Parked on the shoulder of the freeway under a sign reading “Madison 171 miles”, my husband and I took turns wiping up the puke running down the front of our toddler’s shirt (while occasionally dry-heaving from the smell). Between her ear piercing screams and our dog barking from all the commotion, we could barely hear the semi trucks soaring past us. She was completely exhausted after a fun weekend keeping up with her two big boy cousins, and after two hours in the car, she decided she had enough. Our usual calming tactics had been useless – she was screaming so intensely (and angrily) that she forcefully coughed, causing her easily triggered gag reflex to eject her lunch onto her lap. We still had 3 hours ahead of us. I’m not going to lie… there was a moment of weakness where I considered putting up my thumb and hitching a ride back to Madison leaving my husband to deal with the mess. By the look in his eye, I’m pretty sure the same thing also crossed his mind more than once!
We have been making this 4-hour (often turning into 5 or 6-hour) jaunt up north to visit family and friends since we moved to Madison when our daughter was about 6 months old. Even as an infant, our little one has never been a car sleeper so I have had to pull out many tricks to get her through the long drives over the past 3 1/2 years. Though most of our trips go pretty smoothly now, we do have a handful of horror stories (like the one I highlighted above) that left us kissing our garage floor when we FINALLY made it home!
What I have learned from doing this drive so often is to be prepared for anything. In order to do this, there are 5 categories I make sure to cover when packing for a road-trip with our toddler that will hopefully be helpful in making your summer road trip go more smoothly!
- Create a comfortable temperature in the vehicle before you leave. If it is hot out, let the air conditioning run a few minutes before getting into the car – sweaty/damp clothes will become cold and uncomfortable as the AC cools and an uncomfortable toddler is an angry toddler!
- Dress your toddler in light, comfortable clothes. If you need to have them dressed nicely for an event at your final destination, stop at a gas station or wayside as you near the end of your trip to change.
- Let your child bring their special blanket and favorite stuffed toy for emotional comfort as well!
- Try to plan the road trip around your toddler’s schedule. Over the course of our many trips up north we have experimented with leaving at a variety of times ranging from the crack of dawn to late at night. For us, scheduling our drive to overlap the majority of her nap works best. We have learned that every minute of sleep she can get on the way immeasurably helps all of us get through the long ride!
- Put your child to bed on time the night before you plan to hit the road! An overly tired toddler can make the long drive a nightmare!
- Toddlers lose interest quickly! To keep my daughter entertained, she helps me pack a bag full of entertaining items that have evolved from rattles and mirrors to books and games on the iPad. The key is variety!
- Get creative! Sticker books, an etch a sketch, crayons and notebooks can be very entertaining and boost creativity!
- Tablets (in moderation) are amazing when it comes to occupying a toddler! If you have a tablet, make sure it is fully charged and loaded with their favorite games or movies. I often put a new game on before our trip to surprise our toddler and keep her busy.
- Have a playlist of your toddler’s favorite songs ready to go! Sing-a-longs can be a fun way to help pass the time!
- Make up games as you go! For example, we play a game with our daughter where we choose a color and see how many things she can spot outside the vehicle that match that color. We have even started having her point out certain letters that she knows on signs.
Food and Water
- Snacks are a must have for a long drive! I pack a variety of snacks in a baby food freezer tray – my daughter loves the variety and being able to hold the tray herself.
- Since stopping for meals adds so much time to the trip, I pack a lunch to make our stops quick bathroom breaks instead of drawn out meals that add unnecessary hours to the trip.
- Don’t pack sugary snacks that will make your toddler antsy – the restriction of the car seat will just make them frustrated when all that sugar sets in!
- Bring a bottle for water… not juice. Having water will keep them hydrated but won’t make them want to chug down the whole thing in turn reducing the number of stops for bathroom breaks. Stopping too many times makes getting back in the car more difficult for tired and antsy toddlers!
- When there are snacks, wipes are a necessity! Have a full pack of wipes handy to clean those little hands and faces! Also, have a grocery bag within reach to throw those wipes and other garbage in.
- I always keep puke bags within reach and a hand towel in the car for when those inevitable dreaded tummy aches creep up out of nowhere. Trust me, when the time comes, you’ll be glad you have them!
Unfortunately, even when I am completely prepared for those long drives, there are trips that still just go bad. So, the next time you are having one of those dreaded trips where your toddler has squeezed out her apple sauce pouch rubbing it all over her body and the toys you pass back to her suddenly come flying into the back of your head, take a deep breath, turn up the music and go to your happy place. Remind yourself that in the grand scheme of things, this drive is just a few hours of your life and it, too, shall pass. You’ll get through it and the memories made at your destination (and the story you’ll have from your journey) will make it worth all the stress in the end!