In the greater journey of parenting, road trips have it all: discovery, boredom, tears, joy, gear galore and so many bodily fluids. As the holidays approach — and as road trips have become a covid-era alternative for families who want to avoid flying — we asked experts like Stump what strategies they deployed for limiting chaos while traveling with babies and toddlers.
As a relatively new mom, I could have used the advice at this time last year. Since then — through seven round-trip drives between DC, Florida and Pennsylvania, mostly to stay with family who helped care for our baby — I’ve learned some of my own tricks.
The following nine tips are lessons only a parent with some miles under their belt could deliver.
Get your car checked before you leave
Need an oil change, tire replacement or air-conditioner check? Get that done before heading out. When there’s a fussy baby on your lap and all your bags are strapped to the roof, an auto repair shop is the last place you want to end up.
It’s also a good idea, Stump writes, to find a technician who can make sure your baby’s car seat is properly installed before taking off. She recommends checking with fire departments, ambulance services or hospitals to see if a technician can take a look.
Digitize your packing list
Handwritten packing lists are fine. But if you want to get fancy about it, create a spreadsheet so every computer-using person in the family can contribute and easily update your must-have list. Bonus: it’s easy to copy the basics and customize for future trips.
In making the list, think about everything your baby needs, eats, drinks, uses and wears over the course of a day. Figure out how long you can go without doing laundry or a grocery store run, and pack what you’ll need for that time (plus a little extra). Keep the crucial stuff accessible in the car to avoid frantically unpacking a suitcase for extra clothes or diapers.
You may think you can buy just about anything on the road. But Colleen Lanin, a mother of two and founder of TravelMamas.com, says a middle-of-the-night emergency could test your resourcefulness. If the kid spikes a fever at 3 am, you don’t want to search for a 24-hour pharmacy.
“Have that stash of your medicines ready,” she said.
And don’t forget a bag with extra personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer.
Throw the ETA out the window
Google Maps says you’ll arrive in six hours? What a fun fantasy! Your GPS is not the boss of the baby.
American Academy of Pediatrics spokeswoman Dina DiMaggio, a doctor at Pediatric Associates of NYC and at NYU Langone Health, recommends stopping every two to three hours for feeding, diaper changing and taking a break from the car seat.
Dirty diapers or meltdowns might require more frequent stops, so patience is key.
Lanin suggests mapping out pit stops in advance, and being realistic about how much time they’ll add to your trip.
“Babies and toddlers are not great at being stuck in the same place for hours and hours on end,” she said.
Timing the drive to avoid traffic is also a good idea, Stump said. Ever sat in a traffic jam with a screaming baby? It’s not great!
Join baby in the back seat
DiMaggio, a co-author of ”The Pediatrician’s Guide to Feeding Babies and Toddlers,” does not recommend allowing babies to sleep in a car seat for too long, especially if no one is watching them. She said one parent should ride in the back, putting them in position to anticipate diaper stops, help naps along, and offer snacks or drinks — not to mention provide entertainment and a steady stream of distractions.
Stump recommends bath toys and books for road trips because they can be inexpensive and “really easy to sanitize.”
Make your car a rest stop
Maybe some parents with an unvaccinated, too-young-to-mask baby feel comfortable strolling into a rest stop, sitting in the food court and using a diaper changing station in the restroom. My family is not.
Many of our nursing sessions and diaper changes took place in the back seat of the car. We took advantage of drive-through or curbside pickup for meals, or food delivery services at Airbnb stays. Mobile ordering at Starbucks let us order breakfast and packaged lunches in advance and then run in to pick it up quickly without having to wait in line.
Keep the baby’s schedule consistent
If the kid naps every three hours, try to maintain that timeline in the car. If white noise is helpful, bring a portable machine or use an app. Do they have a favorite bedtime song or book or cuddly toy? Keep those handy.
Driving at night while the baby is sleeping might work for some parents — and we’ve done it many times — but we found we prefer to quit traveling closer to the baby’s dinnertime so everyone can eat, wind down and rest. For us, this means breaking up a long trip into a few days.
Maybe you can get by with a standard hotel room. Bless you. Once our baby started an established bedtime routine, we needed something with more space — and, frankly, walls. In our case, extended-stay brands checked many boxes: they’re pet-friendly, offer separated spaces and include a fridge. When we can afford it, we look for vacation rentals so we can avoid crowds and easily load and unload the car.
Stump is a fan of Hilton’s Home2 Suites because they offer a curtain to separate the bed from the couch, and the rentals have “really long counters” that are particularly useful. She warns that parents with babies should not assume every hotel will have some kind of portable crib.
“They should call ahead multiple times or travel with something for the baby to sleep in, just in case,” she said.
Prepare for a mess (or two)
Both Stump and Lanin offered the same one-word advice: “buckets.”
“Have you seen how babies and toddlers throw up?” Lanin said. “They don’t love.”
A good receptacle is important for kids who get queasy from carsickness or the stomach flu. Stump likes a collapsible beach bucket because it folds up flat for easy storage.
After Stump’s “poop-tastrophe,” when her family was returning from Montreal, she added layers of protection to the car. That includes waterproof covers that are meant for babies to wear over cloth diapers and replacement covers for an infant seat.
“Never again on a road trip without backups on those things,” she said.
Always, always check the fridge
My toughest lesson came on an otherwise stress-free morning. I congratulated myself on being ready to check out of the hotel early — with two dogs and a 7-month-old — on the final leg of a trip home to DC from Florida.
Two hours later, I was weeping as we drove north on Interstate 95, realizing in horror that I forgot to open the refrigerator for the one thing I couldn’t easily replace: 36 ounces of breast milk that I’d spent hours pumping over the past few days.
When I frankly called the hotel, I was told the room had been cleaned and any perishable items tossed. I vowed then and there to never leave a room without triple checking the fridge. Due to parental brain fog, I promptly forgot this vow on a trip a couple months later. But — in an endorsement for the shared packing list — my husband remembered before we left the parking lot.