We all know the perils of distracted driving. But not even your brand new iPhone® can compete with the distraction potential of a toddler in the backseat shouting, “Look Mommy, look, look, LOOKIT MEEEEE!” How do you keep your focus on the road without tarnishing your hard-earned Parent-of-the-Year status? Here are a few tips on traveling with kids that have gotten me through plenty of long car rides.
1. Plan ahead
Sure, this is good advice for everything, but it’s especially valuable when wrangling toddlers for long periods of time. Start by giving your car a thorough cleaning, inside and out. (That’s not really for safety, but it helps to start with a clean slate.) Make sure the car is filled with gas, the tire pressure is good, and any outstanding maintenance issues that could cause you to pull over while Junior is sleeping have been addressed. Load up your smartphone with a few different playlists that your toddler, and hopefully you, can enjoy — and make sure at least one playlist is full of lullabies. While you’re at it, consider downloading an audio book or 2 for you to listen to while your little one is sleeping or otherwise engaged. (Check out audible.com for some great selections.)
2. Remember that dollar stores are your friends
Here, you’ll find all kinds of treasures to make your trip smoother: small mesh bags that you can fill with beloved toys and clip to the back of your seat; plastic buckets or totes that can keep books, snacks, and other entertainment in easy reach; even small “prizes” that you can hand out to reward good behavior or for winning a particularly intense round of “I Spy.”
You can also find supplies to make some fantastic, self-contained activity bags filled with games or craft materials that kids can play with and put away when they’re done. As much as possible, try to keep things contained, or at least make sure everything has a place — loose items around the car can be a big distraction.
3. Make snacking self-sufficient
You don’t have to rely on fast food to get through a road trip. There are plenty of healthy (or at least not terrible) options that pack well and are easy for small hands to manage without requiring you to pull over and assist (or even worse, try to do it while driving). Pack a variety of serving-size portions in toddler-friendly packaging (zip-lock style bags or flap-top containers). Consider foods like:
- Shelled pistachios or cashews
- Fruit sauce with a twist-off top
- Pirate’s Booty (kind of like popcorn, without the hard kernel bits)
- Turkey jerky (easier to chew and lower-fat than beef jerky)
- Trail mix
- Whole-grain crackers
- Unsalted pretzels
- Fig Newtons
If you want, pack a small, easy-to-open cooler with a few more healthy choices, like string cheese, grapes, apple slices, rolled up lunch meat, or even peeled hard-boiled eggs. Of course, if your little one is too small to feed him or herself in general, don’t push it — just plan to picnic at a rest stop along the way.
4. Prepare for emergencies
Obviously, you already have your standard car emergency kit (riiight?), but pack a separate one especially for kid-related emergencies with antibiotic ointment, fun character bandages, age-appropriate pain relievers, hand sanitizer, diaper wipes (even if your kid is totally potty trained, these are incredibly handy to have around!), plastic bags, and of course, extra clothes in case of, ahem, “accidents.” Depending on how rustic your adventure is (and how well your kids will respond to “just going behind a tree”), you may want to buy a travel potty — there are lots of compact options on the market.
5. Let technology take over
If you have a tablet, consider investing in a holder that attaches to the back of your headrest. Videos and/or games that kids don’t normally get to play at home can be a great treat, but staring at a screen on winding roads can also exacerbate car sickness, so don’t count on this to distract them for more than 20 minutes or so at a time.
6. Give yourself a break
Yes, there will probably be meltdowns. Some will even be from your toddler. Accept that you’ll have to stop more than you hoped to and that you’ll have to vacuum/steam-clean/fumigate the car once you arrive at your destination. But, as long as everyone arrives in one piece, even if your nerves are a little frayed, it’s a win.