How to Take a Road Trip With Toddlers

The term "road trip" might be enough to make you wince, but what happens when you add a toddler to the equation? Contrary to popular belief, a long car ride with your toddler doesn't have to be a complete nightmare. Taking a road trip with a toddler in tow can be fun and a lot less expensive than air travel. Follow these tips to stay safe, make the most of your time on the road and keep your sanity intact.


Prepare Your Car for a Road Trip

Family traveling by car
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You're going to be spending a lot of time in the car, so it only makes sense that you'll want it to be in the best shape possible. A lot can happen on the road, so don't put it off. Don't wait until a downpour to find out that your windshield wipers need replacing, or until you're stranded on the side of the road with an overheated engine to refill your coolant. If you don't feel like your car is capable of handling a long road trip, consider getting a rental.


Make Sure You Have Roadside Assistance

Woman watching roadside mechanic check car engine
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Roadside assistance seems like an unnecessary expense... until you need it! Then it's worth every penny and then some. Before you purchase a standalone plan, check to see if you're covered. It could already be part of your auto insurance or cell phone plan. Wholesale clubs like Costco and Sam's offer roadside benefits as part of membership, too.

Make sure your plan covers the worst road trip nightmares, like a tow to a service station, a fix for a flat or an unlock if you leave your keys in the car. If you lock the keys inside the car with your child inside, don't rely on calling roadside assistance. Call 911. If it's hot outside don't think twice about breaking a window to get your child out.


Don't Leave Your Child Alone in the Car

Child left alone in car
Ekaterina Nosenko

We've all heard news stories about a child being left in a hot car alone and wondered, "What were those parents thinking?" It's another story entirely when your toddler is finally fast asleep, you're running on empty and you pull into a gas station where you can't pay at the pump.

Any number of circumstances can lead a parent to be tempted to briefly leave their child in the car, but it's better to be safe than sorry. It only takes a moment for someone to break in and take your child while you're taking an emergency bathroom break, and it only takes a little warmth to quickly heat your car to dangerous temperatures.


Get Your Toddler's Car Seat Inspected

Mum buckeling up toddler into car seat
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It's just as important to make sure your child's car seat is safe as it is to have your car inspected. A certified Child Passenger Safety Technician can check to make sure your seat is in good shape and is installed correctly.

The best part of this inspection is the free education you get with it. Your technician won't just be installing the seat and sending you on your way, but will actually teach you how to install it right every time and will even give you usage tips that go beyond the bare minimum required by law.


Put Your Child in Their Car Seat the Right Way

Child in Car Seat
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Once the car seat is inspected and properly installed you'll want to make sure you keep it that way. It might be tempting if you're the only adult on board to turn your child's car seat around so you can see what they're doing when it should be rear-facing. You might also want to put your child in the front seat so you can reach them and give them toys or snacks more easily.

As tempting as it might be, don't do it.

According to certified Child Passenger Safety Technician Heather Corley, "The most recent study shows that toddlers are up to five times safer if they remain rear-facing until age 2. Turning baby's car seat around isn't a milestone to rush on. It's actually a step down in safety, so don't be in a hurry to make the big switch."


Keep a First Aid Kit Handy

Woman packing first aid kit
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Be prepared for scraped knees, allergic reactions, sunburns, splinters, bumps, bites, stings, bruises... Shall I go on? Accidents do happen on the road, and it's best to be prepared for whatever might come your way, big or small. Before you go on your road trip it's also not a bad idea to brush up on your first aid and CPR skills if you haven't in a while.


Keep Toys Close

Toddlers learning to share toys
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While it may seem like your number one priority is to keep your child happy and entertained, if you're the driver, that can be a tall, unsafe order. Keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel by keeping toys, books, and snacks within easy reach of your toddler.

The more they can do themselves, the safer and happier you'll both be. There are a variety of backseat organizers, but I especially like those that fit right in right next to your toddler's car seat. An over-the-seat organizer can work, too, but if your toddler is properly strapped in they might not be able to reach it.​


Arm Yourself With More Than Just Toys

Children Watching Portable Television in MPV
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Toys and books will help pass the time and keep your toddler occupied, but at some point, those toys will lose their luster. Supplement with a supply of fun music CDs and be ready to do some singing yourself. If your car has satellite radio, don't forget the kid stations that add variety.

While your toddler's screen time should be extremely limited on a normal basis, I'm all for using a DVD player to pass some of the time on a road trip. If you've got a DVD player, put it to use and pick up something appropriate, fun and educational, like "That Baby DVD." Learn some new games and play those along the way, too.​


Don't Forget Blankies and Binkies

Child with binkie
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Road trips can be full of fun and excitement for your toddler, but there can also be moments of insecurity and stress. You're going to be away from all the comforts of home and spending quite a lot of time confined to the car instead of being active. Be ready for those trying times with a dose of comfort.

Keep binkies, blankies and other comforting objects close at hand and bring extras since your sanitation options are probably going to be limited. If you're planning on weaning from any comfort items or undertaking anything new close to trip time, like potty training or weaning from the breast or bottle, consider postponing until after you are home to maximize your child's chance of success.


Don't Panic Over Tears

Crying in the car
Tanya Little

When your toddler starts to get weary of the ride and the tears start -and believe me, they will start - the best thing to do is make a pit stop. If you're nowhere near a rest stop or safe place to pull over, do what you can to calm and reassure your toddler, but remember to stay focused on the road. Driving is your priority and if you become too distracted with trying to soothe your child, it could have dangerous consequences.

Remember that even though your child is crying, they are safe in their seat and no harm will come from waiting a few minutes until you can pull off the road and take a break. Try singing songs, playing soothing music on the radio, calling attention to things outside or offering a drink or snack to distract.


Split the Trip up and Take Plenty of Breaks

Mother applying lip balm to her daughter

When you're planning a trip on paper it makes perfect sense to minimize the time you spend in the car and speed right to your destination. After you've been on the road for about five hours, this becomes completely unrealistic. The whole trip will seem like a death wish around hour nine.

Save the long road trips for the days when your child is older. As long as you've got a toddler in tow, spread a trip over a few days. Choose cities on your route that have lodging and things to do during the day. Better yet, lodge in one city, wake up and travel for a few hours, then plan a stop along the way in a city with things to do, even if it's just a museum and lunch. Each break you take leads to a more peaceful time on the road. Take plenty of them.


Don't Do Too Much Nighttime Driving

Driving the car at night images

Just like you've heard you should zip straight to your destination, you've probably also heard you should postpone driving until your child's bedtime and then drive while they're asleep. This isn't a problem if your trip is only a few hours long and you'll be turning in at a decent hour, but if you plan on reaching your destination much later than your normal bedtime or beyond the few hours of energy that a venti mocha might afford, don't bother.

You are actually putting your life in danger by driving drowsy. Driving drowsy can be just as dangerous as driving drunk. Consider, too, that you'll be completely worthless the next day without enough sleep while your well-rested toddler will be raring to go, and that's no way to start a great vacation.


Have a Full Tank and a Full Stomach

Woman pumping gas
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I've found time and time again that topping off the tank, having a hearty lunch and heading out while my toddler is almost ready for a nap always gives me the most drive time. I can usually get a good hour in while my toddler is satiated and then a couple more calm hours as my child sleeps. By the time he wakes up, we're both ready for a stop to fill up the tank again and take in a stretch and a snack.

This is true not just for road trips, but on errand runs that don't require you to get out of the car or trips to a relative's house not too far away. Be sure you've got the potty situation under control to minimize possible awakening. Equip your toddler with a fresh diaper, or if potty trained, make sure they've gone to the bathroom.


Prepare for Potty Emergencies

A happy toddler sitting on a potty chair
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I can't say enough about keeping a complete arsenal of potty supplies at your disposal. You just never know. If your child isn't potty trained, keep plenty of diapers, wipes and a changing pad close at hand. If your child is transitioning into potty training, consider using disposable training pants just for the trip, even if your child normally wears underwear since there are no great solutions to a soiled car seat on the road.

Even if you feel your child is completely potty trained, you might find yourself nowhere near a bathroom. Consider bringing a travel potty or emergency disposable training pants for situations like this.


Have Plenty of Snacks and Water

Baby being fed porridge
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You'll want to make sure to keep enough water for you to cover drinks for everyone in an emergency situation and a little extra to help with things like cleaning up accidental messes. An excess of snack items, and plenty for you, too, is never a bad thing to have since even just a few bites of cereal or fruit can provide just the thing to dry up toddler tears and keep everyone from getting cranky.

Good picks include soft fruit, cereal, and crackers. Avoid giving too much juice and opt for water instead to avoid sticky spills and too much sugar. Carrying a small cooler on board will extend your snack options to items like yogurt and cheese.


Keep Wipes, Tissues and Paper Towels Handy

Mother wiping baby boys face
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It might seem like this goes without saying, but I can't tell you how many times I've overlooked throwing these things in the car. Of course, it never dawned on me until my toddler sneezed and had a half-mile-long river of snot dribbling down to his chin and the lid of the sunscreen bottle decided to come off and the entire contents spilled out onto the back seat. There was also the time my toddler chewed on his cuticle and I looked in the rearview mirror to find his entire face and neck covered with blood while he laughed. Moral of the story: Let there be no shortage of cleaning materials on your trip.

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