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

Family traveling by car

Tuomo Vainamo / Getty Images

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 refilling your coolant. If you don't feel like your car is capable of handling a long road trip, consider getting a rental.


Invest in 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.


Avoid Leaving Your Child in the Car

Child left alone in car

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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.


Fasten Your Child in Correctly

Child in Car Seat
Getty Images / KidStock

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, and bruises by keeping a first aid kit on hand. 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

High Angle View Of Toddler Sitting In Car
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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 we 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 Entertainment

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, using a DVD player can help pass some of the time on a road trip.

If you have a portable 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.​


Pack 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.


Avoid Panicking Over Tears

Crying in the car

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When your toddler starts to get weary of the ride and the tears 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 and Take Breaks

Father putting his toddler into carseat
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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.


Avoid Too Much Nighttime Driving

Takeaway coffee while driving in the morning
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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 refueling her car at a gas station
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Topping off the tank, having a hearty lunch, and heading out while your toddler is almost ready for a nap will most likely give you the most drive time. You can look forward to a good hour while your toddler is satiated and then a couple more calm hours as they sleep. By the time they wake up, you'll both be ready for a stop to fill up the tank, stretch, and grab 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

Pile of disposable nappies
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Keep 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

Father buckling toddler in car seat with a snack
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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 Essentials Handy

Using Wet Wipe to sanitize the Steering wheel
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It might seem like this goes without saying, but you might overlook throwing these things in the car until your toddler sneezes and has a half-mile-long river of snot dribbling down to their chin or the lid of the sunscreen bottle comes off, spilling the entire contents on the back seat. Let there be no shortage of cleaning materials on your trip.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Safety Council. Kids in Hot Cars.

  2. Durbin DR, Hoffman BD. Child passenger safety [policy statement]. Pediatrics. 2018;142(5):e20182460 doi:10.1542/peds.2018-2460

  3. Council on Communications and Media. Media and young mindsPediatrics. 2016;138(5):e20162591. doi:10.1542/peds.2016-2591

  4. National Safety Council. Drowsy Driving Is Impaired Driving.

By Stephanie Brown
Stephanie Brown is a parenting writer with experience in the Head Start program and in NAEYC accredited child care centers.