The Art Of Taking Road Trips With A Toddler
December 20, 2017
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We have had a lot of driving experience with our toddler on long road trips over the past year-and-a half. Our closest family members live in Sacramento which, with a toddler in tow, is about an eight hour drive from our LA beach community. We have pretty much been-there-done-that with every single tip ever mentioned on how to make road tripping easier when you’re toting a toddler along.

Having made that lengthy drive over a half dozen times you would think we would be experts at toddler travel by now. After all, how many learning opportunities does one need to figure that out?

Yet, road tripping with our toddler remains a constant learning experience for us. This week was no exception as our family trekked eight hours from El Segundo to Tomales Bay located on the Northern California Pacific Coast for a well-needed vacation.

Baby Zoe and John at Stinton Beach

Stinton Beach, CA (population 578). The best part of taking road trips is stopping at new locations along the way that you never would have seen otherwise. Zoe was happy for the opportunity to run around for a while.

As I have some depth of experience in the road-trip-with-a-toddler department, I thought for sure I would use my expertise to make this excursion particularly easy. After all, I have read about all the tricks by now: travel during baby sleep times, pack for every situation (terrible advice, boo!), make frequent stops at parks, bring lots of toys, be sure to have baggies/wipes/finger foods, yada yada yada.

My confidence had me dreaming of writing a post after our trip titled “how I mastered long-distance travel with a toddler without going crazy” or “how we helped our daughter love long distance road trips, and you can too.”

A Mom can dream, right?

Yet, once again I realized mid-way up the coast that traveling with a toddler can be messy, frustrating, and even intolerable even with the most thoughtful preparation and experience.

Toddlers are going through their very own developmental stages.

Toddler’s little bodies are immature and aren’t supposed to “sit still” for any amount of time, much less an eight hour car ride. In addition, they have under-developed communication skills to express their needs, which can lead to complete toddler meltdown on the highway (or anywhere for that matter).

This got me to thinking…

Is the key to mastering long distance travel with a toddler really just about understanding where they are in their current developmental stage? Is my job to better understand my toddler as a little, evolving human being? Do I need to adjust my expectations a little? Hmmm, maybe.

I continued to learn, even during this trip, that part of mastering toddler travel is about learning how to be a little more malleable with our daughter. Especially when she is acting exactly like, well, a toddler.

There are going to be meltdowns in between all the adorable, precious, little girl moments. That is how toddlers express themselves when they are upset and don’t have the vocabulary to communicate their frustrations. In addition, they are programmed to push their boundaries and it is our job as parents to learn how to productively handle each situation as we go along.

Mom and and Zoe in Tomalas Bay, CA

Tomales Bay, Ca. The long drive was totally worth the vacation. We got to hike almost everyday. If you look closely to John’s right you can see a line of large adult seals!

The final drive back home: something amazing happened!

On our last day we planned on getting up at 5am to start the dreadful trek back down the I-5 to Los Angeles County (not the amazing part). We wanted to get the drive out of the way as soon as possible. But, like many aspects of parenthood, things didn’t exactly start as we had anticipated.

Our (normally) great little sleeper decided she wanted to get up at 2:30am instead. After about 45 minutes of tears (I guess she was ready to go home?), my husband and I decided it would be better to just go ahead and start our travels. So we got ready and left by 3:30am instead.

You are probably wondering what the amazing part is, right? Well, I’m excited to say that Zoe did wonderfully and was content pretty much the entire way home! There were minimal tears and we only had to stop twice during the entire trip. It was a road trip miracle!

With a little help from Mom and Dad, she really handled the drive like a champ. And because we left so early in the morning we were home by noon. It is possible that I actually mastered the art of road tripping with a toddler after all?

Well, I’m not so sure about that. But I do think we made great progress. We did learn a few more things during this drive home.

Helpful Ideas For Long Distance Road Tripping With A Toddler:

To be clear, these tips may not be for everyone. Every toddler, and every trip, can be a different experience. These are just a few suggestions that worked for us. Here are my best ideas for surviving long distance road travel with a toddler in tow.

1.  Travel during sleep times

This one is the big winner! If you can drive at night or at least during a long nap time it is so helpful. A sleeping toddler is a content toddler. One of the reasons I think our recent road trip went so well is that our toddler was able to sleep for about 3.5 hours during the start of our trip (we did leave at 3:30am after all). That got a large portion of our drive time out of the way right off the bat.

2.  Don’t over pack

Trying to pack light for vacation in a Prius

This was everything we packed for one week of travel. I made an exception for my yoga mat and I’m so glad I did. I used it almost everyday (there are some things you just have to make an exception for!).

I hear all the time that “when you have kids you have to bring so much stuff everywhere!” I emphatically disagree with this one. Packing light is so much easier and can actually make a trip less hectic and stressful: there is less stuff to pack/repack, take care of, store, and its feels so much better to not feel like you are carrying around your house.

Many things that get packed “just in case” never even get used and just end up getting hauled around pointlessly. You don’t have to schlep everything from home. See if the hotel can offer a crib. Buy food for the kitchenette when you get there. When packing ask yourself “is this something I really need on this vacation?”

I brought just enough clothes for myself and our daughter with the intention of doing a load of laundry at the hotel if necessary (it wasn’t). We also brought an umbrella stroller instead of the larger one we normally use.

Traveling is just easier with less stuff. It’s true that Zoe could possibly need her winter boots and coat. It can be on the cooler side on the northern California Pacific coast. But in August? Not likely that she will need them.

3.  Have one adult sit in the back if possible

I sit in the back with Zoe during most of the drive (I stay in the front when she is sleeping). That way we can spend a little one-on-one time together and I can try to help sooth her before she starts to have a meltdown. I have gotten in the habit of making space for myself and whatever I think I may need in the back seat for the drive.

4.  Sing and talk frequently

Did you know that a new study shows that babies’ pain levels are actually decreased when they are sung to? A London University found that children waiting for surgeries actually had a reduction in pain and heart rate after being sung lullabies.

Road trips are not actually painful, of course. But I have found that Zoe will pay close attention to my every word when I sing to her. She listens intently, quietly. It’s like I’m doing something amazing, and I’m a terrible singer! I’m probably driving my husband nuts but our kid seems to be enjoying it, so why the heck not?

Our toddler gets the benefit of learning new songs and staying engaged during the drive. I think it makes her happy too. To boot, it minimizes screaming child road rage so I see this as a win-win for everyone.

5.  Keep a calm voice (especially during a meltdown).

My husband and I have found that the more calm we are when Zoe is upset, the less upset she gets and the better she is able to deal with her frustration. Our kids learn how to handle stressful situations by how we handle them.

Dr Sears, parenting expert, says that “an angry parent often leads to and even angrier child.” Being in an angry state clouds your thinking and can leave everyone feeling a bit abused. A temper tantrum from us won’t make the drive easier and it will make it more miserable.

I try to think of ways to get our daughter to laugh when I can see she is getting frustrated. Right now she is really into making noises with her mouth, and she thinks its so funny when Mom or Dad makes funny noises with her. Laughter can really be the best medicine for an angry child.

6.  If all else fails, bring two sets of ear plugs and do the best you can. Or just pull over and find a neighborhood park.

Zoe at the park in Muir Woods

We found this park on our way back from Muir Woods during our trip. Zoe met a new friend and we got an opportunity to explore a new, small beach community.

Seriously, if all else fails and the crying seams endless, nothing beats a good pair of earplugs. I’m not saying that you should ignore your child by any means! You can still hear everything and you can continue to help sooth your child. It just helps a little until you can get your bearings again (and helps minimize a pounding headache).

Or if you reach a point where you just can’t take it for another second, just pull over and find a park or a long stretch of grass. There have been a ton of studies that show that being in green grass can relieve stress and make you feel better. Getting out for some fresh air and a little nature will do everybody a little good.

I realize that not every drive will as good as our most recent one, but I do think we are on to something good here. Practice makes perfect, so I guess we will just have to plan another road trip soon!

Southern California is such a great place to live partly because there are so many amazing places we can vacation to via highway. Since our family will soon be expanding even more (we’ve got a baby boy on the way!) we have to adjust our vacation plans to accommodate our little nomads.

Next on our road trip travel list: The Grand Canyon!!

Sarah, Mother Nurse Love

Psst!  Toddler backpack carriers are so great to have on an active vacation.  Check out theses super cool ones!

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