Gird your loins! It’s time for baby’s first road trip.
Let’s face it, traveling with little ones can be both intimidating and exhausting — unless you are prepared and have plenty of patience. Not to mention a good dose of humor.
During the summer of 2004, my younger brother was getting married in Witchita, Kansas. Naturally, we wanted to attend. For the record, it’s a solid 985 miles from Columbus, Georgia to Witchita, Kansas. We had a 13-month old baby, so how we were going to get there was the subject of some debate.
After looking into flights and considering all our options, we decided that a good, old-fashioned road trip would give us the most flexibility — and allow us to carry the maximum amount of baby gear possible.
My husband and I are seasoned road warriors. But we’d never traveled with a baby before. Here are several strategies we learned from our long haul to Wichita that may help you plan your baby’s first road trip.
First things first! Sit down with a pen and paper and get yourself organized. Think about the things you need to do before you pack, things to pack, things to do before you leave, and things to do when you get home. A little planning will help make the experience a little less stressful for you.
If you need help getting organized, there are plenty of packing lists for road trips available online. BabyCenter.com and Parenting.com have great lists for traveling families. My favorite is the FlyLady’s Packing Control Journal. It rocks!
Get your car road-ready.
Before setting out on the open road, make sure your vehicle is ready for the journey ahead. Check your car’s oil and the condition of your tires to ensure a safe and smooth ride. Fill up on gas before you leave familiar ground. Make sure you have your car charger in case of an emergency.
If you don’t feel your car is reliable enough to go the distance, consider renting a vehicle. Since both of our vehicles were older models at the time, my husband and I chose to rent a comfortable, luxury sedan for our journey. It certainly made the long drive more pleasant.
Pack ahead of time.
Take plenty of time to pack before your trip. They say for an early morning departure, you should pack your car the night before. A great idea, but it never worked for us. Instead, to decrease departure stress, our rule of thumb is to allot half a day to tidy up, load up, and lock up. Invariably, we have last minute errands to run, so padding our departure time by 4 to 6 hours really helps. Plus, this allows me to be more organized and make sure the house is in good order — and reduce the chance I’ll forget something important.
Load your car strategically.
Let’s face it, babies need a lot of stuff to travel! If you are staying with relatives or friends, see if they have baby gear you can borrow while you visit. Otherwise, think strategically as you load your car. Put bulky items like the stroller, pack-n-play, baby carrier, travel high chair, and other luggage in the trunk. But keep essentials like your diaper bag, toys, comfort items, food and snacks within arm’s reach. By loading your car strategically, you won’t have to pull over every time you need something basic.
Remember the food.
We’ve said it before, hungry kids are grumpy kids! Be sure to feed your baby before you go, and bring along plenty of snacks and water bottles. Depending on what your baby prefers, pack snacks, formula, juice and water, because little tummies will get the “munchies.” Fortunately, J was already weaned, so we didn’t have to stop for nursing breaks. Instead, we kept a small igloo cooler on the floor in the backseat and keep it filled with bottled water, juice pouches, soft drinks (for mom and dad), and snacks for all.
Carry cleanup supplies.
Be ready for a mess! Babies and toddlers drop, spill, and spit up. Keep a box of wipes and a roll of paper towels within arm’s reach for easy cleanups. Have multiple changes of baby clothes and bibs handy, in case of spills. Also, take garbage bags and car seat liners to protect against unexpected diaper blowouts.
Odds are, you’ll need to do laundry while you’re away, so pack your favorite laundry detergent, dryer sheets and extra quarters! I repurposed an empty duffle bag for our dirty clothes. It doubled as a laundry hamper during the trip.
Don’t forget your own stuff.
For our baby’s first road trip, I packed a family bathroom bag with ziplock bags to prevent spills. It stayed in the front seat next with my purse. This large tote bag has since morphed into “Mom’s Go Bag.” It holds all sorts of odds and ends. In addition to bathroom supplies, it includes my makeup bag, prescription medication, hotel reservations, tickets, my packing list, headphones, a sewing kit, flashlight, tweezers, extra quarters, batteries, fuzzy socks, my laptop, extra power cords, guide books, maps, sunglasses, hand sanitizer, and the like.
Plan baby’s entertainment.
Honestly, a 14-hour road trip is a long time to keep a baby entertained. I packed a small red tote bag that we dubbed the “Baby’s Bag of Tricks.” It included J’s favorite blanket, books, toys, and stuffed animals. Before we left home, my in-laws gave us a copy of Richard Scarry’s classic book, “What Do People Do All Day?” to take along. The pictures kept J occupied for hours! When his interest in reading wore off, he watched a movie on a portable DVD player. We also played his favorite music over the car stereo. I brought along a travel tray for his car seat and plenty of coloring supplies. Still, both my husband and I spent plenty of time in the backseat keeping him entertained.
Make frequent stops.
A family road trip is not necessarily about “making good time.” Babies will sleep most of the way, but expecting a toddler to sit still for hours at at stretch is unrealistic. Plan to stop at least once every one-and-a-half to two hours. Check your map for potential pit stops along your route. Looking back, it seems like we stopped at every Chick-fil-A and rest area whether we needed a rest or not! We tried to stick close to J’s regular routine, stopping frequently when he was awake and then logging some miles while he napped.
Split your trip.
If you have to travel six or more hours, consider making the trip over two days and staying somewhere overnight. We knew there was no way J could handle confinement in the car for 14 hours without a meltdown. So we stopped halfway in Memphis, Tennessee to spend the night, then drove the rest of the way to Witchita the next day. We split the trip home as well and it worked out really well.
If you choose not to split your trip, plan accordingly! Five months later, we took J on another road trip to visit friends in Richmond, Virginia. On the way there, we split the 640-mile drive over two days. When it came time to return home, however, the idea of two long days on the road was much less appealing. Fortunately, J sleeps well once he’s down for the night. So we buckled our pajama-clad toddler into his car seat and drove through the night. We pulled into our driveway around 4:00 a.m. It was nice to sleep (briefly!) in our own bed, but the next morning was especially hard. I was exhausted, but J was well rested and ready for attention!
Slow down and enjoy the journey.
As I write this blog, my husband and I are planning our next road trip to the beach. Our boys are older now, but the strategies I’ve shared above still work for our family. Road trips can provide wonderful and unexpected opportunities for family fun along the way. There’s an element of adventure in every trip, so slow down, take lots of pictures, and enjoy the journey.