me too.
4. Embrace rest stops- with nice restrooms if possible
I knew we’d have to make a few more stops with the kids than if my husband and I were making the trip just the two of us. If it were just me on the road, the only stop I’d make would be a super fast gas up the car and hit the restroom break, but we put a little more thought into where we stopped since we were traveling with a nursing baby and a recently potty trained toddler. We did not want to deal with an overly hungry baby or worry about my supply dipping and we really did not want to traumatize our toddler with your typical gas station restroom, so we took the advice of where we could gas up that had either nicer rest stops or nicer grocery stores where the facilities would be well maintained. (For those of you making a trip that includes I8 through Arizona, I highly recommend stopping at the fancy Fry’s grocery store in Yuma!) This definitely added to our travel time, but was absolutely worth it!
5. MUSIC- Let your kids pick the music too
Something funny about our baby- she loves loud music. If we’re up and playing then soft music is fine, but she prefers louder music or white noise to fall asleep so we had no shame in listening to our music and singing along at higher volume. Not so high we worried the kids needed headphones for their little ears, but high enough that it was definitely not background noise.
We regularly take turns playing mom and dad’s music (careful of language of course because our son will repeat anything… I dread the day he realizes the real words to some of the songs in Hamilton instead of the words mommy shouts over the original cast recording…) and playing classic kids music such as the Disney station on Pandora, so switching off during this road trip was not a break from normal, but it did keep everyone happy to have a variety.
6. Pack a SURPRISE bonus toy
The last leg of the trip will be the hardest. There must be some sort of psychological term for the way your brain gets more impatient with things that are almost there than things that you know are hours or months away, because I still experience this so I have a lot of empathy for my toddler experiencing the same. In anticipation of this, I packed a new toy he’d never played with before as a nice surprise for when he got sick of the books he already knew and when he’d devoured his snacks and was truly antsy during the last 30-45 minute stretch.
For us, it was a simple fine motor skill toy where you thread in and out around pictures of characters and my toddler was thrilled to try out this new “sewing toy” which promptly kept him from kicking the driver’s seat. Everybody won. For my baby, this meant when we got to a long time of fussing she got a new teething toy to play with. She was pretty happy with that too… until she dropped it and we couldn’t pick it up for her… but no road trip is perfect, right? Maybe that should have been tip number 7…
Through it all, focus on the memories and know that the patches where baby might be screaming will end. The patches where the toddler asks you repeatedly if we can stop now or informs you he is stuck in his car seat (yes, son, that’s how they work…) will end. You will get to your exciting vacation or back to home sweet home and the road trip will just become part of the story you tell. But hopefully you had some fun along the way…
Amanda is a passionate theatre artist, wife, mom of two, child of God, an imperfect crafter, an unlikely gardener, and an enthusiastic blogger. You can read more of her writing at: AlphabetResolutions.com where she explores new goals and reflections one letter at a time. She loves laughter, music, avocado, reading, coffee, and so much more. She’s thankful for a husband who can cook, yoga, family and friends who feel like they are family, the oxford comma, and, above all, grace. You can also find her on instagram: @pepperdinegal