Whether you are bringing your baby to meet family for the first time or simply going on your first family vacation, baby’s first road trip is an exciting event. But, let’s be honest – your first long road trip with baby or toddler can be every bit as intimidating as baby’s first flight.
We’ve been there. We’ve made the 8-hour road trip to see grandparents with our kids more times than we can count. Each road trip had its unique challenges, especially because neither of our children liked sitting in a car seat and they would rarely sleep in it for any length of time.
Despite our challenges, we always made it through, and you will too – you’ve got this! No matter what happens on your first road trip with your infant or toddler, you’ll make it through fully intact with more parental confidence and a brand-new set of family memories.
To help you have the best road trip with your baby, we’ve shared the most five important things we learned about taking road trips with baby.
Here are the five essential planning strategies for a successful road trip with baby or toddler:
- Choose the best time to leave for a long road trip
- Strategically plan your road trip stops
- Feeding baby on the road
- Have a sleep strategy
- Prepare your road trip activities
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The Best Time to Leave for a Long Road Trip with Baby or Toddler
The strategy which has the biggest impact on a long road trip with an infant or toddler is picking the best time to leave. Doing a large part of the driving while your baby or toddler is sleeping goes a long way.
The best time to leave for a road trip with a baby will vary for each family, but if you factor in your child’s sleep times, meal times, work schedules, acceptable arrival times, etc., the best departure time usually reveals itself easily.
For some families, starting your baby road trip right before nap time or in the evening before bedtime might be the best option, but for most families an early morning departure is likely the best time.
Since our kids did not sleep in the car for long periods of time, we tried to be in the car while it was still dark outside – typically by 5am. We’d wake the kids, quickly feed them and change their diapers, then put them directly in the car in their PJs with a cozy blanket on top.
With any luck they’d go right back to sleep and if not, they’d be groggy and quiet for a couple of hours. This usually bought us a few hours before they woke up or were hungry enough to want to eat, which typically left us with 1-1.5hrs left before our first stop.
Strategically Plan Your Road Trip Stops
Another essential strategy for a long road trip with baby and toddler is to pre-plan your stops. When planning your stops, consider how long you are comfortable leaving your baby or toddler in their car seat. Of course, things rarely go strictly to plan when you travel with kids, but it’s never a bad idea to have a base plan to optimize around.
How long can you travel with a baby in a car seat? According to whattoexpect.com, babies who cannot sit up on their own need to be taken out of their car seats every hour or two. This ought to roughly line up with their feeding schedule anyways.
Baby Road Trip Tip: Keep the cumulative length of these breastfeeding stops in mind as you plan your trip, as the time can really add up and you may arrive at your destination much later than you might think. You may wish to leave a little earlier to compensate.
For older babies, there is a widely used “2-hour rule”. There isn’t much discussion or consensus about how long a toddler can safely sit in a car seat, but if you are concerned, err on the side of caution and/or check your car seat manufacturer guidelines.
In addition to the road trip safety of your child, planned stops are especially useful for keeping mobile babies and toddlers happy on a road trip. Letting them crawl or move around for a while does wonders for their moods.
At the halfway point of our roadtrip to see Grandma and Grandpa, we would stop for an hour to let the kids crawl or play and burn off some energy. There’s a McDonald’s with a PlayPlace we like to stop at – we can grab a quick bite and a coffee and the kids can play in the area for smaller kids.
It’s worthwhile to do some research and plan these stops in advance. A picnic at a playground would work equally as well, just try to avoid a sit-down restaurant as this is just more sitting.
Feeding Baby on a Car Trip
If you are taking a long road trip with a newborn or toddler, you will be making one or more planned stops for the safety of your child. Chances are that at least one of these stops will involve a proper meal for your child. If you prefer to pack healthy food from home, use a small insulated cooler with an ice-pack to keep food safe and cool.
While driving, portable snacks are great as they work as both nourishment and distraction. Some road trip food ideas for babies and toddler are snacks that are good for distraction. We like Gerber Puffs, Cheerios, Yogurt Melts or pureed baby food pouches for babies because of their dissolving properties.
While your baby is in a rear-facing car seat, be sure there is someone with them in the back seat while they eat.
Avoiding a hangry kid is essential for road tripping with a baby, so pack extra sandwiches and plenty of fruit for the trip. Make sure to pack food for yourself as well and don’t forget lots of water for everyone.
If your planned departure time is at the crack of dawn, be sure to pack breakfast for the kids so they have something to eat when they wake. We usually packed dry Cheerios in a spill-proof snack container and milk in a spill-proof sippy cup. It’s not the most exciting breakfast, but it’s portable and it takes a long time to eat; all those minutes of a happy, occupied baby on a road trip really add up!
Getting Baby Sleeping in the Car
Every baby is unique and hopefully you’ll have a good idea of what conditions make your baby sleep in the car. This is stating the obvious, but for a baby on a road trip, sleeping in the car is a great way to easily pass the time.
Strategies we used to get our babies and toddlers to sleep in the car on a road trip were:
- We play soft music or audiobooks with bedtime stories for kids. There’s a ton of bedtime storybooks for kids on Audible.com, just try to ensure the driver doesn’t get sleepy too!
- An old trick, but a good trick, is to increase the temperature in the car slightly to help them get a little more sleepy.
- If you can’t leave super early in the morning, try leaving when your baby has a full tummy right before nap time.
Road Trip Activities for a Baby or Toddler
How do you entertain a baby on a long car ride? If your baby or toddler is not eating or sleeping in the car, they will likely need some form of mental stimulation. It helps for parents to take turns driving and sitting in the back seat interacting with the baby.
These baby travel toys are popular with parents traveling with infants:
- Bright Starts Clack and Slide Activity Ball
- This cute little buckle toy
- Animal finger puppets
- Board books
To entertain toddlers on a car trip, your list of choices is a lot bigger. Two excellent activities for a toddler on a road trip are:
We didn’t let our toddlers watch much TV at home, but on travel days, we let go of our guilt and just let our front-facing toddlers watch the iPad.
Little Baby Bum was a fun & educational favorite that they’d watch silently for hours – you can download episodes on Netflx. We would keep it out of reach by securing the iPad to the back of the front seat.
Another favorite of ours, regardless of the kids age, was to play kid-friendly audiobooks in the car. It’s such a great thing to occupy a child’s mind without the need for a toy or a screen. As mentioned above, this is also a good baby road trip sleep strategy.
With babies, we started with simple audiobooks like Winnie The Pooh, but we soon graduated to some classic Disney storybooks.
As the “Netflix of Children’s Books”, the Epic! Digital library is one of our favorite travel apps for kids. In addition to thousands of baby books you’ll have access to on your tablet, Epic! has a great selection of children’s audiobooks you can listen to during the road trip.
If your kids love Disney stories, you’ll find a wide selection of classic Disney stories on Audible.com. Audible offers new members one free audiobook (sometimes more), so at a minimum, pick up your free audiobook for your road trip.
One of our most popular blog posts of all time is the Best Airplane Activities for Babies and Travel Toys for Toddlers. We recommend reading this post as there are a lot of similarities between entertaining a baby on a road trip and a flight. Keep in mind, you’ll be less concerned about how much noise your child is making in the car (to reasonable limits of course!)
Road Trip with Baby Packing List
What should I bring for a baby on a road trip?
Packing lists are an essential tool for any parent planning a trip with a baby or toddler. You have enough details to keep in mind, let alone keeping track of everything you need to bring for a successful trip.
As you plan your car trip with baby, keep in mind the essential items we discussed above:
Also be sure to download a copy of our complete Baby Travel Packing List.
Road Trip with Baby Destination Ideas
If you are looking for some ideas for the best road trip with a baby, we can help. In addition to road trips to the grandparents, we’ve taken our kids on some great road trips:
- We explored great hiking around Palm Springs and took a road trip to Joshua Tree National Park with kids.
- We spent several weeks visiting Utah’s National Parks with kids.
- We took a road trip through the SE USA to see the Great Smoky Mountains with kids.
- We spent a week touring around parts of Iceland with kids.
- We took a road trip through Norway on the Atlantic Road with toddlers.
- We explored incredible country side destinations in the Czech Republic with kids.
We often get inspiration for our road trip ideas from the Lonely Planet book Epic Drives of the World. As the road trip is an American institution, you won’t be surprised to find that there are 41 American road trips highlighted in this book.
If you are looking for a more of the best American road trips, Lonely Planet also publishes a book called USA’s Best Trips – 52 Amazing Road Trips.