In Wallace’s short one year of life, he’s been on a total of four road trips. Counting there-and-back, that’s eight long car rides for our little buddy. Two of those were to Lake Tahoe (about 4.5 hours nonstop) and two were to Las Vegas (about 9.5 hours nonstop) to visit family.
And every single time, I am a nervous damn wreck for days beforehand, sure that he’s going to have an epic meltdown the whole way. That may be because on our very first road trip ever when he was 3 months old, he did have an epic meltdown almost the entire drive home from Tahoe. So, PTSD is real.
But, since then, we’ve become unofficial pros at traveling via car with a baby (#humblebrag). It’s certainly not the leisurely road trips we used to take with just us two and our dog, but we do have some hacks that make it more enjoyable and less stressful than your average road trip with little ones.
For younger babies, it might even be every 1.5 to 2.5 hours to feed them, so just prepare for a much slower journey than anticipated. This is why, for our long drives, we leave EARLY—like wake up at 4am and leave by 5—so we have plenty of time for breaks along the way and we can get to our destination before it’s dark out.
It might seem excessive to stop so much, but it’s actually recommended to get baby out of their carseat every few hours anyway. Even for quick gas stops, we let him get out and crawl around/play in the backseat for about 10 minutes before strapping back in and heading on our way.
You can just use Google Maps and search along the route or in a town you know you’ll want to stop at for parks, and be sure to check the reviews to make sure it’s fairly nice and in a safe area. (Seriously, what did people do before Google Maps?!) I don’t think this is totally necessary for shorter road trips (probably 5 hours or less), but for longer ones, a park can be a godsend for everyone to stretch out and just get outside (not at a gas station) for 20 or 30 minutes.
Even when Wal was super tiny and not mobile, we would stop at a park in Bakersfield (the halfway point between our home and Las Vegas, about 5 hours into the drive), put down a blanket in the grass, enjoy a snack, stretch our legs, and let our dog run around for a little bit. And now that he’s crawling, he loves getting to be outside and move around even if it’s short.
Does it slow down your trip progress? Sure, but it’s completely worth it for boosting morale for everyone when you get back in the car. This is probably my BIGGEST tip for smooth, long road trips.
John used to be the sole road trip driver in our relationship pre-baby, which I was cool with because I could read or play music. But now we switch off driving after each stop so that we can have a mental break from entertaining the baby, and it makes the drive go SO MUCH faster. It’s a way to change up your scenery and responsibilities every couple of hours.
We have a rule to not stop for meals on long road trips because it often takes too long and is too much of a hassle. (Plus we just don’t want to deal with COVID and on-the-go restaurants in random towns with a baby right now.)
Instead, we’ll pack breakfast bars, fruit, sandwiches, jerky, nuts, etc. for us and pouches, fruit, PB toast, hard boiled eggs, cheerios, string cheese, etc. for Wally. Basically, any semi-non-messy finger food that we can eat in the car. We usually bring a cooler bag for cold items and a grocery sack for everything else.
It’s more to prep ahead of time but saves so much energy and time on the road not having to stop for food. Plus, sharing meals and snacks on the road is actually a great way to pass the time with a baby, to be honest!
(The only exception to the rule is stopping for coffee. We always have time to swing by a Starbucks after a gas stop… duh.)
Even if the diaper isn’t super full, and even if you don’t have to “go.” There’s nothing worse than getting the sudden urge to pee 45 minutes after you just stopped when the next stop is an hour-plus away. And, if baby has a big dirty diaper, it’s less likely to blow out if they just got a fresh one. Just sayin’.
We made the mistake on our first long drive to Las Vegas to stop and stay overnight at the halfway point. All in all, the drive takes about 11 hours (with stops) if we do it in one day, which sounded insurmountable with a baby and dog without an overnight break.
But… when you think about unloading the whole car, setting up a portable crib, figuring out meals in a hotel with a baby, coordinating other kids (or in our case a dog), and then reloading everyone and everything the next morning—it’s SO much more work than just getting the drive done in one day with lots of stops.
We also happened to book a terrible hotel that smelled like cigarettes and had about 100 people in the lobby during COVID (anxiety central), and then when we switched hotels (after paying full price for BOTH), the second one didn’t have a clean crib for us. So it was the worst-case scenario, but even without all of that, I wouldn’t do it again.
Obviously if your trip is more than a day’s worth, then you’ll need to stop overnight. But if it’s 12 hours or less with stops, I say go for it in one day.
Novelty is key when traveling with babies. We always pack a little Montessori activity book that he only gets on road trips, and then a few other fun car toys. He likes these things called Whirly Squigz that you can stick to windows and spin. And he’s also at an age that flipping through board books can entertain him for a solid amount of time.
We have an iPad and aren’t opposed to turning on cartoons, but he just doesn’t seem to care about them yet so toys and books it is for now. And, don’t underestimate the power of random things to play with like an empty plastic water bottle or a mint container to shake.
Not gonna lie, Wally’s naps aren’t great on the road (we’re talking 30-40 minutes average in comparison to his usual 1.5 hour+ at home), but at least he takes them. Having a portable white noise machine and sticky window covers to help make it a more dark, sleep-appropriate environment definitely helps.
Wally switched to formula around 10 months old and so we just pack a few bottles in the diaper bag with formula powder portioned out. Gas stations and coffee shops should both be able to provide hot filtered water if your baby only takes warm bottles, or just use bottled water if they don’t care about the temp. When I was still nursing, I’d just feed him every time we stopped for gas/breaks along the way.
You’ll want to keep a change of baby’s clothes, bottles/formula (or other feeding necessities), diapers/wipes, hand sanitizer, a big blanket (for parks), a small blanket (if it’s cool for baby to snuggle or nap with), toys/books, snacks/drinks (for everyone), and a sound machine handy so you don’t have to dig through suitcases for anything you need.
This is more of a mindset thing. After our first nightmare roadtrip with Wally, I was like: NEVER AGAIN. It was terrible, and I felt terrible that he felt terrible and cried basically the whole way home. But… if you’re stopping often and feeding and changing them, they are more than well taken care of, and over time, they do get used to being in the car.
You might have some rough moments or nap refusal or tears shed (from any one of you), for sure, but like anything else in life, practice and exposure make it smoother the more you do something. You’ll find your own groove and places to stop. And if things are going south, there’s nothing wrong with making an impromptu stop to get out, take some deep breaths, and recenter before starting again.
I mean, pretty easy, right?… Okay, maybe not easy, but I swear by these tips because they’ve made the process of road-tripping with a baby so much smoother and more joyful for us.
Every one of us actually enjoys the journey rather than feeling trapped or rushed (which is saying something for this gal who isn’t the most patient traveler in the world). I hope this helps you on your future adventures!
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