When hearing of our travel plans this summer, friends and family always ask whether I’m nervous about the long flight with a baby. Truth be told, I’m much more nervous about the long car ride taking us to our first destination on our trip. Eleven hours in the car with a baby that’s just learned to crawl, stand, move, and explore has me losing a tad more sleep than the idea of a flight abroad.
The problem with car rides (as opposed to train or air travel), is that it requires said baby to remain strapped into a car seat for the majority of the trip. Sure, we’ll stop and shake out our limbs and stretch our tired bodies. But there is only so long that you can stop for on an eleven-hour trip from Iowa to Ohio. On the plane, on the other hand, we’ll be able to pace the aisle, interact with other passengers, and vary the view every once in a while.
While I can’t let my baby pace the car, I have figured out a few things that can make an epic car ride with an energetic baby a lot more manageable. We first tackled this very trip (approximately 650 miles) back in December when we drove to Ohio to see family over the holidays. Not only did we have our then four-months-old with us but our three-year-old hyperactive dog was along for the ride as well. Here is how we made the best of a potentially stressful situation:
1. We left very early in the morning so that our daughter (and dog) were still on “sleep time” and slept for the first few hours on the road.
2. I sat in the backseat next to our daughter for the entire time. Yup, I’m that parent. But it worked so well that I would do it again in a heart beat. Being next to her meant that I could hand her a bottle, play with her, distract her with books, and sing her to sleep whenever she got tired of looking at that same old backseat for what seemed like an eternity. Yes, it was somewhat odd to be riding behind my husband, who drove the entire time (this would be our driving dynamic regardless of children – I hate driving and much prefer being in charge of in-car entertainment), but we soon got used to making eye contact via the rearview mirror.
3. We stopped for longer than we would usually stop at a gas station and looked for as many stimulating and interesting sights as possible. The goal was to tire out our daughter enough that she’d settle back into her car seat happily and willingly. Ditto for the dog.
4. We brought along toys that were new to her and hadn’t been exhausted at home yet. Favorites (at four months old) consisted of anything that made a sound, moved, or “came alive” in any other way.
5. When all else failed, we listed to Bill Bryson. His soft and soothing voice always did the trick of lulling our daughter back to sleep. And it kept us happy and entertained. My favorite Bill Bryson books on CD include A Walk in the Woods, From a Sunburned Country, and I’m a Stranger Here Myself.
In the end, any combination of “tricks” could work to keep a baby happy while stuck in a car seat for the entirety of a day. It all depends on your child, his or her disposition and preferences, and your routines as a family. My ideas may work for some but not for others. In fact, I have a feeling that what worked for us with a four-month-old may may change when we travel with a ten-months-old next month.
The only thing that I can whole-heartedly recommend to any parent undertaking a long car ride with a young one is this: patience. I imagine that just as I’d hate being immobilized for eleven hours, my daughter probably feels the same way. So patience goes a long way.
Something else that goes a long way? The option of train travel. Should you live in a part of the country where that’s possible, forget everything I wrote and just book a ticket already. Happy travels!
Have you gone on longer road trips with a baby or a toddler? How have you made the car ride more enjoyable for everyone involved? Please chime in with your experiences!
About Ruxandra Looft
Ruxandra Looft is a writer and editor based in Des Moines, Iowa. Originally from Romania, she's called Germany, Austria, and Canada her home before settling in the Midwest. She holds a PhD in German and Comparative Literature and writes about parenthood, academia, and life on two wheels on her blog Simply Bike. Find more of her writing on her website and on Twitter @Simply Bike.