My husband’s family lives just shy of a 15-hour drive from us. We’ve always loved traveling to see them. Sure, it’s not super exciting being in the car that long, but it can be an adventure. You get to take in so many sights and see so many travelers. No two trips will ever be the same.
Two summers ago, we made the trip with our newborn. At just seven weeks old, it seemed crazy to some, but it was honestly seamless. I was still on maternity leave, and our little girl loved to sleep. And sleep. And sleep. We took stops for snacks, stops for our older daughter to stretch and scream, stops for the baby to eat and change diapers, and then, we’d be off again.
Fast-forward to last summer: Our baby was now 15 months old. It was, to put it mildly, rough. Calling it an adventure is akin to the way people call a horror movie a thrill, when really, it’s a nightmare.
We stopped CONSTANTLY. Our girls needed time to stretch. Our oldest just needed time away from her sister. The snacks we brought didn’t last. The toys we brought weren’t entertaining. No one cared about taking in the sights outside the car, because no one could think about anything other than the whining, crying toddler inside the car.
My husband and I were just about to book our summer stay for this year when we realized...we’ll be taking a trip with a two-year-old. Cue daunting thriller music.
We. Are. In. Trouble.
Time to call in the experts. Partnered with our experience, I think we can make this work. We now know a few things that should (fingers crossed) make this trip run a little smoother:
Get the car all packed, and check – and double-check – you have what you need. Then load your little ones in the car. They will (hopefully) fall back to sleep, and you can get a good head start on your trip. Plus, the lighter traffic will help you cover more miles. Just be prepared for a quick breakfast and bathroom stop when they wake up.
This seems like an obvious one, but think of how much goes into one day with your toddler. They say the average two-year-old has an attention span of five to eight minutes. Sure, sometimes they can be distracted by something and then go back to what they are doing, but still, that requires a LOT of activities.
The single best purchase we have ever made, in our life, were DVD players for our car. The set clips to the back of our seats and allows each of our girls to watch their own movie. Our oldest makes it through over half a dozen movies by the end of our trip, and our youngest watches “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” episodes on repeat.
Outside of movies? Toys, games, books, and more toys, games, and books. We pack a large beach bag with goodies and stash it on the floor between our girls. Every time someone gets a little bored or whiny, reach into the bag for a lifesaver. Want to draw something? Want to look at this book? (And stash some surprises in there. Nothing turns a frown upside-down like a new coloring book or a snack they don’t get to enjoy at home.)
Try to find travel-friendly toys and accessories. Snack cups help avoid messes and can help make sure your little one isn’t endlessly eating. A drawing board or dry erase board works much more efficiently than lots of floating crayons. It may even be worth it to invest in a travel tray, if you travel often. This can help kids keep toys contained and have a surface for play.
Don’t forget to make things convenient for you also. Keep baby wipes, tissues, and snacks within reach of your seat. You don’t want to pull over every 10 minutes to climb around in the back of the car.
Obviously, there are times you have to stop and fuel up or take a bathroom break that you didn’t plan. But try to set up a fun destination for lunch or dinner that your kids will enjoy. It may seem like it’s best to just plug away and get the travel part over with, but that’s guaranteed to make the trip worse for everyone.
Even if you’re just sitting in a fast-food booth, go inside and sit down and eat. Give the kids a chance to run around and get out of the car. Some people prefer to stop at parks to burn some energy, but I give that strategy mixed reviews. What kid is ever ready to leave the park when you are? And that’s after hours of playing.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend a whole afternoon at a park and then get back in the car for hours. (I also don’t want to listen to my kids for hours begging to go back to that park.) So while I fully embrace making stops, I definitely opt for pit stops and not mini-vacation stops.
On long car rides, we’ll often end up staying overnight somewhere. It’s worth finding a place with enough space to accommodate your family’s sleeping habits and other needs. Hotel rooms usually do not, unless you want to sleep in a big bed with all your children piled on top of you.
We are not a family that co-sleeps. We don’t even share a room with our little ones on vacation. But in a hotel – unless you want to spring for the executive suite – one room is what you get. This was so out of the ordinary for our toddler that she jumped on the bed and kept trying to run off the end of it. We couldn’t make a big enough barricade. The next morning, everyone was tired and grouchy. It made the last leg of our journey so much worse.
Another helpful tool on this trip would have been a mini overnight bag. It’s not fun to drag four giant suitcases into a hotel that you’re sleeping in for a few hours. All you need are the essentials: some toiletries, pajamas, and clothes for the next day.
Also, if your child has some kind of bedtime ritual, stick with it, no matter where you are. Bring that book you always read or the blanket she has to sleep with. It will help!
Above all, don’t lose out on great family adventures and lifelong memories because you assume it’ll be too difficult to get there. Plan well, and go.
It takes a village!
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