Road Trips With Little Ones

By Emily Morrice (bio)

Whether it’s visiting far-away family, summer holidays, or a weekend at the cottage, road trips are a mainstay of most young families. Our young family is no stranger to long road trips as most of our relatives live between six and eight hours away, yet even still, road trips can be intimidating! After years of road trips, and probably thousands of hours in the car on long journeys, I’ve learned a few tricks of the trade. The bottom line is, you can do this, and you might even enjoy it. Here’s how:

Time Your Departure

Departure and arrival times can make or break a family road trip.  Finding the optimal departure time varies based on your children’s rhythms but here are a few things to consider:

Naps – If your child still takes a nap, be sure to not start out your drive with the nap, as usually the first hour of driving is the easiest. Kids are excited enough with the adventure at first and boredom hasn’t yet set in, so these are key hours to keep them awake! If at all possible, I like to time drives to allow for one or two solid hours on the road before my child’s scheduled nap. That way, once the allure of the open road has lost its lustre, they nod off to sleep for an hour or if we’re lucky, two! Or, if you can handle driving late into the night, you can always leave a couple of hours before bedtime. This way the easiest hours of your drive will also be your child’s only awake hours, and you’ll enjoy a quiet, if not boring drive in peace.

If your road trip is a short one, I suggest aiming departure time for nap time so your child will sleep for the majority of the drive. This keeps the drive easy for the obvious reason that your kids are asleep, but also that you’re not concerned with divvying out snacks or toys or separating sibling squabbles.

Feeding – Keeping our children fed on long drives can be the most difficult task. And I say that having driven through snow storms, heat waves without AC, and pounding rain! Most babies need to eat every three hours, and toddlers and kids aren’t much different. Before departure, make sure your crew have full stomachs and empty bladders, and that counts for every passenger. If you have a baby, make sure you’ve done a full feed and burping as close to departure time as possible. This will buy you a few hours of peace on the road before you need to consider pulling over for a pit stop, or opening up the cooler for an in-car lunch.

What to Expect

Expectations are everything! I’ve found that with road trips with my kids, alongside all other things parenting, that if my expectations are realistic, and maybe even low, that I’m rarely disappointed and I enjoy the journey a lot more. We have travelled quite extensively as a family, and it’s never easy, but keeping our expectations low definitely helps us keep a positive attitude along the way. The drive to my parent’s house is under seven hours without kids, and almost nine hours with kids. For the longest time I felt frustrated that it was taking so much longer, but nowadays I expect a nine hour drive, and I’m not disappointed. Same goes for the atmosphere in the car. Before kids, road trips meant long, uninterrupted conversations or getting lost in a great audiobook. If we still expected that type of blissful drive, we’d be crushed by disappointment, but our expectations have changed (lowered!) and now we appreciate the moments of peace and calm during an otherwise loud and rowdy drive.

Stopping for Food/Bathrooms

Having just potty trained our last child, I am acutely aware of the freedom lost once your kids are out of diapers for road trips. Trust me – there are few times in parenting when you’ll be glad your child is still in diapers. If your passengers are potty trained, you’ll need to factor in stopping for bathrooms every 1-2 hours. Thankfully, if they’re still in diapers, you can manage a lot of kilometres before having to stop for a diaper change.

As a personal preference, and because we have three kids who need to stop every 1-2 hours for the bathroom, we don’t stop for food. Otherwise, it’s just too much time wasted during an already long day. Pack food that’s easy to eat and crumbs-free, unless you want your car to look like the bottom of a toaster. Our kids are obsessed with Love Child Organics fruit pouches for snacks! Before you pack anything, see if it passes the crumbs test. Example: cucumber and pepper slices pass with flying colours, but bananas are totally messy. Homemade waffles are awesome, muffins, are the worst. Trial and error, folks! I also limit liquids with older kids, for obvious reasons.

Keeping them busy

It may sound old fashioned or completely insane, but I’m one of those moms that doesn’t have a car with a built-in movie screen. I have the sneaking suspicion that once the kids know TV is an option, they’ll be insufferable without it. I have fears that as the driver, I’d be distracted, and many of our road trips are just the kids and I. Though road trips are hard, it’s a rare chance for uninterrupted time together, and I don’t think our family is unique in that we don’t have those times enough.

For the first hour or so, don’t offer the kids any sort of activity. Most kids should be able to endure that long in a car without too much complaining, so don’t fuss with them. I’ve made the mistake before of handing out books, games, and snacks as we were pulling away from home, only to have whining, bored kids after just an hour. Kids are so creative, and they shouldn’t need us as their constant entertainment.

After the first hour or so, I introduce an immaterial game like I Spy, or first person to see a blue car wins. Kids can be entertained by these games for longer than you’d think! Babies don’t need these activities, but they love to know you’re near, so a reverse mirror can help them see you and play peek-a-boo. It’s always a good idea to have a new book or toy for a long trip, but save it for when you really need a win! On our most recent drive I bought personalized white boards with dry erase markers for each of my three kids. What a game changer! The kids coloured for two hours! And once we arrived at our destination, the back seat of our car wasn’t full of discarded papers.

Keeping them comfortable

Let’s be honest – long drives are uncomfortable for everyone.  For little ones who need to wiggle they’re especially challenging.  Every time you’re stopping to use the restroom, make sure toddlers get their wiggles out with some jumping jacks, and for babies, take the opportunity to take them out of their car seat and hold them in a different position.  A good stretch is so needed after only a few hours in a car.

Consider a sun shade to cover the rear windows if the sun will be shining during your drive, and in winter months, make sure you take off their heavy outerwear. Lastly, make sure your kids are dressed comfortably for a long drive. As a rule, this means yoga pants and sweats for our kids, and let’s be honest, me too!

This summer, if you find your family is facing a longer than usual road trip, or you’re planning your first big drive with a new baby, remember, you can do this. Even when the kids are arguing in the back seat or baby is giving the Opera a run for their money, the drive is always worth it for the vacation and time together that awaits. After years of hectic drives, I still oddly find myself looking forward to road trips with my kids. It’s a bonding experience, solid hours together, and a fun adventure, if we choose to see it that way.

About Emily

Emily MorriceEmily is a freelance writer, blogger, and mom of three little ones. When she’s not traveling the world with her family, Montreal is home, where you can find her exploring the local markets, making a mess in her kitchen, and brewing a cup of tea. Find her on Instagram (@emmorrice) and check out her lifestyle blog, Our Nest In The City, where she documents it all.