Are we there yet?
27 seconds later…
Mom, are we there?
22 seconds later…
Are we there yet?
Can you relate?! Kids--and toddlers specifically--are eager to arrive at a destination. However, they are NOT eager to sit in a carseat for hours on end. (And I don’t blame them.) BUT they can learn to enjoy (or endure) the journey itself.
We take at least 4-5 road trips per year. We may drive to Phoenix, Yuma, Bass Lake, Palm Springs, Los Angeles, or countless other California cities.
It hasn’t always been a piece of cake with a baby and now toddler. But we have learned some tips and tricks that work best with our toddler in the backseat. If you are looking to take a road trip with toddlers, then these 5 tips and tricks should help your trip go a little smoother.
Five tips + tricks
1. Limit the Screen + Put Up With the Scream
I know this title may cause you to cringe a little…and rightfully so. But it is worth it in the long run. I promise.
Understand something-- I am NOT anti-screen time. I do like to limit it, but there are times (especially a road trip with toddlers) where screen time is ideal. I get it.
So don’t write me off as a 100% anti-technology mom. That’s not me. I am all about balance and optimization.
My recommendation? Keep the tablet packed away as long as possible.
Austin has been on enough road trips to know that we bring his tablet along. By not having it hanging in front of him, it reduces his need to watch it immediately.
PRO Tip: If your toddler is still young enough to fall under the spell of “out of sight out of mind,” make the most of it! We did this with Austin when he was younger, so he had no idea that watching a movie was even an option.
Even though he is old enough now to know his tablet is available, he doesn’t insistently ask for it. This is due to a couple of reasons.
First, we never use a screen for short trips (i.e. trips to the grocery store, going out to eat, running errands, etc). So he is used to entertaining himself in the car. He knows he must be content with reading a book, listening to music, or looking out the window. This foundation is critical for longer trips.
By the way -- this is coming from some serious perseverance. Austin went through a stage where he would SCREAM nonstop…for the entire car ride…EVERY time he got in the car. That stage lasted for SIX whole flippin’ months!
While it was hard, I powered through that season without ever giving him a screen to appease him. We wanted him to learn how to be content without it.
Second, we clearly set expectations for the road trip upfront. He knows that we will not watch anything on the tablet until later on in the trip. There are other fun books and activities to do for the majority of the trip.
If he is a content traveler, then he will be rewarded. Then (and only then) will I offer the tablet to him to watch a show or movie.
Third, we don’t give in and toss the screen in front of him if he is annoying us or behaving poorly. Actually…those actions would lead us to potentially eliminate screen time altogether.
Is Austin always a perfect traveling angel? No. He’s a REAL toddler. (Plus, remember those 6 months of screaming I was talking about?)
Does he have moments of frustration and fussiness? Ummm….absolutely! He’s a toddler.
Are there times when it would be easier for us to just give him a screen to keep him quiet? Heck yeah! (Again…6 months of screaming.)
It’s not about what is easiest in the moment. Rather it’s about how to set your child up for success in the long run.
PRO Tip: If you give in to the temporary battle, you will most definitely lose the war. Stay strong, my friend!
It’s important to recognize that we set clear expectations for Austin, and then we hold the line. We have done this consistently on road trips big and small. So he understands our method and knows how to operate within it. Thereby making a road trip with toddlers more enjoyable.
Reinforce the right kinds of habits you want your toddlers to have on road trips. They will start to become good travelers that don’t make you want to pull out every last hair on your head.
2. Interactive Books
Hands down, Austin’s favorite activity to do on a family road trip is READ. This did not always come 100% naturally to him. With consistency and practice, he has harnessed his love for reading in the car. So much so that he has quietly read books on a long road trip for almost 4 hours--yup, 4 hours!
The key is to have a decent number of books and a wide variety of genres for him to choose from. I want to share our essential book categories that we always have on hand for road trips with toddlers.
Put a couple of books they know really well and can “read” to themselves. These go-to favorites are like guaranteed entertainment.
If you listen closely, your toddler might surprise you with their narration ability. I have heard Austin recite an entire book to himself in the backseat. It is the stinkin’ cutest thing in the world! And it makes your momma heart melt like butter.
Examples: Giraffes Can’t Dance, Little Blue Truck, The Basebalphabet
I always make sure to include storybooks. They are fun for toddlers to look through and figure out the story (or make up their own) according to the progression of pictures they see.
Examples: Where Happiness Lives, Nibbles Numbers, When God Made the World
Informational books on the other hand, offer a busy page filled with lots of things to look at. Even if it’s too much for them to look at when they play at home, try it out on a road trip. It’s amazing how interested they can be in every little detail when they know they have all the time in the world and no other distractions vying for their attention.
Examples: Big Book of Numbers, Big Book of ABC’s, First 100 Animals, Big Book of Stars + Planets
Lift the flap books are fabulous!!! Austin LOVES every single one I’ve purchased from Usborne. He has loved reading these books over and over for the past TWO YEARS! They are gold!
If you have a younger toddler, you could consider touch and feel books as well. They provide tactile engagement, which keeps little ones intrigued.
As your kids get to the older toddler stages, look and find books and sticker books become perfect endless entertainment. Multiple pages filled with things to look for and stickers to match up--it’s tactile and engaging their brains on a deeper level! Win! Win!
Examples: Lift-the-flap Opposites, Lift-the-flap Seasons, What are Stars?, What is the Moon?, Big Book of Things to Spot, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse On The Go, Ultimate Sticker Book
NO Noise Making Books!
We don’t allow Austin to have noise-making books or toys in the car. (And we avoid them at home.) Why??? Because we would lose our freakin’ minds!
If you are willing to sacrifice your sanity and peaceful drive, then give it a go! But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Whichever books you choose, it’s a good idea to have a means of storing them (other than all over the floor). Have a basket or bin to set on the seat beside them. It can contain a large number of books without your backseat looking like a tornado just swept through.
Your toddler can easily put their books away in the basket and pull them out as they want. Bonus - You get to avoid that shoulder cramp from reaching around to pick a book up off the floor to hand to them…every…two…minutes.
Examples: ABSOLUTELY NONE!
3. Easy snacks
When it comes to snacks, I have one main goal -- AVOID messes!
As a general rule of thumb, I do not let Austin eat snacks in the car. I don’t want to deal with the mess. Plus, I want him to learn to be comfortable and content in the car without needing a snack.
However, road trips are one of the exceptions to my rule. I personally love to eat snacks in the car on road trips, so I’ll gladly allow my toddler to do the same.
That being said…I strategically choose snacks that will not generate lots of crumbs or lead to stained clothes. As a matter of fact, avoid anything RED. Don’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.
To do this, avoid crunchy snacks that your toddler has to bite into. Biting something crunchy often leads to crumbs plummeting off their chin, down their chest, and into every nook and cranny of their carseat.
Instead, I will find crunchy snacks that are bite-sized. He can pop a whole piece in his mouth, significantly reducing the crumb production.
I say reduce and not eliminate because…let’s be real…toddlers somehow find a way to create crumbs. It’s inevitable. BUT bite-size crunchy snacks cut the quantity WAY DOWN.
Even so, it helps to be prepared for the inevitable crumbs that find their way into the carseat.
PRO Tip: For the inevitable crumbs that fall, use a pad that slides into the carseat. If a mess does occur, remove the pad and brush out the crumbs. Something like this keeps our car seat clean and is waterproof, so it works great while potty training!
Whichever snacks you include, make the snacks work FOR you NOT AGAINST you. Let me explain.
Save the best snacks for later in the trip as a REWARD. Snacks are awesome positive reinforcements. Just make sure to get ahead of the meltdowns and reward good behavior. It’s like an extra special treat that makes your toddler feel proud of how well they are doing in the car.
Do not give it to your child out of desperation when they are screaming. Even if you are willing to do anything to make them stop. This sends the message to them that they throw a fit in the car and they get a treat. Help them to calm down BEFORE giving them a special treat.
Let’s teach them how to be good travelers in the car by reinforcing the right behaviors not the wrong ones.
4. Mess-free Activities
When books and snacks are not enough entertainment for your road tripping toddler, you can turn to mess-free activities. Mess free. Avoid activities that involve multiple pieces or the potential for your seat cushions to be colored. Are you seeing my life pattern yet?
Coloring can be a good activity for the car if you have appropriate materials that don’t involve real crayons or markers.
Opt for Water Wow! coloring books or Imagine Ink coloring books. All they use is a water filled pen or a colorless marker. Your toddler can watch the colors magically appear on the pages!
Even less of a mess is a magnetic drawing board. Your toddler can draw and erase over and over until their little heart's content. And bonus…the pen is attached to the board so they can’t ever drop it on the floor!
If handheld activities aren’t doing it, then you can always opt for audio activities. Play an audiobook for your toddler to listen along to in the car.
You could also play their favorite music to listen to for a while on your road trip. (Providing you are willing to put up with listening to it too.)
We have listened to our fair share of Disney music and Disneyland Park music on our family road trips. Luckily, the music doesn’t bother us. We actually enjoy it, and Austin stays entertained by it for quite a while. It’s a major win for a road trip with toddlers!
When all else fails…you can always hold out hoping for a nap to kick in!
Once your toddler is potty trained, taking frequent breaks throughout your road trip becomes a necessity. But even if your toddler is still in diapers, breaks are game-changers.
Think about how wiggly and mobile our toddlers like to be at home. Imagine telling them they have to sit completely still in one place for hours on end with no complaining or acting out. Does that sound realistic to you? No way!
Heck…I never sit still on road trips. I am always shifting around in my seat, repositioning my legs every 30 minutes so my butt doesn’t go numb.
Guess what…our toddlers don’t have that luxury. They are strapped into a five-point harness that holds them in the exact same position (albeit for their safety) until they get unbuckled.
If you told me to sit in the exact same position with a five-point harness on for hours, I’d want to slap you silly! So why would we expect our squirmy toddlers to be ok with it?
Schedule strategic breaks into your road trip schedule. You can stop for as long as you like, but at least a 10-minute break will work wonders for the little ones.
Do more with your break than just go to the bathroom. Make the purpose of the break for expending energy. Find a place where your toddler can walk, jump, or run. Get their little muscles moving and their blood flowing!
Try taking a break at one of these places:
Outdoor Shopping Mall
Any big grassy space!
Try it Out
Ultimately, you know your child better than anyone. Play to their strengths and preferences. Maybe all five of these will work wonderfully. Or maybe only one or two will stick.
Whatever the case, try them out and see what works best for your toddler. Change it up a bit. Embrace variety and avoid discontent, fussy children on your family trips.
Even if you aren’t taking a full on road trip yet, practice these tips and tricks on normal car rides. Give them a basket of books to read as you are driving around running errands. Let them color (mess-free) on your way to Grandma’s house.
Practicing these strategies on shorter car rides can set you up for a more successful long road trip with toddlers. It’s an opportunity to see what works. Iron out the kinks. And determine what will work best for your long road trip with toddlers to make it Worth Every Trip.
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