Remember back before you had kids, when you’d pack yourself some snacks, load your mix CD or plug in your iPod and settle in for a long car ride? Maybe you and your companion would pride yourselves on making time, and decide to skip that pit stop and instead drive seven hours straight. But once you’ve had children, road trips are a completely different story, and can feel like a marathon for parents and kids alike. Don’t despair. You don’t need to drive through crying and pleas of “up up up,” or the fighting some kids will resort to when left to their own devices—there’s hope for the whole family.
We’re talking expectations: Just as you can no longer watch Netflix marathons in bed all Sunday once junior comes along, no longer can you expect to listen quietly to a book on tape for hours at a time while road tripping with children. What to do then, you may ask. Quoted turned to Dr. Tovah Klein, author of How Toddlers Thrive, mother of three and a seasoned expert with young children, for some road trip wisdom. She writes, “The secret to a stress-free family vacation comes down to preparation, realistic expectations and distraction.”
Riding in the car is confining, often boring, and makes many people sick to their stomach (especially rear-facing infants and toddlers). You know a long car trip will be tough, especially on the kids, so while you’re packing for the destination, pack for the ride there, too. Klein suggests asking your children to choose a few toys for the car—it’s a good way to include them and help them prepare for the trip. Kids love bags, so offer each child their own to pack (any bag will work, even those canvas grocery store ones). This strategy doesn’t let you off the hook though: bring some extra toys, games, and music for everyone because even older kids can’t be expected to do it all on their own.
Another great tip from Klein: fun activity boxes. Prep a few small boxes with little toys, stickers, or games, and hand them out over the course of the trip (the toys don’t even have to all be new—packing your kids’ existing toys into small boxes will still give them a thrill, and you a few minutes’ peace).
Klein suggests parents “plan trips around nap or night sleep times,” because, as she says, “What time you travel absolutely matters.” So, leave at bedtime and drive through the night, or wake up extra early, load everyone in the car, and the kids will likely fall back asleep for at least some of the ride.
Another good pre-travel tip from Klein: Fill those tummies before you hit the road, and pack snacks for the trip. If you get a little creative, snacks can double as distractions. Klein suggests a few different small containers or baggies with varied foods: “Cut up grapes, cheese pieces, crackers, and other finger foods.” We’ll add a treat or two to the healthy foods list because we can still remember the thrill of a pack of gummy fruit snacks or a couple of cookies being handed back over the center console.
Have a plan:
We love Dr. Klein’s 20-minute rule: “Every 20 minutes, create a distraction. Offer a new book, snack or activity. Yes, this creates a lot of busy work for you, but your toddler is more likely to stay quiet, content and entertained (for 20 minutes, anyway). Begin to think of travel time in 20-minute increments.”
Don’t forget the beauty of the pit stop:
Stopping for lunch and bathroom breaks is essential, but consider making some non-essential stops as well, especially if you’re traveling with very young children. Kids in car seats have even less mobility than the rest of the family and really should stretch every two to three hours. Even your regularly buckled kiddos will appreciate a few extra breaks.
What to do when you’re on the road: Distractions are key
If sitting in the car is difficult for you, think of how much harder it is on those little ones in the backseat who don’t have a good sense of time and aren’t accustomed to sitting for long periods. But the beach, ski slope, or Grandma’s house awaits, so Quoted asked Dr. Klein for some practical tips parents can use in the moment. Our questions, and her answers, follow:
How can parents talk to children about how long the ride will be so that they’ll understand?
Children under 5 have little or no sense of time. So talking about time in car can be hard. Best to break it down into steps. For example, “We will be in the car for awhile. We can play some games, listen to music, and look out the window to find things. In a while, we’ll stop to have a snack. Then we will drive and drive again, then stop for lunch. And after lunch we will drive until we get to grandma’s.” This at least gives a sense of length and the interim steps.
It is also good to empathize with the child, “I know this does feel long. It’s hard to sit and sit in the car. Let’s put on some different music.” Then give them a choice: “Do you want the funny music or the Raffi?”
Do you have any suggestions for games children could play with each other?
I Spy is one of the best games for the car- or some version of it. Looking around, you can name a color and see how many things your children can find with it. ‘I spy green things, what do you see?’ The older child can involve the younger one in playing it, too, asking their sibling what they see.
Another game can be to look for numbers or letters on road signs and license plates, especially if you are on the highway. It can be collaborative, ‘Let’s find a letter ‘D’’ or ‘What numbers do you see?’ and have your child call them out.
For children who know some letters already, you can play a letter game- ‘I am thinking of something outside the car that starts with T’ (a tree).
Category games are also fun, and the older child can help the younger one. Name a category, such as ‘animals’ and then ask your children to think of as many animals as they can. Foods, places we like to visit, are good categories, too.
Guessing games are also fun- “Guess what grandpa will have for you when we get to his house.” “Guess what game I want to play when we get to our cousins.”
Peek-a-boo is a good game for older children to play with a baby–cover their face, pop out. That can be a distraction.
Do you suggest one parent sit in the backseat on a long trip for a rear-facing child?
This depends totally on the baby and their temperament. If an infant is fine in the back, there is no need for a parent to be with them. In fact, the infant learns to look around, settle, and be by themselves, knowing mommy and daddy are close by. That is a good thing.
But some infants are not okay and cry. If the infant is calmed with a parent close by, then sit with them.
Some infants cry whether someone is there or not. Perhaps they are uncomfortable in the car, or they may have indigestion. In that case, letting them cry will not hurt them (but it may upset a sibling or parent). It is not harmful to the infant, though. Often siblings can cheer up the baby. That is great when it can happen. Give them credit for it, “You make your sister laugh. She likes when you sing that song.” Also let them know that mommy or daddy will help if the baby keeps getting upset. That way, the older sibling has a role but does not have to feel fully responsible.
So, much like in a marathon, a road trip with kids is all about preparation and understanding what you’re facing. Do a little work beforehand, and the whole family can enjoy the ride together.