How To Road Trip with your Toddler and Not Lose Your Mind

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When my son was 18 months old, I realized I was going to be going on a 15-hour road trip with him, solo. At the time we were moving 1000 miles from our home in New Jersey to Green Bay, Wisconsin. My husband was starting our move early to get us settled and start his job. Which left me, my son, and my car needing to somehow arrive 1000 miles across the country, about 8 weeks after my husband.

Every time I pictured the drive, I could feel a lump in my throat begin to develop. I knew this drive was not going to be easy but I put my nerves into action and asked for tips from every willing mom ear, researched countless amazon reviews, and scoured through every mom blog piece I could find. I found a plan that not only worked for the long road trip but one that now gives me the confidence to road trip most weekends, camping with my baby and toddler.

Here is how…

RESEARCH THE DRIVE

The first recommendation I have is, make a plan. How far are you going? My first instinct for our 15-hour road trip was to drive straight through like a pregnant mom super warrior. However, after a lot of thought and several family interventions, I realized I was going to need to stay somewhere overnight. If this is your first road trip with a tiny human just make sure you’re realistic about not only your limits but also the tiny humans’ limits you are transporting.

Next, I would stalk Google Maps. In my case, I researched stops about every hour up until the hotel and did the same for the next day. This was important since I was traveling alone and I knew I could not be searching on my phone while driving. Not to mention data can be iffy in certain rural areas of our country. Knowing how far the next rest stop was if my son was at his limit, was invaluable. It kept my stress level down and also gave me something to focus on. I wrote all the stops out on a big post-it, then taped it to my dashboard for quick access. I would highly recommend this for every long road trip.

STOPS

We were traveling the last week in February, going into the Midwest. Which meant my stop choices were LIMITED! For those that do not know, snow covers the ground (heavily) during those months so I was unable to pop into a playground on those days. The goal of my stops was to get my son’s energy out and keep us both sane. Most of the stops I chose were rest stops but I let him run and play in the areas I could. I will note that for 1-year-olds, the magnet section in the gift shop is a win (be advised – to not tick people off, you will need to purchase one at the end). We were able to add Bellaboos Indoor Play Place to one of our stops and would recommend adding at least one just for kids’ play place to your trip if you can. Even if it does add extra time, as it did for us; having something for the kids to look forward to helps the whole car in the end.

MAKE TIME WORK FOR YOU

I started the road trip around my son’s nap time after work. Luckily he napped for a little over an hour when we first got in the car. My son was/is a terrible napper but a great night sleeper so try and make a plan that will work in your favor. However, be flexible and manage your expectations because you don’t know how they will react (really we never do). I highly recommend understanding Sleep Windows and to try and plan your stops accordingly.

THE DRIVE

You will need your child to be entertained. This is obviously the part that terrifies every road-tripping Momma. How will I keep those tiny humans entertained? I will say this system works awesome for us and just to be clear my oldest is not some awesome car riding, quiet sit in the corner, and color toddler. My toddler is the one climbing on top of the jungle gym in the middle of the play place while shouting at the top of his lungs. So if this works for him it can and will work for your little ones!

I recommend picking up a gift bag, tissue, and wrapping paper. The idea is to make it seem like a gift, every toddler’s favorite thing. Within the gift bag, I wrap enough items for my son to do every 5 minutes. This ends up being about 12 wrapped items per hour. For the 15-hour road trip, I ended up splitting up about 180 items into 4 gift bags which was one gift bag for every 4-hour section of the road trip.

Here are some of what I put into those gift bags: 

Snacks – This is obvious but pick the things that they will enjoy but also take time to consume. You also want snacks you will not worry about them choking on while you’re driving. I tried to limit sugar until I was desperate or about to stop. The things that worked best for us were fruit/veggies pouches, veggie straws, crackers, chips in small bags like these Fold Baggies for easy toddler access. Also, I grabbed those huge lollipops for when I was giving out sugar and they were a hit.

Wrap It -I wrapped over half of the things I put into the gift bags, in advance. This included his small cars, all of our Shutterfly magnets, books, boxes of tissues, wipes, empty water bottles, post-it notes, and I also wrapped most of the snacks. I also included any toy in our house that seemed to hold his interest for a decent length of time and this included several of my own kitchen spatulas and plastic cups. I recommend wrapping and double wrapping because this keeps them entertained.

Buy Things or Borrow – I am not big on buying gifts in general, however, for the length of the trip we were on, I caved and purchased several presents for the long trip ahead. The following worked best for us and are still essentials on every road trip we take. Busy Board, Lego SetLearning Board, DVD PlayerLittle Baby Bums DVD.

I made a list of all the things I could do to keep him entertained since I stress out easily when he has meltdowns. I knew I needed to stay focused but having a post-it of things I could do in order helped me calm down. See the picture below of our list.

Do not Forget the Drivers!

It’s easy as moms to forget about yourself but make a gift bag for yourself, I put my favorite snacks and drinks into one and it helped me keep my energy up. Also, I was worried about having to stop for a restroom since I was 8 months pregnant, I also packed depends (No shame, it was the best decision I made). That way if my son was cooperating I could keep driving without stopping every half hour to go pee.


Not only have these tips helped, but I am also now a confident mom traveling with my husband, toddler, and 3-month-old, regularly. I have it down to such a science that I grab the gift bags and pull a travel bag together in less than 20 mins. We recently bought a camper and have traveled hours in the car together as a family and did not lose our minds. I hope these tips give you confidence and not let you think twice about hopping in the car together; you got this! Check out Road Trip Tips for more great traveling tips. 

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