Our son logged more miles in the car his first few months of life than I can even begin to count. I’ll thank our family and friends all over the eastern part of the United States for that! For us, long car rides with a baby came in 3 stages with a lot of learning along the way. Below is a rundown of our experiences and our favorite tips and products that helped us through it.
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The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Our Experience on Baby Road Tripping
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. There are still road trips that our son screams his head off in the car, trips that he’s a perfect angel and everything in between. But like most of parenting, while it’s not always easy, the end destination is always worth it.
The First 6 months, and especially the first 3 months, were the easiest for long car rides with a baby. Babies are usually napping often at this age, and the car was the perfect thing to lull my son to sleep. For us, it was essentially just sleep, eat and repeat, with him waking up to nurse or take a bottle and then fitting in a little playtime in between. We were lucky in that pretty much the only time he cried (and I mean really cried) at this stage was when he was hungry and we couldn’t find a rest stop fast enough. It was also fairly easy to make stops since we always put our son’s car seat in a stroller frame to wheel him inside at this stage. We have the Baby Trend Snap N Go Universal Car Seat Carrier that’s inexpensive, folds almost flat and is super lightweight. It was a lifesaver for us during road trips and flights in those first months, and it was especially critical for me on those solo trips.
We had a few survival products at this stage, including a toy that’s multifaceted like the Infantino Ga Ga Playtime Pal. We could clip it on to the side of our son’s car seat so he couldn’t drop it or give it to him to hold for comfort. It also has rings, a teether, a mirror, a rattle as well as multiple sounds and textures. We also loved the Wubbanub Pacifier. Even if you’re thinking, “my baby never takes a pacifier, why would I bring one on a road trip??” Do it. Our son never had an interest in a pacifier, and the only time he ever took one was when we were in the car and had to give him something to distract him from the fact that he couldn’t get milk as quickly as he wanted. This was especially critical when we were driving in the middle of nowhere Indiana from Omaha with a newborn and a rest stop we were counting on was shut down, causing us to have to wait an additional 45 minutes than planned. They also love looking at themselves at this stage so the car mirror (which I’ll get to more later) is also entertainment in itself.
6-12 Months was a total wild card for us with long road trips, and I found our son to be the most difficult in the car at this time. I’m not sure if it was the fact that he endured one too many trips on the commute too and from downtown Pittsburgh to daycare, or that he was becoming much more mobile, but there were definitely more tears than smiles in the car at this stage. It didn’t stop us from taking a bunch of road trips, we just had to use a lot of trial and error to figure out what worked (which often varied from day to day.) Sometimes singing calmed him down; sometimes it made him cry. Sometimes sitting in the back helped if my husband was driving; sometimes it made him cry because he wanted me to get him out and hold him. Sometimes a new toy would distract him, sometimes he would drop it right away (and you guessed it… it would make him cry.) I say this not to discourage you but to make sure you know you’re not alone if your baby hates the car seat during these months!
During this stage, our son was always was chewing on something, especially in the car. We typically had an army of teething toys on hand with us so we could provide one as back up each time he threw one on the floor. Our favorites were the Nubby Chewy Rings since they were easy and fun to grip in the car, and our son also loves his Chicken Wing Appeteether and Banana Toothbrush Teether to this day. The Happy Baby Teething Wafers were also great since they were large, easy to hold and safe to eat since they essentially dissolve in their mouth.
12+ Months actually started to get easier in the car for us as our son was entering the toddler years. I think it was partially because he was getting used to the car but also because he a.) was better at entertaining himself in the car and b.) he was finally tall enough to see outside the window and actually take in everything as we were driving by. Once our little guy went to one nap a day around 14 months, we found the easiest time to leave was during his nap time if we could make it work with our schedule.
At this stage (and pretty much all facets of toddler-hood) we also found that snacks and entertainment go a long way to keep him busy. We started giving our son a small snack like cheerios in a Munchkin Snack Catcher cup if we were driving around snack time. (I realize not everyone likes to have their kid eat in the car, but a clean car is just one of many sacrifices I chose to make!) Once a little guy could actually see out the window and was more aware of everything outside of the car, I also found it easier to talk to him about what we were seeing outside of the car, whether it was trees, trucks or buildings. His current favorite is searching for trucks and those big yellow buses. We also began using our Kindle Fire in small doses, with previously downloaded shows and this rubber case to protect it from his chubby, accident-prone little hands. Even to this day, we usually only pull the Kindle out if nothing else is working since I’m a little weary of having it on for the entire car ride. Warning: Tread lightly with watching videos in the car, since your baby could start showing signs of car sickness when you introduce a device in the car. We found out the hard way (twice) that ice cream, winding roads and watching shows in the car do not mix. You can bet we won’t be testing it out a third time to see if it’s a trend. I don’t know if our car seat would survive it!
5 Must Have Products for Any Car Ride with a Baby
Regardless of your baby’s age, here are some items we swear by for surviving those long drives. For any Moms to be out there, I definitely recommend planning ahead and considering these for your baby registry. (Click on the images below to view each product on Amazon.com.)
- Baby Mirror. This is critical for safety and peace of mind for car rides of any length so you can still clearly see your baby while he or she is rear facing. I rely on the mirror the most when I’m driving solo on long car trips with my son, so I can check to see if he’s sleeping, crying or throwing his toy for the millionth time without having a co-pilot to help. We have the Baby & Mom Backseat Car Mirror and love that it’s big enough to see the baby’s entire body, and it’s easy to install and adjust when needed.
- Car sun shades. Our son HATES the sun in his eyes so this is critical for us. While our newer car came with sun shades, we also have the Brica 2 Piece White Hot Safety Shade and like that they retract easily and fit my specific car windows very well. Every car is different, so make sure you check the dimensions to ensure you’re getting adequate coverage for your window size.
- Small cooler for bottles and/or snacks. We bought the PackIt Freezable Lunch Bag after it was recommended by a friend and have brought it everywhere with us ever since. It freezes and can keep the contents cold without a separate freezer pack, and it easily folds up when you’re not using it. It’s the perfect size to keep a couple bottles and snacks cold for that long car ride.
- Light blanket. Whether in the car or just pushing the stroller, we almost always had a thin muslin blanket on our son’s lap to make sure he was comfortable and also had something to grab onto for comfort. Having something to hold on to especially helped to calm our son down when he was upset about those extra long car rides. We love the Aiden and Ainis Muslin Blankets because they serve so many purposes and are light, breathable and easy to pack. Target also sells a similar, less expensive, version by Cloud Island that we’ve used as well.
- Hands-free diaper bag with changing pad. This probably seems too obvious, but the hands free part is key when making those pit stops while juggling a baby. I have both the Skip Hop Chelsea Downtown Satchel Diaper Bag (although sadly the champagne color I have is discontinued) and Skip Hop Diaper Bag Backpack. I tend to use the first one for every day or when I’m traveling solo with my son, since it could pass for a cute tote bag and the strap is long enough that I can wear it messenger style and be completely hands free, which is crucial for those pit stops. I tend to use the diaper backpack for travel with my husband so we can easily swap back and forth and be completely hands free. Skip Hop diaper bags are my favorite for the style and multiple pockets. Plus the changing pads they come with easily velcro shut and can be be washed after multiple uses on those dirty roadside changing tables.
And Finally… Road Trip Tips to Remember for Long Car Rides with a Baby
Tip #1: Accept that each car trip with a baby is going to take you longer. I typically estimate about a 30 minute stop for every 2.5 hours of driving. There have been times, however, that I stopped every 2 hours or more when my son was in that 6-12 month stage and made road trips pretty difficult. Give yourself plenty of time to get to your destination safely and on time.
Tip #2: Pack as much in the car as you can the night before your road trip with a baby. Whether I’m leaving at 5am or 5pm, I always do this to minimize stress the day we’re leaving for our trip. Ideally I try to have everything in there but the diaper bag and cooler, since there are times that just getting out the door is a feat in itself and the last thing you want to do is to have to jam a week’s worth of stuff into your car while trying to hold that sweet little babe.
Tip #3: Try to sync up long drives with your baby’s sleeping schedule. In those first months, leaving early in the morning typically worked best since our son was taking several naps and would fall back asleep in the car. As he got a little older and was taking one long nap, being able to leave around his nap time was a lifesaver for us. For the longest drives, we will even split them up. This means doing half of the drive nap time, taking a couple hour break for him to play and run around and reconvening the drive around his bedtime (with PJs on and his Nittany lovey in hand) so he falls back asleep. For those moms or dads to be, I don’t want to give you a false impression; not every baby likes to sleep in the car. We were lucky but keep in mind you might need try out different times to get this right.
Tip #4: Stay focused on the road. It’s easy to get distracted when you’re battling traffic or a thunderstorm (or let’s face it, even a quiet and empty road) when you have a baby in the back that’s crying, whining or dropped his toy for the hundred millionth time. As a multi-tasker at heart, it’s tough for me not to feel like I’m super woman and can focus on the road while simultaneously singing to my son and picking up that sippy cup I swear he tried to throw at me. I’m constantly having to remind myself of this and will often stop to pull over in a safe spot if I need to check on something for peace of mind, versus trying to do it all from the driver’s seat.
Tip #5 Make sure you can access an open seat in the car during long drivers with a baby. When driving for long periods of time, I’ve found that the car often becomes ground zero for anything you need to do to take care of the baby. I always try to leave the backseat next to my son open, or if I need to put something there, I make sure it’s something that can be easily moved. I can’t even count how many diaper blowouts he had those first months of travel, and the last thing I wanted to do was have to change myself as well after getting dirty from carrying him inside. (A lesson I learn the hard way when I was driving across the state solo and jammed the car so full of stuff I had to do just that.) As a former breastfeeding Momma, I typically felt more comfortable nursing from my car with it parked in the corner of the parking lot (doors locked and air conditioning/heat on!) versus finding a spot inside. My son also ate like a velociraptor from the day he was born, so breastfeeding in public was pretty much out of the question for us. This is totally a matter of personal preference, but I admire anyone who can do it!
Tip #6: Be aware of where the rest stops are in case you for those frequent stops on a long car ride with a baby. If you have a navigation or app that shows where the rest stops are, use it! This is super helpful to know if you should make that stop along the road or wait it out for the next one. And if there isn’t a rest stop near by and you have to stop, many toll roads and major highways have emergency rest stops. I found these to be super helpful when I was driving by myself and my little guy was hysterical so I had to stop to check on him so either comfort him, feed him or change his diaper (hence, why the prior tip on leaving an open car seat comes in handy!)
Tip #7: Try to bring reinforcements when you’re tackling a long car ride with a baby, and drive with another adult if you can. While I’ve probably done as many road trips with my son solo as I have with someone else, for the obvious reasons it’s easier to have back up to split up at rest stops if needed and check on the baby periodically if you’re both in the front seat. If driving with someone else, stops are much easier so you can split up to use the restroom, grab something to eat, etc. I’ve probably taken as many road trips solo as I have with someone else, so for this reason I like doing as much as I can in the car as mentioned above.
Tip #8 Ziplock bags are your friend on outing with a baby. Use them for soiled close, snacks, trash that you don’t want stinking up the car. I never leave the house without them whether I’m road tripping or not!
Like most things when it comes to raising a baby, a little trial and error, a lot of Starbucks and a ton of patience will go a long way when doing a long road trip with a baby. For a while there we were the family that loved to go everywhere with a baby that seemed to hate the car, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I still get nervous doing long drives by myself with my son to this day, but we always seem to get through it with a lot more ease than anything I could have conjured in my head.
Please share in the comments if you have any additional tips that you find helpful for long car rides with a baby.
Children’s Book Inspiration: On the Go by Tad Carpenter
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