Road Trip with a Toddler Survival Tips

Road Trip with a Toddler Survival Tips

I’ll admit, survival does sound a bit melodramatic. However, those who have ever road tripped with a toddler know that they can be really good or really bad. Over the last 5 months, we have logged around 80 hours in the car with Rosalie as we have gone on various road trips. I’m happy to say that most of those trips have gone smoothly! And for those trips that haven’t gone well, we’ve learned what not to do. Now, I’m here to share what we’ve picked up with you.

You Know Your Child

First off, let me say that what may work for one kid may not work for the next one (and what works one day for your kid may not work the next day). The information I’m giving you here is to be used as a general guideline that you can take and mold it to your child’s needs. It also may take some experimenting. But, don’t put off going on a road trip because you are worried about how your child will do. Just like anything in life, there is a learning curve, but it’s usually not as bad as you think it is going to be.

With that in mind, do a quick brainstorm to think through what your child likes to do when at home and how you can incorporate that into your car ride. Are there certain toys they gravitate towards? If they are small enough and don’t make a big mess, there isn’t any reason you can’t bring one or two along. Do they like to play outside? If so, use a pit stop at a park as a motivator. Are there any snacks that they only get on a special occasion? They can serve as a great distraction on a road trip. There are numerous ways for you to take the familiar and favorites on the road. So with those in mind, it is time to pack!

Pack for the Worst

What you pack for your child may make or break the trip. Again, melodramatic, but who wants to listen to a toddler screaming in the back seat because they are sick of being in the car (after 30 minutes) and have nothing to distract them? No one wants that. So, let’s brainstorm how to avoid that.

Start with a bag

We purchased a toddler size backpack for Rosalie on her second birthday because we felt it was important that she learned how to pack and carry her own stuff. We have found she is excited and eager to wear her backpack because it has her favorite things in it. It also makes her feel grown up. Given, there are times when she decides she’s had enough or when the bag gets a little too heavy. And that’s ok. It’s more about teaching her early about how to help out when we travel.

What’s Inside?

Here is what we have discovered, if I give Rosalie a little say in what she wants to bring, she is then able to ask for what she wants in the car. A favorite book? Definitely! Her cuddle buddy Teddy? Yes, please. Her giant marble run toy? Not going to happen. Remember, your kid is going to be carrying their bag, so you can explain and let them experience that what they are bringing doesn’t fit or is too heavy. Usually that helps you win the argument.

From there I pack some of our go to items. We love our Water Wow books, which keep Rosalie entertained for hours because she feels like she is painting, but is mess free! There are various kinds of magnet boards that gives some imaginative play while the parts stay hooked together. Stickers of any sort can keep Rosalie entertained for a long time, and sticker books for even longer. We also love coloring books and crayons because they are inexpensive and easy to find in whatever your kid is interested in.

I am also a fan of the dollar aisle, specifically at Target. Each time I go, I walk through to see if there is anything that pops out at me. I tend to gravitate towards the educational section. For instance, on one visit, I picked up a deck of animal flashcards, which I knew Rosalie would love, because she enjoys learning about animals. Wanting to avoid the mess of having 60 cards being thrown around my car, I punched a hole in the top of each one, and inserted a binder ring. Now Rosalie has a flip book of cute creatures. It’s all about being creative with what you already have, and finding simple ways to make time passing activities.



After entertainment, I think snacks is the next on our importance list. No one, I repeat, no one enjoys dealing with a hangry toddler. We always make sure to have ample amounts of snackage on hand. Again, this is where you know your kid’s preferences and can plan accordingly. For drinks, we put water in a water bottle and milk in a 360 sippy cup, which are both are leak proof in case they get launched during a grumpy moment. The milk is kept in the cooler with the rest of our food, and brought out when we reach our destination and serves as motivation (for reasons that will be explained below). I also like to keep a container with some sort of all fruit/veg smoothie in our cooler for pit stops. Because, let’s face it, road tripping doesn’t always have the healthiest of food options and it’s nice to have something with good vitamins.

When on the road, we are all about simple snacking. I fill up Rosalie’s snack catcher cups with some sort of crunchy snack; goldfish crackers, cereal, teddy grahams, or veggie straws. These are kept in my arms reach so they can be handed back when needed. Some other road trip favorites also include applesauce pouches, bananas, Larabars, crasins or raisins, and fruit leather. When we are really in need of a distraction, we pull out something sweeter; fruit snacks, dum dums, or smarties.

Keep it Clean

To go along with snacking, stopping to eat, or any messes for that matter, I have found that it is essential for us to have hand sanitizer, anti-bacterial wipes, and baby wipes tucked right next to Rosalie’s carseat. I’m sure you can guess why. We also are huge fans of our silicone place mat and foldable silicone bib. They get folded together in the pocket of the bib and are brought out when we go out to eat, picnic, as well as using them to avoid extra messes while snacking in the car. Our favorite part? They clean up with a wipe and are ready for the next meal.

Wear Them Out

There are few things more annoying for a toddler than being stuck in one place when they have a lot of energy. I get it. I feel the same way. So before you leave, take care of that problem by wearing them out! I like to take Rosie on a long walk, go swimming, or a playground. Or even just keep her up an hour or two passed her usual nap time. This is all with the hope that she will be worn out enough to sleep when we finally get going.

With that in mind, we also try to schedule our driving to be around the time when Rosalie naps. If she is able to sleep through two to three hours of the drive, it is a much more enjoyable experience for everyone. And gives Kyle and I a chance to talk, listen to podcasts or audio books, or to also catch some zzz’s.

Musical Distractions

Since Rosalie was born, she has loved music. At a day old, we played The Piano Guys for her, and she calmed down to listen. To this day, when she has a hard time settling down to go to sleep, we sing with her. She LOVES music, which makes it a great tool for us to distract her in the car.

DJ Rosie

This summer I started creating a playlist for her on my phone with all of her favorite songs. One day when she was having a rough time, I handed her my phone and let her choose what she wanted to listen to. It worked like a charm. She spent the next HOUR happily being the DJ for our car ride.

I’m not going to lie, we have listened to Moana and Trolls soundtracks so much that Kyle and I know all the words and have started making up our own. And sometimes I think that if I hear the ABC’s or If You’re Happy and You Know It one more time I might scream. But… as long as it isn’t Rosalie screaming, I’ll deal with it.

Make Your Own Music

Another alternative is to make your own music! There are many children’s songs that include actions, which help to get those little bodies moving a bit. Rosalie’s favorites are: Do as I’m Doing, Itsy Bitsy Spider, Popcorn Popping on the Apricot Tree, The Wheels on the Bus Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and Five Little Monkey’s Swinging in a Tree. This last trip, I pulled out egg shakers from my dance teacher bag and brought some along. They added at least an extra 15 minutes of entertainment, which is a lot from a toddler’s attention span.

Tablets for the Win

I can remember my parents strapping a full sized TV with a DVD player onto the center console of our Suburban in an attempt to give the five of us kids something to entertain us during road trips. Thank goodness there is now a brilliant invention which can give that entertainment, and more, but in a fraction of the space (and weight). I try to have a couple movies on our family iPad for Rosalie. If I know we are going on a particularly long trip, I will try to surprise her with a show she likes, but we may not own yet. These can be purchased from the iTunes store, but it is also possible to download shows off of Netflix so they can be watched when away from WiFi.

Because tablets can do so much more than just play movies, I also add on some apps. I prefer apps that are not obnoxiously noisy, but are interactive and fun for Rosalie. Rosalie is really into learning about animals so she loves the Peekaboo series (Wild, Forest, and Barn) and Peek-a-Zoo Underwater. Most have a trial app, but require a purchase to use the full version. We tried all of these out with the free version first, and loved them enough to upgrade.

Car Sickness

When we were kids, Kyle and I would both get horribly carsick. Unfortunately, Rosalie takes after her parents. We have already mentioned here that Dramamine is our saving grace in particularly winding roads. About a half an hour before we leave, we give half a tablet to her with a few smarties to disguise it. It has worked like a charm. Just in case, we always have several plastic cups in the car because I’ve used my hands too many times. Oh the things we do for our kids…

In our Road Trip to the Great Smoky Mountains video, you probably saw that despite Rosalie having taken Dramamine, she still got carsick. Allow me to explain why, because it may help if you are having a similar problem. Rosie has a hard time keeping dairy products down if she has them right before getting in the car. So we have to carefully plan our meals before and during a drive. It took a while to figure this out. During last summer’s travels there were four separate trips where Rosalie threw up all over herself and her car seat. By the fourth one, I was trying to find something that connected all of them and realized that her morning milk, or breakfast of yogurt did not play well with car rides. Once we figured that out, our rides went much smoother. However, on our road trip, we thought since it was only a twenty minute drive she would be ok to have cereal at breakfast. Now we know, even a short winding driving can cause problems.

Planned (and Unplanned) Breaks

After all the distracting and pacifying, it is important to take breaks from the car. We know that Rosalie can make it about three or four hours before she needs a good stretch. So we try to plan our meals, gas stops, and bathroom breaks around her. Before we leave, we have already looked at a map and decided that we will try to make it to a certain location before we have to stop. Sometimes it is a park with a playground, or a short hike, but most of the time it’s a rest stop or a gas station. When we arrive, we will pull her out of the car seat and get moving. We play games, jump, have a dance party, or race. Anything that will get her body (and ours) moving is good.

But sometimes plans don’t work out. If you are to the point in your drive where a break is necessary, don’t force your plan. It’s not going to make anyone happy. Look for a fast food place with a playground. A nearby park. A scenic overlook. A nature walk. Anything that will act as a distraction from what is happening in the car. It’s amazing what 10 minutes out of the car can do.

Be Strategic and Patient

I think it’s pretty obvious that with any of the things I’ve listed, it’s important to be strategic with what you do. Unfortunately (and fortunately), your child still has their own personality and ability to react how they want, despite all of your preparation. That said, I love the quote, “Luck favors the prepared.” from The Incredibles. So, prepare as much as you can, plan, and be strategic and hopefully that will bring you success. But when none of your tricks seem to be working, just be patient. Remember that it is hard for a child to be stuck in one place, in one position for too long. Take a deep breath. come up with a new plan, and think to yourself… You got this!