We estimate that in 2008, my family travelled with our toddler (14 months at the beginning of the year, 25 months by the end) approximately 350 hours on the 401 (a major highway in Ontario) in order to visit the in-laws. The Boy was only 6 weeks old when we took him on his first trip across the province to see them and now we take both him and my 3 month old.
All this to say, I feel like I can speak quite confidently about driving with the kids. I mean, we’ve survived all these trips with very few major melt-downs, tantrums and yelling – and the toddler was pretty well behaved too! And trust me, 9 hours in a car, trapped with the kids is a scary proposition, but it can be done.
With the summer approaching, I have no doubt that many of you are planning trips with your families too, so I’ve put a list that I hope will be helpful when planning the drive. Fill up the tank and get ready to hit the road.
10 Things to do when planning a long (or maybe short!) family drive
1. Add extra time to the distance
How far is the trip? Assume for a stop about every 2 hours. Why? Because either the baby will need to eat, the toddler will need a bum change (or to use the potty) or everyone will just have to stretch their legs.
Now, even with the estimate of every 2 hours, this can easily be blown out of the water. Our recent trip, usually 9 hours with 2 (maybe 3) stops ended up with 5 stops in the first half of the trip. Completely unusual, yes, but not unlikely.
Stop 1 – Nurse and change baby.
Stop 2 – Change toddler.
Stop 3 – Nurse and change baby.
Stop 4 – Change toddler (and this was after being on the road for 10 minutes after last stop, thank you son.)
Stop 5- Nurse and change baby.
Even though you have an estimate when you want to stop and how long it may take, it will likely change. Be prepared. Having said all that, allow for this extra time at your destination. If you HAVE to be somewhere at a certain time, allow for a lot extra on the front end. Nothing makes the drive more stressful than the feeling of being late. With each added stop, you’ll feel your blood pressure rise with stress.
2. When they sleep, you drive
While this may seem obvious, I’ll say it anyway. If they are sleeping, keep driving. Don’t wake them. Make up as much time as you can during that time. Trust me. Tips below will help accomplish this, it’s that important.
3. Know your available stops
If you figure you’ll be stopping, on average, every 2 hours, you better make sure there is something around where you want to stop. Right now on the 401, for example, many of the service stations are closed for construction. In fact, in some areas, 2 back to back are closed, or there’s only a small stop with washrooms available. My recommendation #2, about letting the kids sleep as long as you can, only works if you have another available stop near by. If you are coming up to a service centre, kids are sleeping, but your next stop is 200 km away, I recommend you pull over. In some cases you won’t need to use a service centre, but you can pull over to a nearby town right off the highway, like Belleville.
4. Bring food – for you and the kids
If the kids are sleeping and you are crossing a stop that you thought you’d get food at but now don’t want to stop, having extra food and snacks available will help. That way, you and your partner won’t starve, but you’ll make up time.
Having food for your toddler is especially helpful. You can pass it back and they can snack long enough to make it to another stop, or in some cases, you can keep going longer than planned. Also, let’s face it, the service centres primarily offer fast food, and while having French Fries for lunch isn’t a bad thing, if that’s all your toddler eats at supper too it may not be enough. Easy food that I’ve found travels well and packs well are bananas, peanut butter sandwiches and muffins.
In addition, I recommend you bring a cooler. It can be just a cooler bag with ice packs to keep things cool – this means you can bring yogurt, sandwiches,cheese and other things that have to stay cool. Even better, if you drive a lot like we do, is a portable cooler. It’s like a mini-fridge that plugs into the vehicle and keeps everything cold, including extra milk and drinks. When my son was a baby, this was especially helpful to save the baby food in between meals.
5. Make use of your vehicle
Buy a van. Okay, that might be extreme but I won’t lie, at this stage, with two little ones, these long trips wouldn’t be as easy without our van. But no matter what you drive, maximize the space within and consider it your mobile home for the next many hours as you drive.
After almost 3 years of travelling with a little one (now two), neither of my kids have ever been into a service centre along the highway. There’s no comfortable place to nurse (except at the hard seats of the tables where people eat) and the bathrooms can often be
disgusting iffy. Plus, during the winter trips, None of us want to be trucking in and out of the cold. So, instead, we use the van as a nursing station, change station, restaurant etc. We often do drive thru so we can eat while stopped. I make sure diapers and everything are accessible for easy bum changes. If you have room, bring your nursing pillow or extra pillow for comfort. If you are formula feeding, have all your bottles of water ready and bring them with you so you don’t have to run in to get it.
6. Give them breaks and have some fun
Babies will just want to stop for a new diaper and to eat and will typically be ready to get back to sleep when put back in the car seat. But, let them stretch out for a bit during stops. You will find taking an extra 15 minutes of play/stretch time will make it a lot easier to get them back in the car seat.
For toddler, encourage them to get involved in the trip. Point out machinery and construction for them to see, talk about where you are going and different sites you see along the way. If you know the 401, you may know the Big Apple. Nothing fancy to look at but the size of it impresses the toddler. Plus, there is space to let them run around.
7. Let the kids drive
It would make for a pretty great trip if they could drive while we sat in the back watching DVDs right? Of course I don’t mean it literally, but when we stop, my son sits in the front sit and pretends to drive. He eats his snack and looks at the trucks at the stop. 15 minutes of this ‘fun’ and he’s very cooperative when going back into the car seat. It also gives him something to look forward to at each stop.
8. DVD Player
Sometimes their favourite CD or song will buy you some time if they are impatient to make a stop (and you need 20 minutes before your destination or logical stop). In our case: Timbaland’s “The Way I Are” has gotten us countless minutes of silence on the road. Weird, but it works and he loves it.
Sometimes, they are so close to sleeping but are fighting it (you know what I mean!) so we scan the radio stations for classical music. Not sure if it’s the soothing sounds or boredom, but it works for both of them and helps them sleep.
10. Bring extra clothes
Sure, you’ll have lots of clothes packed in your suitcases for the trip, BUT when you pack so perfectly and the kids stuff is on the bottom of the pile, AND one of them either pukes or poops all over the place, you won’t want to be unloading the car in the middle of the gas station. Instead, keep a few extra things handy for babies, and an extra shirt and pair of pants for older ones. Accidents happen. Oh, trust me, they happen.
Bonus! 11. Plan for the unexpected and relax
Let’s face it folks, we’re talking kids and babies and if there’s one thing we all know it’s that they are unpredictable. One trip is different from the rest. But if you give yourself lots of time, accept that there will be lots of stops and surprises, everything should go smoothly. I promise you, you will eventually reach your destination, but I cannot guarantee with what level of sanity you’ll arrive. But, after all this time, we’re still making the trips so I guess it can’t be all bad.
Drive safe and happy travels.