Everyone travels differently. Some people are schedulers and some are “go with the flow”-ers. I like to think that I sit somewhere in the middle of those. Even then, I still struggled with finding balance while on the road with our baby.
During our military move, we drove from Washington State to California with a baby, a dog, and towing a U-Haul filled with all of our most important belongings. There were moments of fun and all of the ideal road trip vibes. And then there were times of max stress. I’m talking about driving through the redwoods at night, on a windy road, with no cell service and a baby screaming nonstop. The moments that make you question why you ever thought that traveling with a baby was a good idea.
No matter how much you plan or prepare, there are going to be difficult moments. You cannot plan or prepare your baby for this journey. I’ve said it in my previous articles and will say it again: it’s important to be flexible. If you made plans, consider them more of guidelines or fun ideas. And take things as they come.
I’m not telling you this to scare you or discourage you as you plan for your road trip. This is to set you up with a better expectation than I had. I planned short days of driving, booked a place to stay every night in advance, and planned multiple viewpoints or fun places to stop. There were many breaks planned throughout our drive.
And yet my cautious mileage planning was still too much some days. The pre-booked Airbnb’s and hotel rooms ended up being a stressful and almost impossible goal at times. In reality, we really only managed to see 25% of the fun stops I had researched and planned for.
However, we saw some beautiful places, ate amazing food, and ended up finding some pretty awesome (unplanned) places on our stops. We tried to laugh through any of the difficult moments that we could. And for the ones we couldn’t? There were plenty of hugs or words of affirmation to make up for it.
Now, let’s talk about what I learned along the way! I hope this helps to make your road trip as amazing (and smooth) as you are hoping it to be.
Even if you feel confident in your car seat skills, please double-check your seat and straps. Babies grow so quickly and you might not realize your baby has outgrown the strap height. Check out SafeKids for car seat safety. And if you have any doubts, find a place to get a child seat safety check through NADA or SafeKids.
Also, you’ll want to be sure your car has an emergency kit. Ending up on the side of the road without one would not be a good thing at all. Invest in a complete kit. Because it’s honestly a good idea to have one in your car anyway!
Pack and Prepare
I have included a general travel essential list for both you and baby in my post about Traveling with a Baby. Here are some more road-trip-specific items that you’ll want to include. You can find all of my travel essentials listed on my Amazon page. And the Ultimate Baby Beach Packing List.
Road Trip Essentials for a Baby:
- A copy of your baby’s birth certificate. You may not need this. But it’s an item you don’t want to be without if you do need it. Especially if you are traveling near any borders.
- Extra clothes. (And one more than what you thought you might need!)
- Extra food. You’ll want this for unexpected cluster feeding or spills. If feeding breastmilk or formula, you can find really handy travel bottle warmers.
- Pumping: If you are traveling with extra breast milk, make sure you have a good cooler filled with dry ice to keep it frozen.
- Formula: Pack extra formula. And a water bottle or two.
- Solids and Purees: I would take solids or purees that don’t require more ice packs if any at all, especially if you are traveling with breastmilk. Think avocado, pears, bananas, or puffs. This will save precious cooler space for more important cargo – like breastmilk.
- Baby Carrier. Pick one that is lightweight because your hands will be full enough! This one even folds into itself to create a wearable fanny pack that doubles as a hip seat for carrying your baby.
- Nursing Pillows can make car feedings much more comfortable for all those involved.
- Medications for your baby (Tylenol, Motrin, Benadryl, Orajel, etc.)
- Baby thermometer
- Lots of diapers. Like more than you think you need. This is one of those items, like food, that you do not want to run out of.
- Car Garbage Bin for all of those diaper changes and snack wrappers.
- Travel Diaper Caddy for a handy little changing station.
- Diaper bag to hold all of the essentials
- Changing pad.
- Bags for dirty diapers.
- Additional bag for blowout clothes.
- Bibs, muslin blankets, burp cloths, etc for spit-ups.
- Hand sanitizer for all of those gas station and rest stop germs.
- Diaper cover. I don’t worry about these as much when I’m driving around in the city that I live in. But when you are on the road and don’t have easy access to an appropriate sink or a washer to clean blowouts, a diaper cover is much easier to manage. (I’m speaking from experience…)
- Bottles, pump parts, pump, and charger. You don’t want to end up miles and miles away from home before realizing you left these very expensive items behind. There are even car chargers for your pump!
- Travel Sanitizing Bags for sanitizing on the go (this works great for bottle or pump parts, and teether toys as well!)
- Toys, pacifiers, and Books. Pro Tip: Buy new ones that your baby has not seen yet to entertain them longer.
- Toys clips to keep from losing or dirtying those toys and pacifiers.
- Travel-sized bottles for baby lotion, wash, etc. to keep from hauling the larger bottles around.
Parent Travel Essentials for Flying with a Baby:
- A change of clothes (or two!). Keep these close by, like in the diaper bag, so you don’t have to dig through your luggage while stopped on the side of the road.
- Snacks. So many snacks. If you read my article on Flying with a Baby, you know I made this mistake on a 6-hour flight that ended up not providing food services (thanks, pandemic!). There is no such thing as having too many snacks on hand. So pack them all!
- Entertainment. Books, podcasts, headphones, or games on your phone.
- Water bottle. Always keep it filled to stay hydrated on the road!
- Caffeine. If you are like me, this is a must anytime you leave the house. Better to have it than not.
- Medications for adults (ginger chews, Dramamine, Tylenol, etc.).
Prepare the Vehicle
Have easy access to all of the essential items for spit-ups, blowouts, and any other mess you could imagine. Keep a diaper bag within reach filled with all of your diaper changing needs. Try to keep this continually stocked as you use items.
Also, you’ll want to keep medications close by – both for you and your baby. Tylenol, Benadryl, Motrin, Orajel, etc. The last thing you want to do when you really need medicine is to dig around searching for where it was packed.
Finally, make sure you have a sunshade on the window and infant sunscreen (6 month+) close by. Even though it might not seem likely to get a sunburn through a car window, your baby has very sensitive and delicate skin! Protect it as well as you can.
Before the Trip
Pack the night before and make sure everything is ready to go, even down to the outfits laid out that you all intend to wear. In general, this is just a pro-parenting tip. Although I’m not about to pretend I do this all of the time. But it certainly does relieve a lot of stress when I do!
Bring a cooler and pack meals. Keep extra snacks on hand and eat when you can. You do not want to end up hungry on the road when your baby finally falls asleep. Unless there is a restaurant that you have to stop at, take advantage of the times that your baby is awake and get food then. Or keep it in your cooler for when you are hungry next.
In case of meltdowns, leave space for someone to sit by the baby. Not to mention this can be important for their safety. Children under one shouldn’t be left to sleep in their car seats alone for long. You’ll want to be sure their head hasn’t flopped forward into a position that will impact their breathing. You can get a mirror to monitor your baby but they may also require someone next to them for comfort. This space can also be used as your designated diaper-changing space!
Research Your Route
If you are one of the schedulers that I mentioned at the beginning of this article, you won’t need advice about how to research your route. But you will want to know not to plan for too many hours in one day. Don’t stress yourself out by pushing yourself or your baby too far.
For those of you who are more “go with the flow”, I challenge you to do a little research ahead of time. Know what to expect in terms of cell service, sunset, and potential route delays.
Try to leave a day or so of buffer time on your road trip. Giving yourself this room will reduce your stress greatly. If you are on a time crunch and have to push through hours and hours of screaming, it will not be good for anyone involved. And it’s definitely not the safest to be driving when you are super stressed and pressed for time.
Tips for the Road
While on the road, watch the time. Keep in mind your baby’s schedule. When you are out of your normal routine, it’s easy to forget when you fed them last. Set timers or reminders on your phone to help you.
And monitor naps – try to be sure they aren’t sleeping too much or becoming overstimulated keeping them from napping. If you can somewhat predict when your baby will nap next, plan to be driving during that times. As mentioned earlier, they should not be napping without some supervision.
Download and use Waze to avoid traffic and make it there faster. Waze provides real-time updates from other drivers to alert you of potholes, police, or broken down vehicles. It also provides you route alternatives to get you there as quickly and safely as possible.
If you have a partner or co-pilot with you, remain open in communication. And willing to say when you need a break or a change in the plan. They are also great support when you need to vent after stressful moments. Don’t pack that negativity up for your journey, get rid of those thoughts.
You can’t expect your baby to just be content in a car all day long. Taking breaks to change up their scenery and allow them to move more freely will do wonders. Take breaks every hour or two, depending on your baby’s needs.
Plan some sightseeing along the way so it becomes more exciting and less of an inconvenience. Bring an outdoor blanket to let your baby move their body while you stretch yours a bit. Take advantage of these breaks. Change their diaper, feed your baby, fuel up, and restock your cooler. Use this time to plan out your potential next stop.
More Break Tips
I prefer doing diaper changes in the car. As you can see above, rest-stop bathrooms can be pretty gross. I worry about dropping items or my baby touching too many surfaces there. Plus there is no pressure to hurry up or quiet your baby when you are in your own space.
I’m a huge baby-wearing advocate. Baby carriers can help make stops hands-free and much quicker. You can find snacks, use the bathroom, or check out a beautiful view without having to worry about keeping an extra eye on your baby. They are safe when they are on you.
Keeping Baby Happy
Being in a car seat for extended periods of time can be uncomfortable and boring. Especially when your baby can’t understand why they are there. Baby massages can help them feel more comfortable. There are soothing baby toys you can bring to keep them cozy and entertained. Sleeping with a blanket the night before can make it smell like you and provide additional comfort to your little one.
As for entertainment, pack new toys. Ones they have never seen before to keep their attention and keep them happy. Bring bubbles for some of your stops along the way, these are always a hit.
I also talked about how this is a bit like survival mode in my article on Traveling with a Baby. If you have a rule against screen time, this might be a time to reconsider that – just for this temporary situation. You could find an age-appropriate and educational game or video to entertain your baby.
Where (and how) you and your baby sleep can impact your road trip. On our road trip, we booked Airbnb and hotels in advance. We were able to find some really unique places this way! However, I mentioned earlier that if I had a redo I would have booked hotels as we traveled and not in advance. At least for some of the nights. It was far too much pressure to need to be in a specific town by a certain time.
When you do get to where you are staying, do your best to recreate your baby’s normal sleep environment. Use white noise playlists on Spotify, bring a portable white noise speaker, or do what you can to keep it quiet. The guests or neighbors near where you are staying might be noisy and the last thing you want is for them to wake your baby.
One of the nights on our trip, we debated driving through the night. It’s something we’ve both done before having a baby and is a really great way to make a lot of progress on your trip. But this can be dangerous, especially when you have an infant. You are probably already sleep-deprived, like most parents with babies. And rest stops at night are not very safe places to be. I certainly wouldn’t want my baby near one at nighttime.
As you start each new day, check the weather, your route, and when sunset is. Look at the towns along your drive to see which ones might be good to stop at for gas, food, or bathroom breaks. Knowing what to expect along the way can prevent you from ending up in scary or stressful situations.
Starting early is always the best option, as most babies are the happiest after a full night’s sleep. However, I don’t blame you for sleeping in if your baby allows it. I’d take advantage of that too!
Enjoy the Ride
Above all, try to enjoy yourself! Document the journey. Take pictures or videos to capture all of the memories you are bound to make along the way. Good or bad, you’ll have stories to tell your little one when they get older.
You’ve Got a Friend in Me
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Check out these articles:
- Advice for Flying with a Baby | Plus Essential Items to Pack
- Tips for Traveling with a Baby
- How to Deal with Triggers
- Journal Prompts for Anxiety
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