Remember when road trips were fun? When it wasn't a big deal to take the extra time off work and drive to your destination, pulling off the road and exploring along the way, instead of flying directly there? Once you have a kid, road trips get a bit more complicated. But if the mere idea of flying with a baby strikes fear in your heart (same), taking a road trip with baby is your best travel option. Besides, you don't want to deal with the air pressure-induced ear aches once you reach your vacation. And even in an over-packed car, you still have more room and comfier seats than you have when you fly.
While family road trips look different from wild-and-free-gal-pal road trips, they can still be a blast. They just require a bit more prep and planning. Yes, you'll probably make a lot more stops and smell a lot more funky smells. You'll also probably need to replace those true-crime podcasts with kid-friendly audiobooks or, ugh, CoComelon. It doesn't have to be awful, though.
But buckle up; you're in for a ride. The following information will help make the journey a little easier to navigate.
When should you leave, and how often should you stop?
Deciding when to leave for a road trip is always your most significant consideration. Many people cite it as even more important than what you pack. It all boils down to two crucial factors:
- Will your baby sleep in the car?
- Can you safely manage on little-to-no sleep?
Many parents opt to leave for their road trip right before bedtime and drive through the night. If you have someone who will trade off driving and let you sleep for a couple of hours, this is an excellent option. However, if you're on your own, it's strongly recommended you forgo driving all night. When you reach your destination, you'll be bone tired, which is the last thing you need when traveling alone with a baby.
The best time to leave? Just before the buttcrack of dawn.
If your babe normally wakes for the day around 6 or 7 in the morning, try to head out around 4 or 5. Leaving in the dark will make it easier to transition your little bug from home to car without causing them to wake completely. That, in turn, gives you a few hours on the road with (hopefully) a sleeping or groggy baby.
What about stops? That depends on your baby's needs and your access to warm bottles or breastmilk. If your baby isn't mobile yet, you can probably get away with longer driving stretches. If you have a partner or sibling that can sit in the back and help amuse your baby, you can stretch it out a little longer. However, a good rule of thumb is the two-hour rule. Babies need to be moved and readjusted every two hours, especially if there's no one next to them to keep an eye on their posture in their car seat.
How do you handle feedings and diaper changes on the road?
You know the expression "work smarter, not harder"? A great living example is aligning your two-hour breaks with feeding time. That's especially important if you're breastfeeding. Every two hours, you can get out, sit in the sun, and feed your baby. If it's winter, you can find a safe place to park and feed them in the warm car, letting them snuggle with you in the front seat for a bit. Or even consider hopping off an exit with a Target or Walmart and taking advantage of the dressing rooms.
Remember that not every stop — whether for feeding or diaper changes — needs to be a process and require a lengthy "layover," if you will. Just make sure you're pulling over somewhere safe and not just on the side of the road. Letting your precious babe sit in a wet diaper for a little longer (within reason, obviously) is still wildly safer than doing anything while on the median of the highway.
Another note about diapers: If you're leaving early in the morning and are worried that changing a wet diaper before the transfer to the car might wake up your baby, just skip it. If your little one doesn't typically have their diaper changed until hours later anyway, there's no need to change that routine now.
What necessities should you keep on hand in the car?
This is where the real fun begins. First and foremost, you need to make sure you’re traveling with a safe, properly fitted and installed car seat for your baby. If you have any doubts, find a child passenger safety (CPS) technician in your community who can check yours for you.
As for the other items that make a road trip with baby safe and manageable, you should pack:
- Feeding supplies (examples: breast pump, bottles, nursing cover, milk storage bags, insulated cooler for milk, bottle cleaning kit, burp cloths, bibs, sippy cups if needed, pumped milk or powdered formula, baby food if appropriate)
- Engaging car seat toys (note: just make sure they’re securely fastened to the handle of baby’s car seat or somewhere they can’t pose a risk)
- Changing — and cleaning — supplies (examples: changing pad, extra diapers, wipes, diaper cream, hand sanitizer, car seat liner, several changes of clothes, disposal bags for dirty dipes and wipes)
- Sleep needs (examples: travel bassinet, baby monitor)
- Safety items (examples: car seat mirror, first aid kit with infant fever/pain reducer and forehead thermometer, sun shade)
- Soothers (examples: pacifiers, loveys, baby’s favorite blanket, white noise machine, teethers)
- Portable transportation (examples: lightweight stroller, baby carrier, travel high chair)
- Cooler (Pack the cooler with all your kids' favorite snacks, including fruits and veggies. It's also a great way to keep crackers, granola bars, and cheeses fresh.)
- First aid kit (Having a few Band-Aids and antibacterial in the car is never a bad idea. Add in some cough syrup and children's Tylenol for good measure too, just in case someone falls under the weather.)
Traveling with a baby is an adventure in itself, so here are a few tips to keep to ensure you and the fam have a rocking road trip. Get in some practice by taking baby on mini trips to places a little further out than usual. This will help you get a feel for what they usually need after a few hours in the car, so be prepared to make multiple stops.
And don't be afraid to hop in the backseat with baby if they seem a little fussy. This is a great bonding activity and an excellent way to keep them entertained. The goal is to keep baby comfortable, and the only thing better than their lovey is, well, you. So read their favorite book to them, sing a lullaby or play a few rounds of peekaboo. And be sure to switch off with your partner to keep baby super entertained.
How soon can a baby go on a road trip?
Although there’s no hard-and-fast rule about when your baby will be ready for a road trip, doctors do have a general rule of thumb. Since an infant’s immune system doesn’t mature until around 2 to 3 months old, many doctors recommend holding off on any sort of long-distance travel until after that point.
Your best bet for “success” when traveling with a baby is being flexible. There will be bumps in the road. Things may, quite literally, go to sh*t sometimes. But if you have an adaptable mindset, it’ll be a lot less stressful for you and baby.
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