In college, long road trips meant excitement, spontaneity, plenty of junk food, cramming as many friends as can fit in the car, and lots of music (whether it be putting your iPod on shuffle or *ahem, ahem* a collection of CD mixes for us 30-plus-somethings).
As a parent, road trips can look more like this: dread; lots of planning; carefully selected, baby-friendly, car-friendly, nutritious snacks; cramming as much baby/kid accessories into the car; and while, sure, you can bring your iPod full of your music, you’d better not leave without the baby’s favorite lullaby album. Trust me on this one. You’ll need it.
The fear of traveling with a baby meant that my husband and I did not travel anywhere far until just recently, right after our daughter turned 6 months old. We took a deep breath and finally tackled the 8+ hour car ride to the Kentucky/Tennessee border over the Easter holiday so our daughter could meet my husband’s parents and sister. (The first attempt was a disaster. A hysterical baby and sudden appearance of the check engine light meant we turned back just 30 miles into the drive and tried again the next day.)
Here 10 tips we learned from our road trip (and 5 more bonus tips to survive the rest of a vacation with a baby).
Surviving the Car Ride
1. Plan so that your start date is flexible.
If you really have to be at that wedding or family reunion the following day, you’d better believe that’s when a tire blows or the baby discovers a new and terrifying level of crying, forcing you to stop. Fortunately, we were in no rush to get to my in-laws’, so it wasn’t the end of the world when we had to turn around an hour into our trip.
2. Determine the best time of day for your child to ride in the car.
Logically, I figured it would be smart to leave at night, right after she fell asleep, so presumably she’d sleep the whole way except for a few stops to nurse and change her diaper. Oh, how wrong I was. Of course, our trip happened to fall on a week when she had just started having a really hard time falling – and staying – asleep and needed to be rocked or worn. The night of our planned departure, she woke up right before we left, and though she started out calm and happy, it wasn’t long before she started crying. And then bawling. And then whole-body-shaking, hysterical crying, accompanied with sweating through her car seat liner. She was too upset to sleep, and we think the bright lights of cars and streetlights in the dark scared her, so we tried again the next morning. (See tip #1.) That was far more successful, and she still ended up taking quite a few naps.
3. Sit in the back seat next to baby.
This one is probably obvious, but I don’t know how we would have survived the trip if I wasn’t in back with my baby. It was certainly cramped back there, all 5’11” of me folded into the back seat of my two-door hatchback, but being right there to entertain and comfort my daughter made the lack of leg room and space worth it.
4. A new toy sure can’t hurt.
If you can swing it, a new car-friendly toy can really help. Before our second attempt to leave, we swung by the baby store and grabbed some emergency supplies. There was a buy-one-get-one-free sale on some battery-operated toys, so I grabbed two different ones – one for the ride up and one to stay hidden until the ride back. The novelty helped distract and entertain her, even after she was bored of her regular toys. I still have the annoying songs from the toys stuck in my head, but it was worth it. She loved figuring out all the things the toys did, and anything to keep her entertained and not crying was wonderful.
5. Bring something to suck or chew on.
My baby never took to a pacifier, but she finds comfort in sucking on our fingers. Unfortunately, she gained some brand new bottom teeth just before we left, so that dreaded night of hysterics involved a painful amount of biting mommy’s fingers. Not cool, baby. So during our emergency run to the store, I picked up two types of pacifiers and two teethers. Even though she still has not figured out the purpose of a pacifier, the various options gave her something to gnaw on and keep her mouth busy, even if it didn’t last for long. If your baby does take pacifiers, then hallelujah, and make sure you have a few spares with you.
6. Don’t forget baby-safe snacks.
My daughter turned 6 months shortly before our trip, when we just began baby led weaning. She LOVES solids and was already eating amazingly well. I wasn’t planning on feeding her while in the car, but there’s only so much fussing a mama can take, so eventually I gave in to my husband’s suggestions and fed the baby. (Especially since my baby was going through a major distracted and frustrated nursing stage and couldn’t concentrate long enough during stops to nurse well.)
7. Let go of any neat freak tendencies due to tip #6.
I admit, I definitely cringed when I first handed my baby hummus on a cracker. She managed to eat most of it, but as expected, there were also crumbs and hummus on ALL the things. However, as the fussing immediately was replaced by a giant, hummus-smeared smile, I quickly let that go. Mostly. I still cringed a bit, but I rolled with it.
8. Download YouTube videos ahead of time.
Before having kids, I totally thought no screen time before 2 sounded great. We’re still pretty good about it, but sometimes a flashing screen and videos of Simon’s Cat can work wonders on a crying baby. Also, check out the Baby Bums videos on YouTube. They’re a mix of kid songs and educational songs and have long compilations so your baby doesn’t freak out, like when one cat video ends and there’s a gap before the next one autoplays, (yeah. That’s fun.) and I swear, those songs have some kind of baby magic. The first time I played one of the compilations, it calmed her right down and it wasn’t long until she fell asleep. The songs were in my head for days, but again, worth it.
9. When you’ve exhausted everything else, bring on ALL the silly.
Yeah, I may or may not have bounced around and squeaked a plush lobster squeaky toy to an entire song from Avenue Q in order to entertain my baby – and took a video of it. But hey, it worked. Babies love the silliest things, so when in doubt, bring it on.
10. Play a familiar lullaby CD or iPod playlist.
Months ago, my mother sent us a few soothing CDs for my daughter, and I’ve been playing one or two of them on every car trip – a lot. It apparently has become soothing for my daughter because now when we start playing it, she’s usually fast asleep by the end of the first or second song. Magic!
Surviving the Rest of the Vacation
1. Pack a night light.
It’s hard enough sleeping in a new place, but it’s far worse when you are stumblingaround in the dark trying to find, change, and comfort a crying baby.
2. No room for the whole high chair? Just bring the tray.
We couldn’t fit the whole high chair in the car, so for meals we just spread a sheet on the floor, put her tray of food in front of her or in her lap, and had a picnic on the floor. She loved it. It was messy, but even eating in the high chair is messy, so it wasn’t a big deal. We all sat on the floor next to her, so she seemed to feel so grown up sitting with the grown-ups.
3. Make sure you remember how to set up the Pack n’ Play.
I hadn’t set one up since a few weeks before my due date, so after a bunch of confused looks and fiddling, Google had to come to our rescue. (How many adults does it take to assemble a Pack n’ Play? Three. It takes 3. Plus WiFi and a Google search.)
4. Bring a waterproof mattress pad.
I almost brought one, but I couldn’t find our spare one and thought, “Hey, it’s just a week, right?” Famous last words. In our case, it was an unfortunate peeing incident by a stressed-out cat, not our child, that caused us to have to wash the mattress and pray that it would be dry by bedtime (it was not). It’s just one of those things that potentially makes your life so much easier and doesn’t take up too much space in a suitcase.
5. Don’t forget the baby carriers.
I admit, this is my solution for countless child-related situations, but I would have been utterly lost on vacation without bringing a few of my carriers. Even though she still handled a week full of changes amazingly well, she still was fussier than usual. The carriers provided a portable, instant safe and familiar space that would immediately calm her down and soon put her to sleep. It allowed us to go on many walks and even just put her up in the middle of a meltdown and get near-instant calm.