Road Trips with Toddlers: 8 Tips for Success

Since my 2-year-old was born, I’ve embarked on at least six road trips extending longer than 12 hours. From holiday trips to my in-laws, to moving to and from Atlanta, we have traversed the middle states!

When we moved back to Iowa, my husband and I had to divide and conquer. B drove the giant Penske moving truck and took the dog. I drove our SUV with our daughter, M.

At the time, M wasn’t doing well in the car. She protested her car seat even on short trips. On the ten minute ride to school each day, she would shed her shoes, socks, and yank out her ponytails. The idea of a 14-15 hour car ride with her alone was overwhelming.

With some careful planning, the trip was a success. Here are my tips for managing long road trips with toddlers.

Be prepared for it to suck

Your toddler will probably get mad. They will probably scream/kick/cry and be generally uncooperative. Even the most preparation cannot mask the truth: sitting still all day sucks.

If you go into it prepared for the trip to be noisy, take longer than anticipated, and be exhausting, you will thank yourself later.

Eliminate behavioral triggers

When preparing the car, I tried to think of all the annoying/dangerous/messy things M could do. More specifically, I pondered what she might do when I have no power to stop her. My arms are only so long!

For example, like many toddlers, M likes pouches. They are easy, portable, and nutritious for a family on the go. However, M sometimes pours them all over herself when she wants attention. This was not going to bode well for 10 hours of driving on Day 1! Instead, I opted for some less messy snacks which you will read about below.

One issue I did not anticipate was the dreading hair ties. As I said, she likes to take out her ponytail in the car. Sometimes she puts her tight hair ties around her wrists, ankles, feet, or in her mouth. Unfortunately, I remembered this outside of Talledega, AL when I noticed her hair tie was tight around her ankle! I immediately pulled over and took it away. No more ponies for the rest of the trip!

Pack toys in the car

At first glance, this seems obvious. Let me elaborate. If you are moving, I highly recommend you keep as many toys as possible packed in your vehicle and not your moving truck. This serves several purposes.

  • You will then have more options to throw in the rotation during the car trip.Β When you stop, you can switch out toys for new ones if you child is bored.
  • When you arrive, you can whip out all sorts of toys to entertain your little one while you unload a moving truck.
  • There is no chance a lovey accidentally gets packed and goes MIA the first night in the new place.

Keep lap toys and books in the front seat for easy passing to the child

It might seem counter intuitive to keep your kid’s toys with you in the front seat. However, it is far easier to reach next to you when you are in traffic than to blindly search the back seat. I kept two reusable grocery bags up front with books and small toys. Ideal toy choices include a Mini Magnadoodle, wooden puzzles, and stuffed animals or dolls.

Pre-fill and package your snacks/sippies

At the foot of the passenger seat, I kept a soft cooler packed with easy snacks and pre-filled sippy cups. Before we left, I created little sandwich baggies mixed with dried fruits and cereal. Then, when M got hungry, I just passed her a baggie and she could eat to her heart’s content. There was no choice in what snack to have, she got a little of everything I had to offer! And to be completely honest, I kept a box of animal crackers for positive reinforcement (and bribery).

I also pre-filled four sippy cups with water before leaving. M is notorious for throwing her sippies in the car. Whenever she threw a sippy or drank it all before we stopped, I just handed her a new one. And you know what? Even with four sippy cups, M still managed to throw all four out of reach in between stops!

Choose car-friendly foods

I have a deep fear of M choking, especially when she eats in the car. The idea that we will hit a bump and she will start to choke scares the daylights out of me. I really hate it when we eat on the road. To minimize my fears, I made sure all the foods I packed were cut up very small or were already finger foods. Buying food on the road is not as easy.

The choices at gas stations are limited, especially if you want something healthy. I opted for Nutrigrain bars that were soft, chewy, and easy for her to eat. I stayed away from Lunchables because I would need to tear up the meat and cheese beforehand. The good news is, I had no trouble finding kid’s containers of milk! I’m sure M appreciated her daily intake of milk plus water sippies.

Give in to kids’ music

Amazon has a great selection of kids’ music CDs. I found this one hat included M’s favorite jams. I blasted this CD pretty much the entire trip. We had countless dance parties and sing-a-longs to pass the time. Plus, my CD includes a few slower songs that I used for nap time.

Yes, the CD is annoying. No, I never want to listen to it again. But it worked!

It won’t last forever

There will inevitably be points in the trip when you think it will never end, your toddler will never stop crying, or you will never get into a car with your kid again. However, it can also be a great bonding experience. Some of the silly moments we had are moments I will cherish forever, and as a working mom, I don’t often get that much uninterrupted time with my daughter.

If you use these tips and invest time to fully prepare, road trips with toddlers aren’t so bad. To anyone about to embark on this journey, safe travels!

9 thoughts on “Road Trips with Toddlers: 8 Tips for Success”

  1. Love, love, love the first tip. Car trips with toddlers are tortuous and fun all at the same time. We make frequent road trips and being prepared and having realistic expectations are key! Thank you so much for sharing!

    1. Thank you! I’m so glad I went into the experience expecting it to be terrible. It wasn’t at all, at least the first day! The only thing I would do differently is grow my arms three inches so I could reach more πŸ™‚

  2. It’s so smart to account for the triggers. When kids are tired/hungry/cranky, we know bad behavior is going to happen. Taking a long trip soon and will keep these in mind.

    1. Thank you! Yes, my daughter has some very predictable bad behavior in the car. Plus, everyone knows (including the kids) how hard it is to actually stop bad behavior in the car. I legitimately instituted a “car time out”. Basically, I just told her she was in car time out, turned down the music, and ignored her for two minutes. Worked shockingly well!

  3. My husband will be working in another state for a few months and while I am happy to go visit I am not looking forward to the long drives with my toddler. Thanks for the tips!

  4. These are great tips! We have also done several road trips with our little guy and it is an adventure for sure. I especially agree with your point to prepare for it to be bad. That always helps us mange expectations and usually the trip goes better than expected.

  5. Great suggestions!! I haven’t attempted any long road trips yet…these tips come in handy though for my preparation to!

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