Road trips with my toddler are not my idea of a fun time. I am blessed with a rather spirited child who loathes being strapped into anything, particularly car seats. Many people we know think that our frequent air travel internationally with our toddler translates into a road trip back in the States being a piece of cake.
I wish that were true! But travel by air is a completely different ball game than traveling by car. On a plane Veda can roam around the aisles, snuggle up comfortably in my lap and fall asleep there breastfeeding, and there’s lots of new people and little kids for her to engage with. Although we have flown on over 24 hour trips including 16 hour flight with our little one without many melt downs, Veda’s patience level on a road trip strapped down in her car seat is about half an hour, tops.
Yet, we do hit the road frequently with Miss Strong-Willed. Whether it’s driving four hours from the Johannesburg airport to where we stay in Ladybrand, South Africa, or driving four hours from Chicago to visit my family in Wisconsin, we have been subjected to the tyranny of a toddler in a car seat.
I know there are those of you out there with car riding saints for children, who will happily content themselves watching Dora the Explorer for hours on end on an Ipad, or will sleep for huge stretches on the road. I’m envious. For those of you with little ones like mine who detest being in car seats, here are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned to employ to at least take the edge off my toddler on road trips, and to keep her reasonably happy and engaged:
1) Plan to depart for road trips at nap time. Veda finds it difficult not to nod off in her car seat when she is very tired. The more time she spends sleeping in the car, the better-off everyone is and the less time I have to spend trying to think of ways to distract her from her misery. This is perhaps obvious, but we still sometimes forget to take this into account when we are planning to leave somewhere. Toddlers and babies can sleep quite soundly with the hum of an engine coasting on a highway. If Veda can sleep for half of a four hour trip, that significantly decreases everyone’s stress.
2) Plan on adding 1-2 hours extra to your destination for longer road trips. It’s inevitable that on a trip over 4-5 hours long you’ll have to stop the car- for gas, for a bathroom break, or to eat. What we’ve found is that if we let Veda out for a very short period of time (10-15 minutes) and strap her back in, she’s even more upset than she was before (think Incredible Hulk). If we can afford a longer stop, hopefully somewhere where she can run around and blow off some steam, she will be more amenable to getting back into car seat. Plus, sometimes we are able to time it to leave around nap time, drive for a long stretch, stop for food and a break for 1-2 hours, and it might be time for another nap once we get back on the road.
3) Sit in the back seat. I miss my husband when we’re on road trips together, way up there in the driver’s seat. If Veda is sleeping I usually crawl up to the front seat so we can enjoy some adult road trip fun (hey, this is g-rated- I meant conversation!). But, when Veda is awake I always sit in the back with her. She enjoys the company and seems to be calmer. Plus, it’s easier for me to play and interact with her sitting next to her rather than cranking my neck and upper body around for hours at end to engage with her from the front.
4) Bear the boobs. If you have a baby or toddler of any age that you still breastfeed, this is a magic bullet. Breastfeeding is a fabulous way, wherever you are, of providing instant calm and comfort to a baby or toddler. Often times, just leaning over the car seat and offering my breast can turn off the waterworks in a heartbeat.
5) Pump up the jams. Who doesn’t love music on road trips? Our last trip Veda was quite fond of Gwen Stefani. Although she usually enjoys the offerings of Elizabeth Mitchell and Frances England. At 18 months Veda is now into songs with movement, so she LOVES doing all the motions for Wheels on the Bus. We’ve found that teaching her songs like this that she can participate and engage with us in makes her infinitely happy, and can be a wonderful distraction from her strapped down state of being while she is happily rolling her fists.
6) Bring a variety of car-friendly toys. Finger puppets are fantastic for road trips, as is the Aquadoodle and good old-fashioned books. Check out my suggestions for travel-friendly toys for toddlers, which can apply to airplane or road travel. We recently bought a Kindle Fire and downloaded some educational videos and movies and children’s books with elephants (Veda’s favorite animal). My daughter is interested in it for about five minutes before she chucks it on the floor (glad I got the cheaper Kindle Fire rather than the Ipad). Although, I do know some kids can sit for hours entertained by an electronic gadget- that’s not my child!
7) Bring lots of finger food offerings. Sometimes older babies and toddlers get cranky because they’re hungry. We’ve learned that it’s very helpful to have a wide variety of easily accessible healthy snacks on road trips. That means it’s in the back seat, not packed in the trunk. Having a lot of variety is key to make sure there’s something in the arsenal that might tickle baby’s fancy. We like to bring along Dr. Sear’s Nibble Tray to provide to Veda. I’m not promising these are not messy- these are foods that my toddler often enjoys: berries, dehydrated/dried vegetables and fruit, dehydrated yogurt chips, bagel with light spread of cream cheese, hard boiled egg, cheese bits, quinoa, multi-grain cheerios, hummus and multi-grain pita chips, and fruit chews. Just make sure you have a variety of your baby’s favorites because, as you know, one day the child will eat only blueberries, and the next only cheerios.
8) Bring lots of patience and empathy. When the waterworks are in full effect, and none of the above can calm the tiny beast, just bear in mind that being in a car for long stretches at a time can be wearing on anyone, especially strapped down and unable to move much. As adults we’re able to temper our emotions, but a baby or toddler isn’t there yet. They’re just outwardly expressing what we might feel ourselves. Are we there yet? If your strong willed little one is beside him or herself, consider making an unplanned pit stop to run around, stretch everyone’s legs, have some cuddle time, and re-balance everyone’s equilibrium.