Before Noe was born, Lori and I made a pact not to let a baby change the basic essence of the unconventional life that we had built together and enjoyed over many years.
At the same time, we had enough friends and family with kids around us to know that our lives would change in many unavoidable ways and there would be limitations on the amount of spontaneity and flexibility we would have.
But change is truly the only constant in life, and living a nomadic lifestyle for our entire adult lives has instilled a love and appreciation of change, bordering on a sort of fanaticism. Regardless, change—by its very nature—is never comfortable, or rarely easy.
Prior to having a kid, we road tripped often. In the two years we’ve had Noe, we’ve road tripped often. The frequency hasn’t changed one bit. But the way we road trip has changed forever.
It’s an understatement to say we’ve made mistakes with road trips with baby (and baby travel in general)—we’ve made lots. And we’ll continue to make lots.
But we always try and learn something from our shortfalls (I don’t like the word “failure” here because it’s an end result of a broad task, and we’re not done yet with this parenting thing, not by a long shot. Maybe when Noe turns 18 we can speak in terms of success vs. failure, but for now with a 23-month-old, we’re still in the first inning).
Here’s what we’ve learned (so far) from our road trip adventures with a baby.
1. Be Prepared!
Sounds simple, but it’s easy to drop the ball when you’re mental road trip prep list has suddenly tripled. Gas? Check. Phone charger? Check. Diapers? Check. Snacks? Uh oh…
Pack essentials for the day (or days) ahead, but always have emergency snacks, toys, etc. stowed in a convenient place, just in case.
Being prepared also means having your route planned out ahead of time. I love winging it on the road as much as anyone, letting the wind carry my soul like a bird on the wing…
But not with a baby. You couldn’t pay me enough.
Take the number of snacks you think you’ll need for the entire family and double it. No, triple it. Same with diapers. Think that baby’s going to play for hours with that cool new toy that s/he’s been playing with…for hours at home? Think again. Bring extras. Babies are like ninjas, masters at defying all expectations and always keeping the adversary guessing.
Always. Be. Prepared.
2. Make Road Time Coincide with Nap Time (and Night Time)
This is the single most important tip in this post. If you take anything away from here, take this.
So, why is it my number two? ‘CAUSE I JUST THOUGHT OF IT. You think this is a high school term paper or something? Damn.
When executed properly, it’s almost like you’re road-trippin’ pre-kid…for a while, at least. The true masters of the craft can make it happen with two or more kids. We’re not quite there yet, but I’ve heard tales of parents possessing the gift and making their car their dojo.
Depending on his age (and how far over to the Dark Side he had ventured), Noe napped anywhere from 45 minutes to three hours on a trip. When he was still taking a morning and afternoon nap, we’d even get two 1-2-hour naps out of him in a day.
And traveling at night? As long as he was fed and it was past his usual bed time, we generally wouldn’t hear a single peep. Priceless.
3. Avoid Heavy Traffic & City Driving
Based on our experience, stopping and going can be a parent’s worst enemy in the car. This may seem obvious if the baby’s trying to get some shut eye, but even during waking hours, it just seems to mess with a baby’s mental state. I’m sure there are studies out there that explain this phenomenon (or maybe not…), but I sure can’t.
If you find yourself suffering from this, either because your baby (like ours) prefers inertia, or your city’s traffic is akin to a medieval torture device the size of Rhode Island, adding an extra hour to the drive to take secondary roads and avoid traffic was much preferable for us. If you know you are going to run into traffic, try and make it coincide with awake time—avoid nap time and breastfeeding time at all costs.
4. Music Can Be Magic
Our kid loves music in the car (who doesn’t?). It doesn’t matter what type of music (though he definitely has his preference), but a little music goes a long way. When Noe was younger, a noise machine app on our phone helped to drown out our conversation up front and send baby off to dreamland quicker. We like the RelaxMelodies app in the car, though we use a portable sound machine at night time, which we love.
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5. Bumpy is Better
We were surprised to discover the difference between long stretches on U.S. Interstate Highways and less-maintained secondary roads. The feeling of movement, bounce, and rough roads always made Noe happier. Silky smooth and straight-as-an-arrow freeways were often a recipe for disaster. Older babies dig the scenery of secondary roads too!
6. Made in the Shade
It gets hot here in Laos, particularly riding in a car. And when we’re back in the States, it seems to coincide with the hottest time of year there, too. Adults don’t like to have the sun on them for hours on a long trip, and neither do babies. We’re able to mitigate this to an extent by placing the rear-facing carseat in the middle of the back seat, but even that’s sometimes not enough. One or two safety shades like these work wonders, are way more convenient (and safer) than stuffing a towel in the window, and you don’t have to worry about them becoming a flying projectile like the older retractable car shades.
7. Anticipate Feeding Times
It can be absolutely hellish trying to drive with a screaming baby in the back. Nine times out of ten for us, the crying and screaming would be related to hunger. Nothing’s worse than being stuck in traffic, or on a rural road in the middle of nowhere with no good place to pull off to do a feeding. Also, when Noe was young, breastfeeding could take up to an hour. I’m all for taking breaks on a road trip to eat, enjoy the scenery, or stretch the legs, but the last thing I want to do is hang out at a rest area or on the side of a rural highway for an hour when we could be getting miles behind us.
We found that, for us, the solution was surprisingly simple. When baby was still breastfeeding, we would do our best to align his feeding time with our feeding time. Once he was on the bottle and/or eating solids, it was even easier, as one of us could sit in the back seat and feed him while we’re rolling down the road. Just a warning with bottles—setting a timer 20 minutes before baby’s usual feeding time allowed us to make sure the bottle was out of the cooler and warm enough for baby to take when he did get hungry.
8. One-Diaper-Per-Road-Hour Rule
We first discovered this while traveling on flight after flight with Noe, but it’s equally applicable to the road, particularly in warmer climates.
Baby’s out of his/her element, maybe eating different foods than usual, on a different schedule, or simply adjusting to the new environment. For our kid, that often meant more frequent full diapers. In reality, he’s rarely gone through one per hour, but there have been times when he has, and on those trips, it paid to be prepared.
As an added bonus, an extra diaper makes for a great diaper cover to contain a blowout until you reach the next pitstop.
9. A Carseat Protector (aka “Piddle Pad”) is a Dad’s Best Friend
Speaking of blowouts…
Having a dependable piddle pad (…yep…that’s what they’re really called…) is a must for any length of trip in a car. We love our carseat, but it’s a royal pain in the butt to wash. A good carseat cover will catch and contain all but the very worst that your baby’s backside can hurl at you, and it’s much easier to clean (or throw in a plastic bag on a long travel day) than most carseats.
Why do I say a carseat liner is “Dad’s Best Friend?” I don’t care how much equity you claim to have in your relationship, if there’s crap in a seat to cleanup and if dad’s in the same zip code, you know who’s going to draw the short end of the scrub brush on that one.
10. Gallon Zip Lock Bags To the Rescue
Many of us feel car sick from time to time, but babies seem to get sick with surprising frequency. Fortunately, this hasn’t been a big problem with Noe, but we have many friends who have had issues (some, every time they go on a long trip).
The worst is getting caught unprepared on this one. And let’s face it, when baby’s really young (and facing backwards), it can be impossible to know stuff’s headed north until it’s too late.
If you do make it in time, gallon zip lock bags work a million times better than a grocery store bag. Best of all, you can zip it up until the next pitstop.
11. Take Lots of [Short] Breaks!
Even as an infant, our son seemed to get cabin fever even after just an hour of being in the car. Pre-baby, Lori and I didn’t make it a point to stop much, particularly when doing a lot of Interstate highway driving. Since baby, however, we’ve grown to appreciate the value of taking short breaks every hour or so. It generally only took 5-10 minutes of being out of the car to buy us another hour. Besides, if you’re the driver, the experts say you should be taking driving breaks about every two hours anyway, for health and safety reasons, so it’s not that much of a stretch to double that.
12. Less is More
It wasn’t uncommon to pull 8-10 hour days on road trips before having a baby. Nowadays, with the wee one, we try not to do more than 4-6 hours on the road per day, if we can help it. Breaks every hour or so only get you so far, and their effectiveness seems to wane as the day goes on. If we’re traveling more than a few hundred miles away from home, and it’s not absolutely necessary to reach our destination in one day, breaking up the trip over multiple days makes for an infinitely happier car.
13. Center is Stellar
Studies, including this one published in Pediatrics, show for children newborn to 3 years old, sitting in the center rear seat is 43% safer than sitting on either side of the back seat.
We of all people know it’s not always feasible to put baby in the middle (heck, here in Laos, we’re lucky to even have a carseat, and can’t always use it when we want to). Now, with Lori noticeably pregnant, it’s not realistic for her to have to climb in to get our two-year-old in and out of a center-positioned seat. For this reason, our kid’s seat is currently behind the passenger seat.
And with two kids in carseats? In most cases, I guess both kids are just going to have to be 43% less safe than their center-seated only-child counterparts (and y’all know those kids are going to lord it over their friends for the rest of their lives).
So, besides safety, why is center preferable? Well, it’s preferable for us for a couple reasons, but mainly so that the passenger (to an extent) can tend to various needs of the screaming hellion without throwing out their back (and without putting baby on the road-side in case of getting baby in and out on a busy road). As I mentioned earlier, it also keeps the sun off baby during the heat of the day.
14. Keep Your Car Clean!
We generally prefer a clean car for our own sanity. But there are other reasons why keeping a clean car makes road trips more manageable.
For one, it limits the number of random (baby-unfriendly) objects laying around that baby could grab, like a shank, can of mace, or anything from a Taco Bell menu, to name a few. Baby’s can have a surprisingly long functional reach, and it’s constantly getting longer and more functional by the day!
Two, keeping the car clean and clutter free cuts down on the number of potentially life-threatening flying projectiles (particularly if your car has a rear deck (aka rear dash, aka parcel shelf). It’s extra important not to store anything potentially hazardous up there if you’re using a rear-facing child seat. Mark my word, nothing will ruin a road trip quicker than a trip to the emergency room from hitting the brakes for that same damn dog again.
15. Baby Road Trip Toys We’ve Had Luck With
So far, we’ve had a lot of fun talking about everything from nap time to music, to cleaning up after unspeakable things being done to your once pristine rear upholstery.
In the end, we all know that a great road trip with a baby comes down to one thing:
Now, a toy for this age group doesn’t have to be remotely fancy. And, you really, really don’t need a tablet or other electronic gadget.
Young infants will stare at and physically inspect just about anything for a good amount of time, so long as they aren’t hungry, poopy, or tired, and…the thing they’re playing with is A-W-E-S-O-M-E. And, of course, A-W-E-S-O-M-E is 100% in the eye of the beholder (i.e. your baby).
For a long time, Noe thought that way about his crunchy Firefly. The thing was amazing. Then, it was his crinkly books. Then, his crinkly paper. As he got older, his tastes evolved to include an appreciation of art (i.e. stickers, paper, and crayons), and even home decor (i.e. his blanky).
And when all of the above fails? That can only mean one thing…Show Me the Monkey!