Advice for long road trip with baby and young child?
August 11, 2016 1:30 AM   Subscribe

Please help me and my sweet, innocent children survive a 2-day road trip. Kids are ages about one and preschool age. We will be staying with family as well, so any advice for navigating a potentially dealing with the usual type of slightly obnoxious in-law difficulties is also welcome. How do you make time for yourself or find time to relax during stressful family visits? Is that even possible? Posting anonymously because spouse sometimes read mefi and I prefer they don't know exactly how much I'm dreading this trip.

The drive is a good twelve hours. For a few reasons, we prefer to break this up over two days rather than trying to do one, long over-night drive. (Although what are your thoughts on big over-night drives? We may try this on the return trip).

I am most worried about how the baby will handle the car ride. Baby is super mellow and sweet baby and an AWESOME napper and sleeper. Currently naps an average of 3-4 hours a day and all night, although that's in her crib. I'm hoping baby will nap in the car, but I'm not sure for how long. She has been on a few 2-3 hour car rides in the past and did okay, although was of course restless near the end. No signs of car sickness. I'm actually not worried about the pre-schooler in the car because she can read or draw or play iPad games and is a generally great travel buddy.

So how often would you plan on stopping? Any advice for great rest stops or chain restaurants, etc that are good? I'll definitely be hitting any McD's play lands we see on the way. It will likely be HOT so extended play at outdoor rest stops might not work out. I guess I'm mostly looking for travel tips, ideas for entertainment in the car and reassurance that we can all survive this and the baby won't be traumatized. Any baby sleep advice for in the car and at the in-laws house? Baby will be in a portable crib at the hotel during the road trip and at in-laws.

In-law visit: We will stay with my in-laws. This is potentially fine, but potentially highly annoying for me because of some real personality conflicts. In-laws are anxious, set in their routines and just different in general from myself and my family. BUT they are loving and sweet grandparents and I want to nourish that relationship, while also finding time for me to have a minute to say "WTF" to myself and decompress. Politics are an issue, but my current game plan is to pretend I didn't hear when FIL brings up Trump. This has worked effectively for me before, although of course it makes my blood pressure rise. There's so much more I could add, but it's hard to know when to stop. They are slightly weird, but also fine. The trip will probably be mostly terrible, but also okay. I am so bummed knowing this kind of trip is the only trip we'll have all year. It's our first vacation in 3 years and I'm dreading it. If we could fly or stay in a hotel, believe me, we would. I am thinking if the car trip is miserable for the baby, I will book a quick airline ticket and fly home with him instead and just deal with a big credit card bill.

Help me, refi.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know that I have specific advice, but I'm here for reassurance! We did four 9+ hour drives with our two (slightly younger) kids recently -- you will be fine!!! In terms of stopping, our plan was to drive for as long as we could until one of the kids started melting down, and then stop for food, gas, and to stretch our legs. (We got gas even if we weren't particularly low, so that we wouldn't have to stop later and interrupt the kids' naps or anything like that.) In practice, we wound up stopping every 2 hours or so, but handling it that way allowed us to keep going when everyone was cheerful, while being flexible about pulling over more quickly if we were having trouble settling the kids. We did have some crying, of course, but we all survived, and no one was traumatized (as far as we can tell). You'll make it!
posted by cider at 2:34 AM on August 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

Doing overnight drives with kids can result in a lack of good sleep for the kids which may impact how well they do the next day or two. However, I used to do overnight drives frequently through the Indiana Toll Road, Ohio Turnpike, and Penna Turnpike and find that it is mostly a small number of relatively polite truckers and very few other vehicles, which is a lot more pleasant than busy highways.

If you're going to do it as a single shot, making stops eats up a lot of time that could be used to make progress on the drive. 12 hours could get you as far as 900 miles, which is a distance that I have done in a single day with a two and a half year old and only a few stops for gas, drive-thru food, and I think one playland for a short while. Avoid the temptation to constantly stop. You're trading distance for every stop, so if you can stop every three or four hours rather than every two, you may make better progress. If that turns out to be something you or the kids can't take, you'll find out, and you can always choose to stop as needed. If your kids can sleep in the car and this won't ruin you as a driver to do it, the overnight single shot is reasonable to try.

I usually prefer to do about 400 miles a day and then find a hotel and explore whatever area we find ourselves in. This gives some time to stop a few times during each segment and is a lower pressure way to make a trip, especially if you're going more than a thousand miles and can handle a several day trip.

The stopping at McD playlands idea is a good one as long as they're good playlands. My observation is that in certain areas of the country, the McD's in small rural towns tend to have very awesome playlands, but many of the ones in cities tend to be small and/or poorly maintained.

Back at that age, we had a seat-back mount for the iPad which worked very well and could be used to have the iPad play movies. Never underestimate the value of the entertainment option. Load up half a dozen kids movies if you can, hope to need none of them, but have them there as an option.

Travel Bingo is possible with preschool age kids, and the more devious sheets will include some hard-to-find ones. I'm mean and I play them as "fill the sheet". Depending on attention spans, this can be a great way to get the kids to look out the window and study the scenery.

Try to avoid taking the Interstate for the entire trip. The freeways tend to miss all the great stuff that makes up America. If you can find a stretch of highway that runs parallel to your travel for a few dozen miles, take it. This fights Interstate fatigue, and also gives you a much better feel for the sort of land you're going through. Most of the great stuff we find while traveling, we don't plan to find. If you see something along the way, like a great-looking diner or interesting roadside stop, consider seriously (but quickly) whether or not it'd be worth it. Try to do one or two of those if they present themselves.

I'd like to say lots more, but we're actually in the middle of one of our driving trips right now, and today we're making the final 400 mile shot home. Time to pack up the laptop and head out. Try to enjoy the trip, don't worry too much about the politics, focus on enjoying it and try to remain positive. Drive safely.
posted by jgreco at 3:28 AM on August 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

There's only so much you can do. At some point you will have stopped a bunch and the baby will be fed and have a dry diaper and will still be crying and you just have to keep driving. My kids have both definitely cried (screamed really) for an hour+ in the car and were totally fine. I seriously just cranked the music up until they fell asleep.
posted by betsybetsy at 4:08 AM on August 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

You'll have a car when you get there. I just leave for a bit during the day to go get coffee. "Get coffee" can be whatever you want - "i need a break, i'll be back in a bit." seems to work ok.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 4:57 AM on August 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Long car trips have been suprisingly much easier than expected in our family, both currently (preschooler with iPad and pre loaded shows, baby who is very chill by temperament) and when my eldest was a baby. If you are doing 6 hours per day, start an hour or so before baby nap time, then zoom through the nap, then keep going as long as you can after until fussiness begins. Should only need a few stops.
posted by wyzewoman at 5:38 AM on August 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

We did an eight-hour ride with a fifteen-month-old and three-year-old and it was really okay. I went to the dollar store and a used bookstore and loaded up on little treats that I knew would be a hit, and handed them out about once an hour. We sang songs and played "I Spy" with the older kid. We stopped about every two hours (which of course turned the eight hours into more like 10) at highway rest stops, when possible. After everyone had used the bathroom and eaten, we'd go to the least busy part of the rest stop and walk/run/skip/play for a little bit before loading back into the car. The three-year-old actually helped by entertaining the younger kid a bunch - holding up books to "read" to her, making faces, chattering away.

I would vote against an overnight drive because even if the kids sleep, the parents will be worn the heck out the next day, which is miserable for everyone. I remember as a kid my uncle and cousin would visit with my uncle driving overnight, then we all had to stay quiet with Fun! New! Cousin! around, because her dad was sleeping.

Re: in-laws, it sounds like your relationship with the in-laws is similar to mine, and I've found it really, really helps to let your spouse know how you actually feel. It's a hard conversation, but it really helps to have someone who knows how you're feeling and knows to check in on you and to whom you can vent a little. It's also okay to set boundaries with them - "You know, FIL, I really would prefer not to discuss politics. Thanks." and then getting up and leaving the room if it continues.
posted by SeedStitch at 5:42 AM on August 11, 2016

My parents bought cheap toys/games from Goodwill and the dollar store, wrapped them in cheap paper complete with bows, and gave us PRESENTS!!!! during long road trips. The presents only came out when we were already behaving ourselves. They were things that could entertain us for at least 10-20 minutes and the added diversion and excitement of getting to open presents all day long made boring driving days a lot more bearable.
posted by juliplease at 8:25 AM on August 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

The great thing about visiting family when you have little kids is, you can reasonably walk away in the middle of someone's sentence without offending them because you "needed to check on the kids". All you need to say is "oops, excuse me" and walk away. And then you don't return to the conversation because you "got distracted" when you decided that one of the kids needed a meal, or a diaper change, or some fresh air. So it should be really easy to walk away whenever FIL starts talking about Trump.

As for the road trip; in CA it is "suggested" to keep the baby rear-facing until at least 2yo (until the new law goes into effect in January); I have heard friends say that they had good luck with road trips by turning the baby forward-facing. But that's the sort of thing that can cause issues later if you return the baby to rear-facing once you get home.
posted by vignettist at 8:49 AM on August 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Other people have great ideas for the car. Mine is for the hotel where you stop mid-way. Get a place with a pool, and bring swimsuits. Take the kids to the pool. They will sleep beautifully.
posted by tuesdayschild at 9:54 AM on August 11, 2016 [6 favorites]

My long drive recommendation is: don't preemptively stop. If we did the "well... the baby will probably wake up soon so we should stop for lunch now..." thing, we stopped needlessly and wasted way more time than if we just waited until baby actually woke up to stop. Sometimes the car will make them nap a lot longer than normal - take advantage of it and keep driving!

I feel like my kids are pretty good car travelers; we don't seem to have to stop specifically to let them run around (though we obviously have them run around when we do stop!), and we don't have DVD players or iPads or anything. We bring a portable Magnadoodle thing and those WaterWow drawing pads and a few toys (plastic dinosaurs, etc.) and they seem to do fine.

Bring a wetbag (or a garbage bag or big ziplock) and some rags or a roll of paper towels to stash in your trunk. Somebody may barf and you want to be prepared for it.

For reference, our trips have been roughly 8-10hrs each way, and we've done it 1-2 times a year for the last six years.

You can do it!
posted by meggan at 12:32 PM on August 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you have two drivers and are landing at family where you can recover with good support the day after, the long overnight drive is preferable, IMHO. And babies are often better with long car trips than preschoolers, actually, because they just sleep so much. (credentials" countless 12+ hour car trips/bus trips/plane trips with babies/toddlers/preschoolers, at times as a single parent). I'm personally of the "get it over with as quickly as possible" school (ref. "overnight" recommendation) so if you do go ahead with two ~6 hour driving days, plan to just do 3 hrs, long meal/stretch stop (yes to McDonalds with Playland if it's going to be too hot to stop at a park or something), then another 3 hrs after the meal. If you're lucky the food will put even the preschooler to sleep for afternoon nap for most of the 2nd half. Don't catastrophize. People do this ALL THE TIME, and under worse circumstances--like long-distance bus and plane trips where you can't control when the stops are and if your kid decides to have a fit you have to worry about annoying other people. People get all het up over traveling with littles but IMHO they're much better travelers than your average 13 year old.

If there's anything interesting in the area (side-trips, day trips, etc.) you can visit without the in-laws, that might help give you a little break and make it feel like an actual vacation. Since this is spouse's home territory, put the burden on them to come up with a good plan there.
posted by drlith at 2:15 PM on August 11, 2016

I've done a whole lot of traveling with my toddler and preschooler. My usual tricks are:
- A bunch of different novel snacks like different kinds of pouches, puffs, and snack bars - my kids love food. Whip them out at intervals
- Have one adult sit in the back to address the frequent issues like dropping toys and books, handing out pacifiers if needed, etc.
- A bunch of random little toys and maybe a few cheap little new things that would be a novelty. Those coloring books where you "color" by brushing water on them with an included "water pen" are awesome for toddlers because there is no ink.
- Desperate measures: sing songs. Have favorite Disney songs queued up on a playlist. Singing songs that involve repetitive verses where you can sub in the names of people you know somehow seem to hold interest. i.e "Row, row, row your Nana, gently down the stream..."
- Save the iPad for when the toddler starts to get bored so it hasn't gotten to be old news by then.

Is there any way you can bring a third party along for the purposes of childcare? This is a big strategy I use to reduce the stress of traveling with children. I am blessed in that I can afford to do things like bring a nanny, but for example I did a trip earlier this summer and I just brought a family friend's 16 year old daughter who wanted to come for the fun trip and I didn't have to pay her anything, and she helped me take care of the kids and watched them on her own a few hours each day in return for being taken along.

Definitely don't turn a child under 2 forward facing. The AAP recommends that all children under 2 be rear facing, and that's really a bare minimum. Studies have shown the odds of severe injury in a crash for children 12-24 months in a forward facing seat are more than 5 times higher - there's simply no convenience that would justify doing it.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:57 PM on August 11, 2016

A lot of good advice above! I'll throw in one tip that we found very helpful: provide a surface for your preschooler to rest her feet on. Long trips are hard on dangling legs, so if you can put a small suitcase or something on the floor of the car under her legs, she'll be much more comfortable.
posted by LKWorking at 11:38 AM on August 12, 2016

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