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Road trips with kiddos under the age of 3 are adventures in parenthood. This is especially true around the holidays, when seasonal stress can add a less-than-joyful layer to the experience. With a little planning, however, you can create an optimal—and dare we say it, jolly—environment for your tiny human, and this will ultimately make the experience more pleasant for you. Whether you’re driving a few hours to grandma’s house or embarking on a cross-country trip that’ll take you through a handful of states, here are some tips to help you evade those holiday road trip hiccups, and create a jollier journey by car with your little one.
Make sure your child’s car seat is up to code
Don’t neglect the basics. You want to make sure that your child’s car seat is installed correctly. Start with these tips from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. To further put the mind at ease, you might also enlist the help of a certified child passenger safety (CPS) technician in your area ahead of the trip. If you’re renting a car (look for car rental deals here), consider bringing your own child seat, both to avoid the additional $10–$15 per day charge, and to know what you’re getting in terms of condition, cleanliness, potential recalls, and overall safety.
Take a few “test drives” before the bigger drive
Before setting off on the big road trip, especially if it’s more than several hours, plan to take some shorter trips in the months leading up to it. This not only helps to acclimate your little one to being in the car for long stretches, but it will also help you learn and uncover some valuable pointers and strategies for the bigger journey.
Gear up your car
Make sure your car is prepared to make the trip—the oil has been changed recently, brakes are in good condition, any emergency lights that have remained on have been addressed, etc. You’ll also want to make sure that your car is stocked with items that will come in handy in case of an emergency: a spare tire, flares, tire jack, first aid kit, warm blanket, etc. Also don’t forget extra car chargers for your phones.
Mail those holiday gifts
Maximize space in the car. If possible, mail your gifts to your final destination, or place them in a secured cargo box atop the car.
If the GPS says it will take X number of hours to get from Point A to Point B, add at least one-third of that time to your total. Why? You’ll need to factor in stops for diaper changes, feedings, bathroom breaks, and the unexpected. Plus, most car seat manufacturers don’t recommend allowing babies and toddlers to be in the car seat for longer than 2 to 3 hours.
Bring a cozy outdoor blanket
Use stops as opportunities for you and your little one to play and expend some pent-up energy. Keep a giant blanket in the trunk of your car, and weather permitting, you can create a DIY play-space/mealtime area on the lawns of rest stops.
Prepare for in-car diaper changes
Want to avoid changing diapers inside a rest stop bathroom? Depending on your car and the climate in which you’re driving, the backseat or trunk area can serve as your mobile changing station. Make sure you’ve got the following stocked and accessible ahead of the trip: diapers, wipes, portable changing pad, hand sanitizer (for you), and little baggies to dispose of dirty diapers and wipes if there isn’t a trash can immediately available.
Bring sleep comforts from home
If your little one needs a sound machine, blankie, lovey, or something else to help with sleep, bring it. While the car seat is not a crib nor a bed, you can do what you can to help foster a comfortable, familiar sleep environment in it, even mirroring whatever before-sleep rituals you can while in the car. Timing road trips with naptime and bedtime is another consideration. Those mini trip “test drives” can be a great resource to learn what uniquely works best for your child.
Plan their meals ahead of time
Pack a portable cooler with pre-mixed bottles, baby food, bowls, spoons, bibs, burp cloths—whatever you might need for meals during your drive. Estimate the number of meals you’ll need, but pack a little extra, just in case.
Bring a portable bottle warmer
If your child takes bottles, this is one of the best investments you can make for those full-day drives. Instead of relying on hot water or microwaves at the nearest rest stop, you’ll have the freedom to warm bottles while on-the-go, whenever you need them.
Snacks, snacks, snacks
If your kiddo has moved onto solid food, having a robust and diverse supply of snacks is key. Cheerios, Goldfish crackers, puffs, squeezable yogurt or fruit pouches, cheese—whatever your go-to snacks are, have them hidden yet accessible to distribute.
Take steps to prevent car sickness
If you know that your baby or toddler has a history of carsickness, you should first check in with your pediatrician for advice. In general, however, kids who get carsick tend to do best with less sensory input, according to the Mayo Clinic. Avoid having them focus on close-up diversions like books, games or screens that cause the brain to receive conflicting information from the inner ears, eyes, and nerves in the joints and muscles. Instead, encourage them to look at things outside the car. It also helps to keep meals light and as bland as possible. Other things that help include rolling down the windows and turning on the air conditioning.
Have clean-up tools handy in the car (and a change of clothes)
Accidents happen. And with small children, they typically happen at the most inopportune of times, so it’s best to stay prepared. Make sure you have paper towels, rags, wipes, disinfectant spray, and a fresh change of clothes (for you and your baby or toddler) in the car.
Buy a few new toys for the trip
Secretly purchase a few new teethers, small toys or car-friendly games for your little one(s) ahead of the trip—whatever is age- and developmentally appropriate for your child. Don’t introduce these goodies until you’re well into the drive, and be sure to introduce them one at a time (versus all at once). The novelty of having something new will help to keep them entertained and occupied.
Bring the holiday music
It’s a holiday road trip, after all. You can use the opportunity to teach your little one(s) your favorite songs of the season. This will also help everyone get into the holiday spirit before you arrive.
Don’t feel guilty about relying on the iPad
We parents have something incredibly helpful that our parents and grandparents before us did not: the iPad. Download some of your kiddo’s favorite shows before the drive, and make sure the iPad is fully charged. (Also, don’t forget that charger!) It can help you get through long stretches of driving without any whining or meltdowns. Purchasing an iPad holder—one that it securely straps around the neck of a backseat and faces the child’s car seat—is extremely helpful, too, especially for kids prone to car sickness.
While your tiny human may not be in the literal driver’s seat, he or she is in control of the journey. So it’s best to stay flexible to his or her needs, versus firmly clinging to a set itinerary. Unlike road trips that you may have taken in the past, where spontaneous stops and motoring through long stretches were easy options, you’ll need to put your child’s needs first. This will ultimately make the journey more enjoyable for all: Happy baby or toddler equals happy car!
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